How COVID has changed our beauty standards, perhaps forever

Social distancing has seen us forego our regular beauty appointments – but now that salons are trading again, will we want to go back to our once-stringent beauty routines? Kate Lancaster questions our relationship to beauty with and without an audience.

For a beauty journalist, I’m surprisingly low maintenance. That’s not to say that I don’t indulge in all the treatments and products at my disposal, because I absolutely do (I’m sporting freshly-lifted lashes as I type) but I’ve never felt bad about missing a few hair appointments or leaving my gel polish on for so long that the stubborn remnants cause my nails to break off entirely.

So when we all went into isolation, I figured my external upkeep would be the first to drop off as historically, I’d felt fine without it. But as I was interested to discover, I actually wanted to continue with my beauty rituals each day. Although my job had gotten caught up in the economic undertow of COVID-19 and I had not a single soul to impress, I gravitated towards cosmetics perhaps more than I ever had.

It was weird, but my small personal grooming steps somehow afforded me a sense of normality. Skincare served to bookend my days, with light makeup an injection of fun and frivolity in between. I also kept to my weekly fake tan schedule, even though there were no conceivable events to add to my iCal.

Although I wasn’t venturing out beyond my letter box each morning, my isolation routine reaffirmed what I had always known – that these little rites of passage each morning and evening were never about looking a certain way for anyone else; rather they acted as a small cosmetic tranquilliser for my mind amidst a turbulent time.

My friends all expressed like minded sentiments, in that they enjoyed carving out time in isolation for their beauty routines. Some continued to wear makeup to feel more put-together on Zoom calls, while others ditched it altogether and dug through the recesses of their cabinets to rediscover old skincare favourites instead. But the common thread throughout was that beauty had acted as somewhat of a salve for all the macro worries of the world.

Perhaps these activities were conditioned by years of sexist societal expectations, but there was little doubt that their impact on my mood was instant. Even on my worst days, putting on lipstick transformed my outlook far beyond the physical aspect and it made me question whether beauty is as frivolous a pursuit as many consider it to be.

After all, in a lot of ways beauty and wellness have become entirely performative actions in recent years. Every face mask we apply or barre class we attend is documented and shared on social media to showcase our cult-like dedication to self-improvement. But in isolation we were left to choose how we’d like to look without an audience, allowing us to differentiate between the activities we engage in for external validation from the ones we do to feel our best. The products we applied and the self-care activities we participated in were for ourselves alone.

As restrictions began to relax, I wondered if our old attitudes towards beauty would also be reinstated once again. Would we, after several months away from the public gaze, return to our pre-COVID routines and if so – would it be because we wanted to, or because we felt obligated? Others didn’t seem keen to comply with the old expectations. “I haven’t worn makeup in months and I don’t see myself wanting to again,” said one of my particularly polished friends, who had forgone aesthetic embellishment altogether. “Why would I? I’ve learned to like my skin without it.”

I felt something similar. Free from judgement, I had found my own ideal aesthetic in isolation. Makeup became fun again, rather than a mask to blanket my perceived imperfections. Skincare became a quiet reprieve, rather than a ‘fix’ for ongoing complexion concerns. I didn’t want to give that up in favour of what other people thought about me.

If isolation has taught us anything, I hope it has helped to clarify the things that actually make us feel good. Cosmetics might be considered superficial, but the only things that are truly unimportant are the things that we engage in for the approval of others. If you don’t care about yoga, don’t feel like you need to do it. If your grown-out greys don’t bother you, embrace them. Let’s be honest – your hairdresser is probably booked up anyway!