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.

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© Adrienne Matei 2017