Self-seclusion, Week 1. I’d been planning to watch over the health of loved ones. But I’d also been looking forward to having time on my hands: long idle hours during which I’d administer liberal doses of self-love.
Ordinarily that would have meant communing with my wardrobe, weeding out nonessentials, planing my skin to ageless perfection, trimming overgrown hair, tending to visible roots and trying to stick with a diet of ripe avocados and sprouts.
Week 2: I found myself ditching those overzealous routines for a rigorously streamlined plan of action. I’ve razed my hair to within an inch of my scalp: a monastic look, I know, but somehow in tune with my cloistered state. I’ve trimmed my nails to the quick, and discarded a cabinet full of salves and lotions in favor of “99 44/100 percent pure” Ivory soap.
Week 3: I’ve turned my back on the ascetic life, eating what I love: bananas in ripe quantities, dark chocolate, generous dollops of peanut butter mashed into just about everything. I’ve banished spandex and am wafting around my living space in an all-forgiving caftan, congratulating myself for dispensing with other peoples’ notions of what a woman looks like.
Still, I had to wonder: With few beauty tools at hand, and no pressing reason to get gussied up, would I work more efficiently, reflect more profoundly and get in touch with my authentic self?
Femininity, it’s been noted, is a performance (as transgender women know all too intimately). Would functioning without an audience make hash of our self-image? Would it undermine the foundations of our identity? Or would it free us to divert our energies in loftier directions? Who knows?
What I have learned during this interval is that it can be liberating, even enlightening, to sign on with a sisterhood — people of varying ages, racial and social backgrounds, professions, and styles, openly engaging in a little self-neglect. We may be reminded of Germaine Greer, who famously said: “If a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have got? If she never takes off her high-heeled shoes, how will she ever know how far she could walk or how fast she could run?”
For years, outrageous social media displays have aggravated FOMO, the Fear of Missing Out. Now we can revel in the Joy of Letting Go, technically JOLGO, but, amalgamated with You Only Live Once: JOLO!
Spurning Our Bras
“Some of us will regard this time as an opportunity to make changes we’ve been wanting to make,” said Carolyn Mair, the author of “The Psychology of Fashion” and a professor at the London College of Fashion. “We may stop wearing high heels and shapewear. And, if we are feminists, we may see this as chance to reflect on why we wear these things in the first place.”
We may also discover that we are surprisingly durable: the tougher sex, according to Sharon Moalem, a scientist and physician, who argued recently in The New York Times that when it comes to survival, women lead with the advantage of a spare X chromosome that helps maintain vital functions in the brain and immune system.
But Dr. Moalem wasn’t taking into account the emotional adaptability that, in challenging times, allows us to drop our masks, and with them, the lavish indulgences that once seemed to prop up our lives.
Many of us are mining the moment for laughs, skewering those self-care obsessives still mourning canceled SoulCycle classes, ballooning hips and visible roots. There is bleak humor, after all, in doing less with less.
“I think about putting on lipstick, but then I ask myself: ‘why?’” said Deborah Mitchell, a media and marketing consultant in her 50s. “Only the people at the supermarket are going to see you. And now that we have to wear masks, they’ll never know it’s you.”
Some have been struck all at once with the absurdity of primping. “Making up my face, I feel like I’m putting paint on a wall,” said Lindsay Goldwert, 40, a podcast host and the author of “Bow Down: Lessons From Dominatrixes on How to Get Everything You Want.”
“Suddenly, painting on all those colors seems insane,” Ms. Goldwert said.
And more than a few are venting pent-up resentments. Jody Crane, 66, a marketing researcher and strategist in Petaluma, Calif., has traveled this ascetic route before. While being treated for cancer in the early 2000s, “I couldn’t dye my hair for a year,” Ms. Crane recalled. “My skin was aging. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be this old, fuzzy-haired kind of woman.’”
Now, 20 years later, “I’m annoyed to find myself still thinking about these things,” Ms. Crane said. “Keeping up with expectations, other peoples’ and my own, is such a burden. Aren’t we burdened enough just trying to get through this difficult time?”
Ashley Longshore, 43, an artist and entrepreneur in New Orleans, has little use these days for high-maintenance cosmetic rites. “No lashes, no nails, no underwear,” Ms. Longshore said, exultant.
Even manicures and pedicures, she said, have always been a pain. “These rituals chew up my most precious commodity: my time,” she added, with some vehemence.
Lindsay Knapp, 41, a social worker in Hartford, Conn., has been feeling just as cheeky “I haven’t worn a bra or makeup in almost two weeks,” she said. “I’m letting my grays grow in and not blow drying my hair. That’s beyond empowering.”
Catherine Burgess, 71, a literary consultant in Somerville, Mass., is dispensing with scarves, jewelry and the suddenly redundant notion of accessorizing. “Since I’ve been diagnosed, via teleconference, as a probable Covid statistic, I’m doing away with bras,” she said, “though I may later feel societal pressure to return to some form of breast bondage.”
A Hilton in a Hoodie
Undergarments have become optional, too, for Shanna Goldstein, the 48-year-old founder of a plus-size clothing line. “My husband and my best friend begged me not to admit that I haven’t been wearing a bra,” she said. For a fashion designer, her look has become surprisingly (and refreshingly) lax.
“I haven’t been reduced to a Slanket yet, but I am wearing a Onepiece,” Ms. Goldstein said. “I may never go back to real clothes. Not having to think about these things gives me that much more brain room to think about things like “Should I bake banana bread? What snacks will we be having with cocktail hour?”
You know, the important stuff.
“Do I get on the scale every morning? Not so much. There is plenty of time for that post-Covid.”
Even Nicky Hilton Rothschild, the designer and society figure, has been keeping things simple and focusing on cozier pursuits. “I haven’t worn makeup or blow-dried my hair,” Ms. Rothschild, 36, said. “I like seeing it in its natural state.”
Though she did don a flowery frock for an Easter photo, “my uniform through all this time has been leggings and a hoodie.” That casual approach, she said, “leaves more time for baking blueberry muffins with my daughter and watching all our favorite Disney classics on TV.” (And by the way, let us now look daggers on anyone who suggests that children coming into the frame of our Zoom calls are not welcome.)
Letting go tends to leave plenty of time for introspection, not all of it welcome. Karla Wright, 77, a retired lawyer living in Greece, rarely studies herself in a mirror. “That hasn’t changed in this crisis,” Ms. Wright said. “What has changed is that I’m doing a bit of soul-searching. I think about the things that scare me. I keep having these visions of ventilators. I can get very anxious.”
Some of us are still finding reassurance in ritual and routine. “It can be a real slippery slope from not washing your hair to hanging out in a bathrobe all day,” Ms. Goldwert said.
Personal upkeep remains essential to Chelsea Frazier, a fellow in the English department at Cornell University and the founder of the online learning hub Ask an Amazon.
“Beauty for me is 100 percent performance of my blackness, my queerness, my femininity,” Ms. Frazier, 31, said. “A worldwide pandemic will certainly affect that. But it doesn’t eliminate it.”
“A lot of my beauty rituals are social,” she added. “I’m contacting friends. We’re giving each other tips about how we’re dealing with our skin, what we’re doing with our hair. All of this sheltering in place is an opportunity for connection.”
And Marian Rivman, 74, a communications consultant in New York, is religious about attending virtual classes in yoga and self-massage.
“And I’m still wearing lipstick,” she said. “That’s who I am.”
Anya Strzemien contributed reporting.