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How the meaning of self-care has evolved during the pandemic

This incarnation of self-care isn’t about buying a signature outfit, wearing a trendy shade of lipstick or getting a perfect haircut. It has put the purpose and meaning of life front and center

Journaling and taking care of oneself are just some of the expressions of self-care (Photo: Pixabay)
Journaling and taking care of oneself are just some of the expressions of self-care (Photo: Pixabay)

These days, with a pandemic raging, this is what life can look like: Staring at your face on Zoom for hours instead of occasionally glimpsing it in the mirror. Living 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.

It's also a way to mitigate the feeling that life is careening forward haphazardly in so many ways. For many people, taking care of themselves is one way to have control over the situation. As fashion blogger Gia Kashyap writes in a post on Instagram, "I follow a daily routine. Of course I can’t follow a strict routine every single day but most of my days have a set number of tasks. I also give importance to my sleep cycle. 8-9 hours of sleep is key!"


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.

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. Mint reported in June that the same was true in India as well. While Sephora India saw a strong bounce-back since the opening of stores (it has almost reached 77% of its sales from the pre-covid period), the lockdown saw skincare becoming a bigger slice of the pie than make-up, Vivek Bali, CEO, Sephora India, told Mint. “While at home, people have more time to follow extensive hair and beauty routines and we have seen a strong trend for skincare and haircare go up. Skincare is bigger in north, west and south India, and east India is interested in haircare more," said Bali.

“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.”

Globally, 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.

"As Indians stay inside and isolate themselves, some are finding comfort in skincare and self-care. A quick scroll through social media also seems to indicate this. People are nurturing, nourishing and taking care of their skin and hair at this time as there is no requirement for make-up. This time offers a much-needed break from make-up, enabling them to be finally comfortable in their own skin," says Anupam Kapoor, head of supply chain and manufacturing, Forest Essentials.


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.

With inputs from The Associated Press (AP)

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