Women look a bit different than when the pandemic began.
Loungewear for skirts, slippers for heels, bare faces for painted ones. Some of us are hairier, too.
Andrea DeWerd, 33, of Brooklyn, N.Y., works in book publishing and says “I’m never wearing makeup or blow drying my hair for work again.” Julia Liss, 27, a technology sales executive in New York City, vows she’s “done wearing heels.” Marie Garmon, 41, in balmy Jacksonville, Florida, said, “I went from shaving my legs every few days … to not shaving at all since April.”
USA TODAY heard from dozens of women who shared that despite the pandemic’s lockdowns, social restrictions, and mask mandates, the relaxed beauty standards that have accompanied their retreat from public life have been “liberating.”
“If there’s one thing good that came from this COVID mess, it’s that I was able to find myself,” Garmon said. “To hell with all of it … Who are we really doing all of this for? Not myself because I hate that routine.”
If the pandemic has offered women any reprieve, it may be from societal expectations around appearance. More are homebound, interacting less, Zooming more, and beauty routines and fashion choices have adapted in kind.
When the pandemic sharpened the divide between our public lives and our private selves, it gave women space to examine what they do to their bodies and why. The question is, will any of these relaxed beauty norms stick?
Academics say in the absence of a large-scale study, it’s impossible to make broad assumptions about how women’s attitudes and behaviors toward appearance may be changing, though it’s clear women are spending less money on beauty products, which has left some sectors of the billion-dollar global industry reeling, according to a report from the consulting firm McKinsey Company.
Kate Mason, a gender studies professor at Wheaton College, said what is evident is that the pandemic has changed the way many women present their bodies to others.
“Social distancing and mask wearing give us more discretion over how much, or which parts of our appearances we show,” she said. “I think anything that gives people a little bit of a break from these social norms so they can evaluate what works and what doesn’t, can be a good thing.”
Angela DeCamp, 31, a professional artist and administrative assistant in Indianapolis, said a shift to Zoom culture emboldened her to stop bleaching and waxing her upper lip, an expensive and time-consuming ritual she was happy to part with.
“There’s no point when the camera on my computer doesn’t pick up enough detail to make it visible to my colleagues, and when I’m out and about my lady-stache is covered by a mask anyway,” she said. “It’s freeing. I feel like a total rebel and I love it.”
DeCamp said she may go back to at-home bleaching when the pandemic ends, but she doubts she’ll wax again.
Many women who had rigorous beauty routines are realizing they were spending more time and effort than they could justify.
Susan Epps, 49, the assistant head of a private school in Washington, D.C., said as a woman of color, she often feels extra pressure to look polished and professional. When many salons and beauty supply stores closed, the Black women in her social network who rely on such services found themselves under increased strain. But some, including Epps, also used the time to reflect on whether their routines were truly a form of self-expression.
“Makeup is art, but I wasn’t wearing it as an art-form, I was using it to make myself look prettier and younger,” Epps said. “I’ve been examining what I did and why. I always thought of myself as a fierce and confident woman, but now I realize I was putting on a huge mask everyday. What does that say about how I think about my value?”
Epps said after the pandemic she intends to use less beauty products. She’s fallen in love with her skin. She’s realized her natural hair is “luscious.”
Other women say they don’t quite feel themselves without their familiar beauty rituals, and will likely bring back at least some of it when the pandemic ends.
Alyssa Jones, 31, a teacher in Irvington, New Jersey, says she’s been living in sweats and hoodies and is looking forward to putting more effort into her appearance when she starts going out in public more.
“When it’s safer to go back outside I look forward to dolling up again to go places,” she said. “Nothing overboard … but at least once or twice a week I’d like to put on a quick face, get my nails done and put on some actual clothes.”
Then there are women who say they’ll never return to pre-pandemic routines.
Jennifer Waggener, 57, the executive director of a non-profit in Charleston, West Virginia, says she’s stopped wearing makeup and won’t start again. She said she always felt pressure to wear makeup, especially at work. Waggener was previously the marketing director for an international construction company where her co-workers were mostly men.
“If I had walked in in chucks and jeans, I wouldn’t have been there very long. It was something I felt compelled to do to be successful in my career and that’s unfortunate,” she said. “I tried to care about that stuff, but I never really did. It doesn’t bring me joy.”
While the pandemic may offer some women a certain relief from burdens around how they are expected to look and act, experts say it could also be creating new pressures, causing women to fixate on parts of their bodies they barely noticed before.
“For those of us who spend a lot of our time on Zoom, even though some parts of our body are much less visible, our faces become hyper visible,” Mason said.
It’s led plastic surgeons to claim an uptick in demand for cosmetic procedures, which some refer to as the “Zoom Boom.”
Experts also say more time spent on social media during the pandemic could backfire for women. Research shows social media use is correlated with body image concerns.
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“A lot of us are dealing with that excessive social isolation by diving ever more deeply into social media, which is a highly idealized, visual world and I almost worry that it’s been a one-year-long boot camp in how to look,” said Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at UCLA.
Some women may be shifting energy away from their appearance, only to then channel it directly toward other traditionally feminine tasks – such as childcare or housework – which shows a reprieve from one societal norm can easily be replaced by the demands of another.
Before the pandemic, more than half of two-parent households where both parents work said moms do more to manage the day-to-day of their kids’ lives, according to the Pew Research Center. A survey conducted by YouGov in partnership with USA TODAY and LinkedIn during the pandemic found women are taking on an even greater share of parenting responsibilities.
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“Maybe we’re spending less time on appearance work, but we’re also spending a lot of time on other sort of very traditionally feminine things while facing this pressure of, ‘Don’t gain too much pandemic weight,'” Mason said. “That doesn’t make me feel hugely hopeful.”
When we emerge from this crisis, experts say women will still live in a society that expects them to follow the rules of femininity. When was the last time you saw a woman on TV without makeup? Or a model sporting armpit hair?
“There’s an opening that’s created by this retreat from what the world has demanded of women, but it’s going to take more than circumstances, it’s going to have to take some kind of consciousness-raising to really be able to capitalize on the shift,” Williams said.
A report this December from McKinsey forecasts that in 2021 sales in the global beauty market will surpass 2019.
Waggener, who spent many years trying to make herself look as others wanted, recognizes how difficult it is to push back against expectation. She still encourages women to try.
“Be true to yourself,” she said. “For me wearing my jeans and my chucks is enough. That’s how I can be myself in the world.”