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In Pandemic Era's Isolation, Meaning of 'Self-Care' Evolves

Cashier Druhan Parker, center, works behind a plexiglass shield Nov. 19, 2020, as he checks out shoppers at an Ulta beauty store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile as the pandemic has forced people to spend more time with themselves than ever.
Cashier Druhan Parker, center, works behind a plexiglass shield Nov. 19, 2020, as he checks out shoppers at an Ulta beauty store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile as the pandemic has forced people to spend more time with themselves than ever.

These days, with a pandemic raging, this is what life can look like: out the days in loungewear. Wearing minimal makeup because no one sees much of you. Considering an investment in home exercise equipment because gyms are closed or restricted.

The pandemic has forced people to spend more time with themselves than ever. Along the way, it has reshaped and broadened the way many think about and prioritize how they treat themselves — what has come to be called self-care.

The pandemic-era incarnation of self-care isn't about buying a signature outfit, wearing a trendy shade of lipstick or getting a perfect haircut. It has, for many, put the purpose and meaning of life front and center, reconfiguring priorities and needs as the virus-inflected months drift by. No longer are worries about longevity and fears of mortality mere hypotheticals. They are 2020's reality.

It is that daunting reality that has skyrocketed the importance of "me" time: stress-baking the latest viral creation, tending to a garden, learning a new skill, getting dressed like you're going out just to feel some semblance of normalcy.

"People are social beings. And while the social fabric has been torn down, and you can't be a normal social person, you have been more focused on yourself," says Rod Little, CEO of Edgewell Personal Care, which makes Schick and Bull Dog products. "It's beautifying for longevity, as opposed to how I look in the office tomorrow."

It's also a way to mitigate the feeling that life is careening forward haphazardly in so many ways. That's true for Tonya Speaks, a 43-year-old wardrobe coach from Fort Mills, South Carolina. Before the pandemic, she was always zipping to and from business meetings. Now, the mother of two teenagers exercises regularly and opts for luxurious baths at night instead of quick showers in the morning. She's happier doing so.

"Taking care of myself," Speaks says, "is one way for me to have control."

Beyond The 'Lipstick' Index

Self-care isn't a new fad. The difference is that pre-pandemic, it could fall by the wayside if a to-do list got crowded. Now, eight months into the new reality, it is a priority. After all, the thinking goes: If we're not taking care of ourselves, how can we do jobs, parent children, care for loved ones?

For those who have the means — and that's no small caveat during this pandemic — feeling good can mean looking good. And the widespread isolation has produced new trends in beauty and clothing.

Companies like Signet Jewelers and Blue Nile are seeing a surge in sales of earrings, which are visible on video calls and when people are out wearing face masks. Department stores like Kohl's and Macy's are expanding casual clothing offerings as more people stay close to home.

Pop star Lady Gaga, who has her own beauty line, recently posted a close-up shot in which she wears a cat-eye look with natural, peach-colored lipstick. She did her makeup "to cheer myself up."

"(S)o many people are going through hard times during this pandemic," she wrote in the Instagram post. "It is SO IMPORTANT that you celebrate yourself, live colorfully and rejoice in that BRAVE SOUL that is you."

But when it comes to consumer products, the pandemic is pushing makeup aside as people gravitate towards skin care products. The virus is even turning the "lipstick index" upside down.

Typically, lipstick sales skyrocket when the economy gets rough because it is an inexpensive way to feel good. But during the pandemic, makeup sales have been rocky, and sales of skincare products are up. In fact, 70% of consumers scaled back their use of makeup this year, according to the NPD Group Inc., a market research firm. As a result, skincare has eclipsed makeup as the top category in the beauty industry's market share from January through August.

"People are being more mindful of what people are putting on their skin and in their bodies because of the pandemic," says Lauren Yavor, a beauty influencer who recently launched a "clean" nail polish line that sold out in just days. "This really was a turning point for clean beauty."

— Beauty chains like Ulta and department stores like Macy's are ramping up offerings in moisturizers and bath and body products. Walmart teamed up with Unilever, maker of Dove and Suave, to launch shops called "Find Your Happy Place" aimed at customers looking to destress. The concept, in the works before the pandemic, was accelerated by one year.

— Companies are also reinventing marketing to cater to the new way of grooming. Little says Edgewell retooled an ad campaign for a multipurpose facial beauty tool to focus on eyebrow-shaping because of the rise in video calls.

— Within makeup, eyeshadow and eyeliner as well as false eyelashes are thriving as people play up the features that are peeping through their masks when they're out, says Larissa Jensen, NPD's beauty industry advisor. Hair products saw an 11% sales increase during the third quarter as people take a DIY approach to coloring and styling.

Says Esi Eggleston Bracey, chief operating officer of Unilever North America's personal care and beauty division: "This is a wellness revolution."

A Deeper Importance

How deep does this run? Is all the pandemic self-care working, or are people are just going through haphazard motions? One psychologist compares it to a roller coaster — up on some days, down on others.

"Some days, you have a great day when you did all the things you wanted to do. You got up on time, you made a salad. And then the next day, it's Cheetos for lunch," says Dr. Vaile Wright, a senior director at the American Psychological Association.

Being kind to one's self feels especially important during the pandemic, where every aspect of human life has been impacted and there is little control over what's next. That level of uncertainty is unnerving, Wright says, and further depletes already limited energy levels.

Self-care, of course, is only one dimension of coping during stressful times. Surveys have shown a sharp increase in anxiety disorders. Many therapists are reporting upticks in referrals and increases in caseloads. Virtual mental health services are booming — another form of self-care, in a more medical sense.

"Having a toolbox of coping skills is really critical," Wright says. She highlights other types of self-care like meditation, journaling and organizing — each of which has its own culture and committed practitioners. "We have a tendency to isolate emotionally," Wright says. "It is really important that people don't do that."

Ultimately, "self-care" contains as many definitions as there are people who take care of themselves — a Google search of the term will show you that. The World Health Organization takes an expansive view, describing it as a "broad concept" that includes hygiene, lifestyle, social habits, income levels and cultural beliefs — and, in the best cases, can "strengthen national institutions" to encourage a society's overall health.

As the world navigates a web of unknowns that sometimes feels like the Upside Down in "Stranger Things," there is one thing that people can do something about: themselves. For all the horror the pandemic has brought, it has also revealed things that matter. And from the way people have reacted through this year, it seems clear that, in all the forms it takes, self-care matters — particularly right now, particularly with so many unknowns still ahead.