Originally published in The Globe and Mail 

As a writer, I spend a lot of time looking at my hands, so I try to keep them nice. Manicures are my favourite indulgence – at least, they were. As with all professional, out-of-home grooming services – haircuts, facials, waxing, Botox – my nail appointments are on indefinite hold. Now, I have ragged cuticles and skin angry from so much scrubbing and sanitizer. My hands look awful. Is it wrong to dwell on a thing like that, in a time like this?

Even in the best circumstances, vanity is often dismissed as inane; during a crisis, focusing on one’s appearance may seem trivial to the point of amorality. For more than a month, medical workers have heroically cared for COVID-19 patients, sharing photos of their faces bruised from tight masks. People have been isolated at home, some touched by illness and death, many have lost their jobs; the mental health fallout from unemployment is manifesting. There are more important things to worry about than our reflections.

And yet, I do care about my appearance – and I’m not alone. By this point, many of us who work from home have discovered that getting dressed in the morning is more than just a way to avoid indecency charges; clothing can boost morale, furnish self-esteem and add structure to our otherwise abstract weeks.

Prompted by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, Twitter users in isolation are posting weekly snapshots of themselves dressed up with nowhere to go, along with the hashtag #Distancebutmakeitfashion. “I can’t claim that dressing up does anything beyond give somebody a personal boost, but I do think it is a good way to remind yourself of your own body and your humanity and capacity for thinking beyond this,” Syme says.

For many, looking decent is intrinsically reassuring; it indicates that society has not yet broken down, even if it is functioning differently. But when it comes to our appearance, dressing is only one half of the equation – grooming completes the picture.

Beauty was a patriotic duty for women during the Second World War, with “victory roll” hairstyles and “fighting red” lipstick symbols of the Allied forces’ indomitable spirit. But today, involved regimens requiring various professional aestheticians have become standard for many of those able to afford them – even when appearance has no bearing on their livelihood.

Hair and nail salons are a $4.5-billion market in Canada. According to research firm IBIS World, the industry’s growth has been steadily driven up by demand for professional services such as keratin hair treatments and gel manicures. Lash extensions are a booming industry, and require expert maintenance, on average, every four weeks.

According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Americans received more than seven million neurotoxin injections, like Botox, and more than 2½ million filler injections in 2018, spending US$16.5-billion on cosmetic surgery. Equivalent data for Canada is not available, but trends clearly indicate that many consider injectables regular maintenance. That’s to say nothing of hair removal, tanning, skin treatments such as facials and lasering, and whatever else is between you, God and your aesthetician.

Regardless of subjective opinions on the merits of these treatments, many have come to rely on them to boost confidence and construct their sense of self. As Harvard psychology professor Nancy Etcoff writes in her book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, appearance is “the visible self that the world assumes to be a mirror of the invisible, inner self. … Academics may ban it from intelligent discourse and snobs may sniff that beauty is trivial and shallow but in the real world the beauty myth quickly collides with reality.”

Thanks to Zoom, FaceTime and being stuck at home with our mirrors all day, it feels as if we’re looking at ourselves more than ever. Watching the changes that manifest in our appearance when we’re stressed and touch-ups are inaccessible can be enervating.

Australian influencer Zilla Stacey recently told the press she fears “turning into a complete mole rat” during isolation after missing the lash, brow, nail, teeth whitening, Botox and filler appointments she’s relied on for 14 years. Someone recently on my Twitter feed facetiously proclaimed her intent to drink a vial of Botox as soon as injectables become accessible again.

Jejune whinging aside (search “Kim, there’s people that are dying” on YouTube for pitch-perfect deprecation), how can those who depend on out-of-home services to maintain their appearance find comfort in isolation? Say you have relied on a stylist to dye your greys for decades – what are you supposed to do about your frustration when they reappear? What if no amount of wearing your suit and tie on video calls can negate the fact that you needed a haircut three weeks ago?

“I feel like [isolation] is an opportunity for people to relax on the high-maintenance threshold they put on themselves to look perfect,” says Robert Samways, owner of Vancouver’s A Salon. “Certainly, for some people, they may see it as an opportunity to grow their hair out or make a change, and I think that’s a positive side of it,” he says. “But for most people I think it will just create a need.”

Being upset that you cannot visit your salon isn’t petty, says Samways; it’s an understandable emotional response to losing control. “We want to control something, and now, choices are made for us,” he says. “Looking in the mirror and seeing you can’t change your hair – it’s slightly distressing. You can’t fix it. You want to feel better about yourself in that way, and you can’t right now.”

For those whose laser, Botox and filler appointments are on hold, Diane Wong, a cosmetic physician and owner of Ontario’s Glow Medi Spas, recommends patience and perspective. “Wrinkles, saggy skin, sun spots – these are not medical conditions,” the doctor says. “They have no bearing on our health. And right now, everyone’s priority is their health. We’ll gradually return to our usual routine and our lives. But we need to all have patience."

Both Wong and Samways have felt pressure from clients to offer services despite physical-distancing measures, with some requesting (to no avail) that their staff make special house calls. “It’s our obligation to follow the rules, especially when it comes to cosmetic treatments,” Wong says. “We have to put this into perspective and know when to say, ‘No.’”

It is understandable to miss one’s grooming rituals during isolation, as it is to miss eating out at restaurants, socializing in person and all other signs of normalcy. Yet, rather than fixate on what cannot be changed, now may be the time to consider what we truly require to feel comfortable with our appearance, as opposed to what we’ve learned to want via the contemporary homogenization of beauty.

The circumstances of isolation allow us a chance to reflect on our habits and behaviours, something we often lack when life is business as usual. How much of our taste has been dictated by received cultural ideas of attractiveness, well-being and performative #selfcare? What were our ideals before the ubiquity of doe-lashed, pouting Instagram Face? Where does the pursuit of physical perfection end? No one can answer these questions for us – we have to look within.

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© Adrienne Matei 2017