It is a dreary, rainy Sunday afternoon over a month into the coronavirus lockdown and I, like many others who are sheltering-in-place, am feeling my daily onset of cabin fever beginning to take over. I have been wearing a nightgown with a sweatshirt thrown over it for much of the time I’ve been required to stay at home; I barely splash water on my face in the morning and never put on moisturizer, much less makeup. Truth be told, I barely glance in the mirror at all, unwilling to meet up with my straggling, overgrown hair, my salt-and-pepper eyebrows, or the triumphant return of the gray roots that I have had pummeled with brown dye for years. Or, for that matter, to fret about the crow’s feet that mark me, as surely as my having loved the Beatles as a ten-year-old, as someone whose youth is well behind her.
And yet, on this afternoon, I find myself searching online for eye cream, studiously sifting through the plethora of choices, from the modestly priced to the stratospherically costly. Do I want an emollient cream, a tightening gel, or perhaps a serum that promises everything at once? I should point out that I have no intention of actually purchasing an eye cream, not least because I already own two. I also know that, as the virus continues to rage and medical personnel on the front line continue to nobly put themselves in danger by looking after those struck down, the activity I’m engaging in is patently unessential, overtly self-indulgent, and decidedly featherbrained.
All the same, there is something oddly soothing about reverting to purely cosmetic anxieties at a time when the fate of the world hangs in the balance—something grounding about obsessing over the more ordinary details of female self-presentation at a time when our sense of ourselves has been compromised by isolation and uncertainty. How else to explain the good friend with whom I meet up for twice- or thrice-weekly walks in Central Park, not a woman given to burnishing her appearance, who suddenly whips a lipgloss out of her pocket as we stand talking, pulling up her mask to apply it.
It would be comical if it weren’t also somewhat touching. For whom is she doing this? Certainly not me. And certainly not for passersby, since no one can see her now-glossy lips under her mask. But if it’s not, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet,” it must be about something almost as important: putting on her inner face, the image she carries around with her like a memento. If identity itself is a construction, as we have all been given to understand ever since English departments across the country started referring to books as “texts,” surely our appearance is a vital part of that construction.
It is the open secret that dare not speak its name in this fraught period: since the very beginning of the pandemic the women I know—as well as the women I don’t know, who tweet their beauty anxieties (“Anyone else feeling crazy in their gross, gross body?”)—have been worrying how and where they will keep up with the often arduous business of personal grooming. I’m sure there are men out there who are experiencing a similar dilemma: a recent Times article described surreptitious visits by loyal customers to the barber’s; another friend sent me an email explaining how she watched a video the better to cut her husband’s hair (“It is such an ART… so taken for granted and underappreciated… like sculpture, with physics and biomechanics involved”). But I feel safe in suggesting that the onus of this problem falls disproportionately on women.
It is women, after all, who come up against the infamous “male gaze,” not to mention the snarky assessments of other women. And it is women who are expected, before we even get to our faces, to be toned and depilated, manicured and pedicured, hair gleaming and hanging like a curtain or artfully tousled. It is hardly surprising that when women and men are polled on how they perceive their own physical attractiveness, men are in the main more satisfied with their looks than women are with theirs.
Lest you rush to judge this as a regrettable effect of our contemporary “lookist” culture, or an outgrowth of Soul Cycle narcissism, let’s recall “the lipstick effect,” a phrase coined after the Great Depression to help explain why the sales of lipstick rose in the four years from 1929 to 1933 even as industrial production in the US halved. Similarly, after the economic recession that followed in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001, Leonard Lauder, the then chairman of Estée Lauder, observed to a Times reporter that his company was selling more lipstick than usual. Lauder explicitly linked this phenomenon to the shaky economy and women’s wish to “boost their mood with inexpensive lipstick purchases instead of $500 slingbacks.” One could argue that, with Covid-19 raging and a cratering economy, women have more reason than ever to look for morale-boosting any way they can find it.
Which brings me indirectly, but associatively, to an exhibition I saw years ago at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. It was about women in the concentration camps and how they strove to survive with a semblance of their femininity intact. Immediately upon entering Auschwitz, female prisoners routinely had their heads shaved, the first of many affronts to their womanhood, including the nude selections that were conducted by Nazi guards in order to determine who among them was to be transported to the gas chambers.
