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Should we rethink our beauty routines for a post-lockdown world?

As coronavirus lockdown continues to ease, many of us are reflecting on our relationships with our makeup, hair, and nails

Growing up, I watched my grandad get ready the same way every single day. He did not “feel himself” until he was showered, had meticulously combed his hair, and was wearing polished shoes and proper trousers. When skin cancer meant he had to grow out a beard, he asked me regularly how it looked, whether it suited him. He felt uncomfortable and sought reassurance that he was still himself, whatever that meant. Facetiming him throughout lockdown, I’ve found it soothing to see that even at 90, living alone and shielding, he looks exactly the same. He finds comfort in his routine and small rituals.

When I was little I’d imitate him, combing my little curls out in the morning and offering to polish his shoes. As an adult, I have my own routines: daily baths, skincare, haircare. I’ve wondered often how much of it I do for myself, and how much is to affect how others see me. In lockdown, my routine hasn’t changed much – as a chronically ill freelance writer, I very rarely see people that aren’t my boyfriend, doctors, or specific friends. For many others, though, it was a welcome time to relax on the things that we do for others: maybe you don’t enjoy ripping out all of your hairs, sitting in a chair for two hours, doing a full face every day just to go to an office. Maybe it’s forced you to reassess why you do it at all.

After being suspiciously left behind in various phases of the government's plans to lift lockdown, beauty services are being slowly reintroduced. Nails, eyelashes, tans, brows, botox, and massages are back, and many people across the UK have rushed back to get their hair and nails back to their pre-lockdown standards. Others, however, are less keen: profits for the beauty industry are set to fall this year, with experts predicting that the impact of masks will further affect the sales of make-up. DIY at-home care continues to surge – nail brands reported double-digit growth, while haircare sales in some sectors grew 166 per cent in the US. Zalando and Amazon reported incredible booms in their European and American market purchases of ‘self-care’ and ‘pampering’ products, up 300 per cent and 65 per cent respectively. Understandably, many are questioning whether there’s any need to completely reengage with beauty standards to either stay home or wear a mask.

“To eyeroll at those who have rushed back to the salons is to dismiss people who benefit from beauty”

My own routine, which is mostly skincare-based unless I go out, has been left intact – still taking after my grandad, I seek solace in the rituals that make me feel me. I did, however, go for four months without the one extravagance I commit to without question: a full set of acrylic nails. Before March, they were invariably over an inch long and sharp enough that I wake up with bloody scratches for the first couple of days until they blunt a little with wear. They are always pink, often glittery, and if I have something special coming up, meticulously decorated. Even at home, first thing in the morning, they are there, making me feel like “myself”. I enjoy random compliments on them, feeling like my small efforts are being recognised, no matter how much my body otherwise often feels foreign.

After my last set had grown out beyond salvage in early March, I clipped and tore them off myself, revealing the less than healthy set of natural nails below. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter, but despite the ease with which I could type, clean, and repot plants, I felt as if something was missing. I expected, though, over four months, to get used to it. I was wrong – as soon as I could, I slid into my nail tech’s DMs and headed to Croydon to sit in a safe, hygienic room alone with her in her garden. I came out with unwieldy talons that would take days to get used to, and I felt whole again. I had stuck to my routine and cut my hair myself, yet this one silly thing made me feel human. I spent a week in the countryside, not seeing a soul, my nails completely inappropriate to just go on walks in the woods and smile at sheep. I am thrilled. 

Beauty standards are often prohibitive, racist, and otherwise exclusionary: they need to be challenged. For many, lockdown has provided the space, freedom and time to reevaluate our priorities, eschewing things that we only do for others. But beauty is often a part of the way many communities express themselves and engage in self care, while others actively challenge standards and seek to change them from within. To eyeroll at those who have rushed back to the salons is to dismiss people who benefit from beauty. We’ve written previously about the meaning that beauty routines hold for chronically ill and disabled people, but there are many others for whom makeup and beauty is not about upholding standards.

Make-up in particular can be a valuable form of expression, especially in LGBT+ communities, even more so when it comes to trans and nonbinary people. If we still turn to those routines and modes of self-expression when indoors, locked away from the eyes of the public, could it be that they mean more to us than fitting in? It’s important to assess beauty standards, but it’s also important to explore the spaces within beauty and skincare that challenge them and that truly are for us.

“Those small things bring me back in touch with it, give me something to focus on positively rather than thinking about my insecurities or the ways my body is failing me”

Throughout lockdown, my routine didn’t change much, but having even less reason than usual to stick to a skincare regimen or do my make-up forced me to assess why I was doing it at all, why I was so keen to get my nails done despite the small inconveniences they bring. I found what I already knew, really: I take pleasure in rituals, like a nightly bath, and I feel myself with a full set of nails. It’s silly, and it’s small, but I often struggle to feel at home in my body – those small things bring me back in touch with it, give me something to focus on positively rather than thinking about my insecurities or the ways my body is failing me.

Beauty isn’t always pain; sometimes it’s how we connect with ourselves, how we feel like “us”, how we show who that person is to the world. It’s not always punishing treatments at the behest of narrow, cruel, exclusionary standards, or money poured into corporations that thrive off our insecurities. Reassessing what our relationship to beauty is, and shedding the regimes we don’t enjoy, is an exercise I’m grateful to have had time for. As we emerge out of lockdown, finding during recent months that you can live without the motions you only go through for the benefit of others is a good thing, but so is learning that your relationship to makeup and skincare forms a necessary part of your routine and sense of self, even without eyes on you.