One of the places Julia Craven most wants to visit after her second vaccine dose kicks in is the eyebrow threading salon.
“I cannot wait,” said Craven, 28. “It’s about feeling really good when I look into the mirror.”
She’s been getting her eyebrows done at the same little shop since she moved to Washington, D.C., in 2015. Now that immunity to the coronavirus is within reach, she’s ready to get back in that threading chair — a place she hasn’t been since March 2020, along with her nail salon and the European Wax Center.
For nonessential workers like Craven, the past year presented a beauty limbo: With social distancing measures advised and her office closed, there wasn’t anyone to see and there wasn’t anywhere to go. In D.C., nail salons and wax centers and hair salons shut down temporarily after the first spike in cases. By June, most mask requirements were put in place. Lipstick sales plummeted. For some, like Craven, wearing makeup became irrelevant.
“Everything fell by the wayside,” Craven said of her own beauty routine. “I just had to figure out ways to manage myself at home.”
More than a year after the pandemic was declared, people over 16 are eligible to get vaccinated in all U.S. states and salons are wide open.
But how much has really changed in people’s beauty routines?
Many millennial women say the pandemic pushed them to undergo a wholesale reevaluation of their relationship to beauty, doing the thorny work of trying to separate pleasure from obligatory labor.
For some, there’s a mix of excitement and anxiety about a gradual return to normalcy — and the gendered beauty standards that will inevitably follow.
The pandemic laid bare for many the time, money and labor that goes into maintaining beauty standards, particularly for women and femme-presenting people. Women account for the lion’s share of cosmetic procedures — upward of 90 percent in 2014 — as well as the majority of spending on other beauty maintenance and diet programs. One study found that U.S. women spend up to $300,000 over the course of their lifetimes on skin care and makeup.
“All genders can feel pressures to take on beauty work, but beauty pressures do not hit everyone equally,” said Renee Engeln, a professor at Northwestern University and the author of “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession With Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.”
Women also pay greater financial penalties for not conforming to beauty standards, especially in the workplace — a cost that is often compounded for women of color and women who are members of other marginalized communities, according to Engeln: “If you think your economic success or even your basic livelihood depend on looking a certain way, beauty work becomes a significant, unpaid and unrecognized part of your labor.”
Before covid, Charlotte Clymer, who is transgender, wore makeup almost every day. She saw it as a sort of “security blanket”: a layer of protection against misgendering and bigotry. “I felt really insecure walking out of my apartment without makeup on for the first year I was out of the closet,” said Clymer, 34, who does advocacy work at Catholics for Choice. “You don’t want trans rights to take a hit because someone feels that you don’t pass sufficiently as a woman.”
Some days, Clymer said, she really misses getting dressed up for a night out with a full face of makeup and high heels. But, she admitted, “it’s so great to [be able to] put on a mask and no one can perceive that I’m not looking good. That mask is in some ways a great buffer against social pressure.” (She also estimates that she’s saved up to $6,000 in the past year forgoing beauty treatments, clothing, shopping and makeup purchases.)
The nuance of going without some beauty routines but keeping others is relatable for many. Martina Sauceda, 32, found that while working from home, she still loved doing her makeup every day but didn’t need to religiously shave her legs. “That probably is something I’ll hold on to now,” she said.
Other women, like 32-year-old Sara Cox, who lives outside Birmingham, Ala., let their hair grow out without dyeing or cutting it religiously. Others, like Stephanie Eyocko, 26, who got her hair braided every three months before the pandemic, got rid of it completely.
“The first thing I did around this time last year was cut off all of my hair,” said Eyocko, who lives in Baltimore. “It was liberating.” The ability to step back from the grind of her usual routine and return to it with intention made Eyocko feel better about the things she actually chose to do, she said. She researched skin-care products and integrated new rituals into her schedule.
“I feel more knowledgeable. I feel stronger, I feel like my skin is better, I feel like my hair is better. I feel very much like a woman who really likes herself,” Eyocko said. “I think that’s the first time that has happened in my life.”
For Sami Sage, 32, who co-founded the women’s media company Betches and hosts the wellness podcast “Diet Starts Tomorrow,” the pandemic “exposed the toxic expectations that we have of women’s appearances.” She found herself really interrogating the way that her own pre-pandemic beauty rituals — which included monthly waxes, the occasional Botox treatment, manicures, pedicures and monthly hair coloring — drained her time and money, and how the commensurate rituals did not for her husband.
“He gets a haircut once a month, and that’s the extent of it,” she said.
The pandemic helped her refine her routine, she said, and figure out what she actually wants to do long term. Sage is definitely sticking with the Botox — it makes her feel more confident and requires infrequent, short appointments, she said — as well as semiregular pedicures and haircuts. But she’ll continue to do her eyebrows at home instead of paying someone to do them, and she recently went in for a consultation for laser hair removal rather than go back to monthly bikini waxing.
Although some women who were able to stay home and safe during the pandemic had “space to reevaluate their beauty work and eliminate some practices that didn’t feel freely chosen,” Engeln pointed out, the pressure to do beauty work never really stopped. New aesthetic pressures — largely the result of a sharp rise in video calls — cropped up, and now that the country is opening, women’s anxieties are also ratcheting up.
“We are being greeted with a barrage of media headlines about losing covid weight, post-pandemic bodies and the impending rush on Botox,” Engeln said.
Most women who spoke to The Lily said they felt good about their revised beauty rituals — even actively excited to return to some of them — but very anxious about reengaging with the feedback loop that comes with being a woman in the world.
Emma Garcia, a 22-year-old barista in Boston, eagerly booked a haircut and an eyebrow appointment right after she found out when her second vaccine appointment would be. She might change-up her hair — a mark of the new world and her new post-college graduation identity. But when it comes to getting back to public group socializing and dating, Garcia, who self-identifies as “overweight,” is equal parts elated and terrified.
“I’m mostly happy with my body,” she said. “But during the pandemic, I didn’t have to think about other people thinking things about my body. I’m feeling excited to reenter society, but also certain interactions that come with that — I’m not really looking forward to those.”
For many women, messages about pandemic weight gain and aging seem to be the most painful part of post-covid reintegration into the social world. “I feel a pressure for my body — and my weight — to look exactly like it did pre-pandemic,” said Abbey Santos, 27. Cox also told The Lily that she feels a pressure to “appear unchanged.” (She said she’s started researching cosmetic procedures like Botox as a result.)
“The beauty and diet industries are powerful,” Engeln said. “It’s not like sexism went on vacation during the pandemic and decided not to come back.”
So where does that leave women?
“I don’t think beauty standards necessarily changed, but I do think a lot of lightbulbs went off in people’s heads about what they want their relationships to their appearance to be,” Sage said.
On a personal level, she has found herself thinking more deeply about the “cognitive dissonance” she feels about her eagerness to engage with beauty rituals while simultaneously wanting to untangle it all from patriarchal expectations.
She’s landed in a place where she has few definitive answers, but knows that there are some things she doesn’t want to let go of and others that she does. Ultimately, she said, she just wants to feel good in her own skin.
For many women, the pandemic at least introduced an opportunity for reflection.
“I think unfortunately, we’ve seen how precious life is this past year,” Craven said. “As unfortunate as it is how this realization came to be, I am thankful that I have it. Going forward, there are things I’m just not investing in. If it doesn’t make me feel good, then I’m just not going to do it. It’s not worth it.”