And yet, in these dire circumstances, as demonstrated by a group of poignant artifacts in the museum—including a cracked mirrored compact, a comb that looked as if it had been carved out of a tree, and a small stick with a daub of color at the end of it that resembled a rudimentary lipstick—the de-gendered and debased women attempted to salvage a primary part of themselves through these gestures. The Yad Vashem website has the following commentary: “Looking good during the Holocaust also carried the meaning of life—before selections, women smeared on their cheeks whatever remained of the rouge that they had safeguarded with extreme care and shared it with their mothers and friends. This makeup became a lifesaver.”
My point, obviously, is not to compare the travails of the virus, however real and grim, to the unmitigated horrors of the Holocaust. It is rather to suggest that there is more to “looking good” than mere frivolity or the wish to be desirable to men. For many women, feminist or otherwise, making an effort about their appearance is a reminder that they are free to create—to visually dramatize—the particular version of femaleness they wish to convey to the world, whether it involves streaking their hair with gold highlights or having their toenails painted blue. In other words, it is all part and parcel of a ritualized performance. Which might explain why hair and beauty salons were among the first places to open up, as I heard from relatives, when Israel relaxed its restrictions at the beginning of May.
It would explain, too, why I’ve been hearing via word-of-mouth about a kind of black market in beauty services, in which a select number of hair stylists and manicurists have made themselves available either for home or one-on-one salon visits. There is even a plastic surgeon on Park Avenue with his own operating room who is rumored to be lifting women’s faces and cleaning up their jawlines and nasolabial folds with fillers even as New York’s death toll from Covid-19 escalates. It makes a certain surreal sense, if you think about it: What better time to disappear from view with the after-effects of having “work” done—the swelling and the bruises?
Another option, of course, is to let one’s appearance go to rack and ruin, embracing the natural order of things, while lending one’s energies to more worthwhile endeavors: reading Anna Karenina, perfecting one’s banana bread, or having lengthy phone conversations with a previously neglected and lonely aunt. Again in the Times, a reporter recently explored this aspect, citing Germaine Greer and the sense of empowerment that comes from not blowing one’s hair or getting fake lashes, or, for that matter, wearing high heels. (Heels, never my thing, are clearly crucial to a good many women—as they were to some in the camps, as the Yad Vashem site also points out: “In a photograph of the horrific selections, one notices a mother clutching a baby while wearing high-heeled shoes as she is sent to death. What was this woman thinking when she put on those high-heeled shoes before the transport? Were they her only remaining shoes, or did she want to look her best when they would reach her presumed destination?”)
Indeed, there may be a bright spot in this period of self-isolation when the days blur one into the other, and time has seemed to slow down, coming almost to a stop. “I don’t feel my face aging in real time,” remarks a close friend, who is usually in the habit of keeping anxious track of her appearance. “I should have much more profound jowls at this point. Maybe it’s the lack of talking and sunlight.”
Finally, some of us may choose to take the middle way. Although I have abandoned most attempts at upkeep beyond brushing my teeth and showering, there have been exceptions—like the other week, when I was getting ready to teach via Zoom my Columbia MFA class on the art of literary criticism. There are women of assorted ages in this class who appear on screen in assorted levels of togetherness: one always wears a bit of becoming jewelry, another has meticulously dyed hair and sports bright lipstick.
My usual style is to appear in my sweatshirt (beneath which I go braless) and hastily combed hair. But for whatever reason, on this occasion, I felt like taking greater pains, perhaps in a wish to convey an aura of professionalism or perhaps because I was tired of looking at my unenhanced self. In any case, in the fifteen minutes I had reserved for gussying up, I applied blusher, eyeliner, and mascara, topped off by a dusting of face powder and a slick of berry lipstick.
And then—I’m not quite sure what impulse seized me—I finished by spraying on an unseasonably summery fragrance by Tom Ford called Neroli Portofino Acqua. As I was coming out of my bedroom, my daughter sniffed the air suspiciously: “You’re not wearing perfume?” she said, in a horror-struck tone, as though I had just committed grand larceny. “For whom?” she asked, continuing to sound appalled. “For myself,” I declared. “Because I felt like it.”