Back in the days before we’d ever heard or used the words ‘coronavirus’ or ‘lockdown,’ I had a pretty tight beauty routine.
I shaved my legs and armpits every other day, got my lash extensions infilled every two weeks, had a gel manicure every three weeks, eyebrows threaded once a month, facials every six weeks and roots bleached every eight.
I would wear makeup to any social appointment that occurred either inside or outside of my flat, and spent a decent chunk of my income keeping up with the latest beauty trends.
I spent a small fortune on products promising to make my curly, frizzy hair smooth, including – at times – eye-wateringly expensive straightening treatments.
I’ve never had any cosmetic enhancements but in the decade before lockdown, I had tried just about every skincare fad out there.
From skin peels to micro-dermabrasion, if it had ever been featured in one of the women’s magazines promising to be the elixir of youth, you could bet I’d given it a whirl.
I was due to get my nails and hair done the day after lockdown was announced in the UK last March. At the time, there were so many emotions flying around about everything – fear, anxiety and general overwhelm – that this fact barely registered with me.
The appointments were obviously cancelled and I’d rebook in a few weeks after all of this was over, I thought. It’s not like anyone was going to see me anyway. I live alone.
But with each passing day, it became very clear that life wasn’t returning to normal any time soon. And slowly, slowly, I started to feel alienated from the reflection I saw in the mirror, as the ‘real’, unedited me began to emerge.
Without access to my usual treatments, I started to notice silver hairs weaving in and out of my parting, how strange my nails looked unpolished after so many years of back-to-back appointments and how short my lashes were without the extensions.
Stray hairs on my brows and chin started to poke through the surface of my skin and, without anywhere to go, there was no point in wasting good makeup and so I didn’t wear any.
At first I found it startling. It had been years – decades even – since I had last seen myself without enhancements. To put it mildly, things had changed quite a bit during that time.
I found it hard to relate to the person I now saw in the mirror, whose face was puffier and more lined than it once had been, with shadow-like semi circles protruding from the lower side of each eye.
I wish I could say it was a nice Instagrammable moment when I was overcome with self love, but in all truth I didn’t like what I saw at all.
How could I, after 30 years of being taught by the beauty industry that the way to be beautiful was to try to look as far away from this person as possible?
This was only compounded by the increased exposure I had to seeing myself on screen, as I began to spend hours and hours on Zoom and Facetime with friends, colleagues and relatives, in a desperate attempt to feel less alone.
It simply wasn’t possible to avoid looking at myself — a technique that before lockdown had always worked well in similar periods of self-consciousness.
And so I did what I always do when I feel anxious, and I tried desperately to try to establish some level of control over the situation. I spent hours on Youtube tutorials trying to learn how to bleach my roots and actually didn’t do a bad job of it, all things considered.
I commissioned a friend who is a nail artist to make me some press-on nails to get me through lockdown — as a former chronic nail-biter I was worried that my bad habit might return.
I scrolled and scrolled through at-home beauty hacks on Instagram. I spent loads of money on lotions and potions promising to make me look younger and pored over articles about lash-lengthening serums.
My friends and I spoke more seriously about cosmetic enhancements in those months than we ever have before.
I managed to achieve a pretty effective rendering of my pre-pandemic self. But like any replica, there were slight differences compared with the original that made me question its value.
The tone of my hair wasn’t quite right and the press-on nails, though beautiful, were so long I could barely type and would break off at inopportune moments (always on dates).
I don’t know whether it’s because more frequent exposure to my unedited reflection meant that I gradually became more comfortable with myself or whether I simply no longer had the energy to be so bothered about it, but eventually I stopped trying so hard to hide the return of my natural self.
Maybe, alongside everything else that was happening, I simply didn’t have the emotional capacity to care so much.
It’s strange to think now how much of my life I’ve spent changing and modifying my appearance to make it more palatable, in a constant game of addition and subtraction that will feel familiar to most women.
And without the imposition of lockdown, I’m not sure I’d have ever gained enough distance from it all to really consider which beauty routines I was engaging with because I truly wanted to, and which I merely felt I ought to in order to fit a certain standard of beauty conceived by those who stand to profit from my insecurity.
It was like performing a factory reset after years and years of updates. I’d forgotten what I really looked like without all of these treatments and therapies.
An influx of other more important things to worry about suddenly made me think, so what if my hair isn’t naturally blonde? So what if my face is unmade? Is it really that bad?
I am a firm believer that make-up, hair and beauty treatments — when used for the right reasons — can be hugely empowering tools that help people to stand out or make the most of their natural assets.
I just hadn’t realised until this year that this wasn’t how or why I was using them. Rather than trying to stand out, I was engaging in these rituals to blend in — to be able to pass by critical eyes undetected.
Far from prompting a desire to reject these treatments as we are once again able to access them next week though, this break has made me really consider what I’d like to modify about myself versus what I previously thought I needed to change or hide.
I’m now considering changing the colour of my hair to make it both easier to maintain and closer to my natural tone, which, although it may seem small, is actually a huge step for me after 22 years of rushing to bleach my roots as soon as they appear.
Overall, I’m feeling better about my natural appearance than I ever have since puberty. Finding upsides in the past year of abject struggle can be hard sometimes, but for me, this will definitely be one of them.
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