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How the Pandemic Has Turned Beauty Into a Tool for Self Empowerment

Zoe Weiner

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My favorite beauty anecdotes usually start with me lying face-down on a marble slab at a Moroccan Hammam or testing a new $400 LED mask, born from the brain of a 5th Avenue celebrity dermatologist. This is not one of those stories. This story begins with me texting all of my friends: “I CUT MY OWN HAIR AND IT ISN’T TERRIBLE!!!!” Because while every other year in beauty has been about innovation, buzzy ingredients, and inspiration from all around the world, 2020 has been about getting by—plain and simple.

But along the way, in the day-to-day brush teeth, wash face, apply SPF spin cycle, something interesting happened. “What we saw as the pandemic progressed is that people were trying things like doing their own nails or cutting their own hair, and it started to unearth a new self-confidence,” says Mukta Chowdhary, senior director of strategy and cultural forecasting at Fullscreen, a social media strategy firm that studies trends throughout the beauty industry.

According to a Poshly survey conducted in March, 65 percent of the 1,000 respondents canceled haircuts, 50 percent canceled manicures, and 39 percent canceled hair color appointments. All of these canceled appointments meant that DIY was in, in a big way. During the first week of April, Nielsen reported a 166 percent rise in hair clipper sales in the U.S., and on Amazon, nail-care products were up 218 percent while sales of hair coloring products were up 172 percent. Early in quarantine, the Walmart CEO joked that we had reached the “hair color phase of panic buying,”  and the number of posts in the Reddit r/hairdye community from May to July 2020 more than tripled compared to the same time period in 2019.

Though skin, hair, and nail care might seem like frivolous indulgences, they have become important mental health tools amidst the uncertainty and anxiety that the pandemic has brought. When nearly every other routine in our lives was disrupted, beauty became an easy way to maintain a sense of normalcy without having to leave the house. “Engaging in beauty routines helps women maintain a sense of control during a time when so much is out of their control and when many other routines are inaccessible,” says Vivan Diller, PhD, author of Face It: What Women Really Feel When Their Looks Change. “A little bit of effort to put on makeup or blow out our hair gives women the feeling they still care for themselves, even if it’s more about their own sense of well-being rather than about how they appear to others.”

Even for those who didn’t spend quarantine experimenting with home hair dye, beauty has still managed to be a source of comfort and empowerment. According to Chowdhary, many women have turned their time at home into a “cocooning” period to invest in some behind-the-scenes self care. “I think beauty and skin-care routines are a form of mindfulness for many of us and give us the experience of getting in touch with the moment,” says Evan Rieder, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and psychiatrist in New York City. “Skin care requires fine, purposeful motor movements, and attention to detail as various topicals are applied to the skin. It frees us of other activities and the common worries of the day.”

At a time when seemingly everything in the world has been turned upside down, beauty has been a saving grace. Old routines have provided us with comfort, and new ones have left us feeling more confident and empowered. “So much of what we do has been lost due to the pandemic, so beauty self-reliability, while born out of necessity, gives us a sense of control over our lives, a greater sense of purpose, and the power to know that we are capable of providing these well-being promoting activities on our own,” says Dr. Reider. And I concur. While cutting my own hair may not have been quite as exciting as the time I got to bathe in a Japanese Onsen, it did make me feel pretty damn good.

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