I have largely avoided mirrors for the better part of the last three years. After my husband died, my self-esteem took a vicious hit—something about no longer being able to see myself the way he saw me, and not recognizing the grief-ravaged face that stared back at me. I’ve slowly been working on rebuilding that self-esteem, but it’s a process. For example, I would (reluctantly) get into the picture with my kids and not pick apart the image too much, but I absolutely would not take a selfie or use FaceTime.
And then the pandemic hit. The world shut down and everything, from my children’s school to the Pilates studio where I teach, went virtual. Suddenly, I found myself on FaceTime and Zoom all the time. I was staring at my face more often than I ever wanted to. I could see the lines and dark circles that hadn’t been there before at the most unflattering angles I could think of.
It was hard not to criticize what I saw. And by hard, I mean nearly impossible. And then I found the Zoom “touch up my appearance” feature. It softened a few lines and blurred a few imperfections, and suddenly, thanks to a digital touch-up, what I was seeing wasn’t so bad.
As it turns out, this time, my widowhood was not to blame for the hypercritical way I looked at my fine lines and dark circles. This time, in feeling a little less than when I saw my face staring back at me on Zoom, I wasn’t alone. Plastic surgeons across the country, and in many parts of the world are seeing a rise in the number of patients seeking cosmetic procedures. Botox, fillers, and other cosmetic surgeries are on the rise during the pandemic, and more people are considering procedures.
According to a survey conducted by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons on attitudes towards plastic surgery in the wake of COVID-19, 49% of respondents who had never before had any plastic surgery say they are open to having cosmetic or reconstructive procedures completed in the future.
If the fact that plastic surgeons are booking appointments out a month in advance and more people are considering cosmetic procedures than ever before is surprising to you, you aren’t alone. Dr. Suneel Chilukuri, a board-certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon in Houston, told InStyle magazine that his team had been discussing the potential of downsizing, expecting a significant lull as the pandemic’s financial and mental toll took hold. Instead, he’s rushing to expand his staff.
The rise could be explained simply. Many patients see the stay-at-home orders and the requirement to wear a mask in public as a way to stealthily heal from any procedures. Events are canceled, and folks are staying home. When they do go out, any procedure related bruising or swelling can be covered by a mask. But that wouldn’t really explain why surgeons around the world are seeing a surge of first time patients.
One theory offered up by Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, to explain the rise in interest in cosmetic procedures is that on Zoom, “[y]ou see yourself the way others do, but you are also adopting an alienating perspective on yourself. When we do this, we start imagining all the judgments people could make on us, and our insecurities can manifest in what we say to ourselves.”
Other people’s judgments shouldn’t matter. The judgments we imagine other people are making should matter even less. We all know that to be true. And yet, it’s sometimes hard not to let the whispers slide in. Sometimes those whispers slide in so insidiously, weaved in to messages we subconsciously receive about how terrible aging is, that we don’t realize they’re there until they’ve taken hold.
Dr. Heather Furnas, a plastic surgeon at Plastic Surgery Associates in Santa Rosa, California, and an adjunct clinical professor of plastic surgery at Stanford University, offered up another theory. She says, “Some of [the patients] will say they see themselves on Zoom and they just want to feel better. In this crazy time, I think people are looking for something to make them feel better about themselves.”
This is a theory that makes sense to me. In my early widowhood, it was easier to focus on my dark circles than the fact that I was suddenly facing a lifetime alone. I could buy a few dozen creams for dark circles, but there was no product anywhere that would make my loneliness fade. Maybe for many folks it’s easier to focus on fine lines than the terrifying state of the world outside that little Zoom box.
There’s an inherent element of privilege in this conversation, of course. Cosmetic procedures can be expensive. Millions of people lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are struggling to afford food and rent. These procedures also take time, including time to heal. And not everyone has the ability to do all their work from home, on Zoom, where they could stare at themselves in a little box and pick apart the face on the little box in the corner.
We’re all navigating a life we never imagined we’d be navigating. Most of us—maybe all of us—are feeling completely beaten down by this pandemic, and we’re looking for a way to feel less beaten down. For some it might be training for a marathon or binge watching every episode of Friends. For some, that might mean turning to cosmetic procedures.
The truth I learned during the earliest days of my widowhood and again now, is that whatever you turn to, whatever choice you make to feel a little less beaten down during an impossible time, is your choice. But make your choice for you, for your confidence and your happiness, and not for those insidious whispers. Those whispers don’t know the strength and beauty in your every breath like you do.