Make no mistake, I’m not trying to win a quarantine survival contest—to be the best version of myself in quarantine. I wear the same pair of leggings too many days in a row, alternating my favorite pair with my second favorite pair when laundry day gets close. I’ve stretched out the time between washing my hair for too many days and tell myself I’m just trying to conserve shampoo and conditioner, or even that I’m letting my hair heal itself with natural oils. I like to rotate my excuses. But makeup—every day. Every single day.
Yes, some days I have a reason to look presentable. I’m still working—Zooming with clients, teaching virtual Pilates classes in an effort to hopefully provide a little normalcy to others in times that are anything but normal. But even on days I’m not teaching, my eyeliner is perfectly winged out (or as perfectly as I’ve ever been able to manage the winged look).
It feels like vanity. It feels like peak superficiality. There’s a deadly virus ravaging the globe, healthcare workers are suiting up in hazmat gear to care for patients who are dying alone while essential workers are marching into work afraid for their lives, and yet, every morning, I swipe on my mascara and line my eyes with eyeliner. To go nowhere. To see no one face-to-face.
And it’s not the first time I’ve made time for a makeup routine when makeup should be the last thing on my mind.
I have three stark memories from the day of my young husband’s funeral. The moment all the air in the entire universe suddenly disappeared and I cupped my hands over my mouth to suppress the scream in my throat. The moment I walked behind the casket with my two small children huddled by my side. And the moment before all those other moments, when I stood before dawn in front of the bathroom mirror and lined my swollen eyes with liquid black eyeliner.
There’s a chance the explanation for my unfailing makeup routine is simply that my vanity knows no bounds. Maybe I’m that woman in horror movies that’s checking her lipstick in the rearview mirror, too obsessed with herself to bother to glance at what’s going on around her. I’d like to think not.
There are a few good reasons floating around as to why some women wear makeup during quarantine. First, and arguably most importantly, wearing makeup has never been for other people. And yes. I’m not wearing makeup because I want to look pretty for my neighbor who I wave to from a distance if we happen to leave our houses at the same time to get the mail. (Although some days that wave is the very highlight of my socially isolated day.)
Samantha Boardman, MD, a clinical instructor in psychiatry and assistant attending psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College, tells Refinery29 that wearing makeup is a useful way to separate your workday from your weekend day. During isolation, the days tend to blur. Workspaces and homespaces are indistinguishable and anything that creates a boundary is helpful. But I’m wearing makeup on the weekends, too, so this isn’t my reason, though it makes perfect sense.
Dr. Stewart Shankman, chief of psychology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, told the New York Times that putting on makeup can help give a sense of control when “what’s going on outside is uncontrollable.” Yes and yes. The idea that I can control even something as insignificant as the length of my eyelashes is terrifically calming.
There’s also a meditative aspect of putting on makeup that hadn’t occurred to me until I read Dr. Boardman’s explanation. She says, “when all of our intention is being directed into one area, and when we are using our hands, there’s something beautiful about the level of attention you’re bringing to something that makes you feel strong and good.” It’s true that there is something calming about blending and brushing and painting a fine line on a sliver of surface area. And when I’m engaged in the act of applying makeup, I’m not checking my phone or worrying about the next disaster that might strike.
For me, I’m wearing makeup for all the reasons above, and one more. I’m wearing makeup for the same reason I wore makeup to my husband’s funeral.
I remember with crystal clarity the moment I painted my eyes with black eyeliner, and I remember thinking how silly the act was. But I also remember thinking if I had eyeliner on, maybe I wouldn’t cry—as if crying at my husband’s funeral were a sign of weakness. I remember thinking I didn’t want anyone to see me broken, as if carefully winged eyeliner and a little blush could hide how very broken I’d been. And I remember looking at myself in the mirror, after I applied my makeup, and seeing myself, seeing a person I recognized, a familiar face framed against a dawning day that looked unlike any day I’d seen before.
I’m wearing makeup during quarantine not for my neighbor (though, hi!) and not because I’ll somehow trick anyone into believing this (all the pandemic and quarantine related this) isn’t taking a toll on me, but because at the end of the day, I need to know that even if the world around me looks like nothing I can recognize, I can look in the mirror and see a face I recognize, see a person who doesn’t look like a stranger, see a woman who hasn’t faded into the background, who is ever-present and steadfast and unfaltering in at least one small way.
As a global pandemic changes everything we once knew, there’s something comforting in that.
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