How Sheltering in Place is Shifting Women’s Beauty Standards

Women on Instagram are showing off new grey roots and freshly shaved heads. (Instagram/ (L-R) @balay.mama, @jovishii, @adiosaltinte)

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ast week, during a visit to the post office (snail mail has provided new realms of joy during shelter in place), I was approached by a woman.

“Hey,” she said in hushed tones from behind her mask. “Who did your hair?”

“No one’s cut it since February, but I do the color myself,” I replied.

“Damn it!” the woman cursed. “I can’t find a stylist willing to break the rules. I thought you might know one. Last week, I got so desperate, I had my sister-in-law do my roots and she used too much bleach and now my hair is breaking off. Look!”

For anyone with a regular beauty routine that requires the assistance of paid professionals, coronavirus-related salon and spa closures have demanded new levels of personal creativity. And for those who can’t access their usual products and services, living with what God and DNA naturally gave us has simply become a requirement of the new normal.

In the middle of a global pandemic and a movement for racial justice, even thinking about beauty can feel shamefully frivolous. After all, no one wants to be Karen at the rally holding up an “I NEED A HAIRCUT” sign. (Except for, you know, all of the Karens that actually did that.) Unfortunately, for most of the last century, women have been bombarded with messaging that tells them their beauty and worth are inextricably interwoven. That messaging can be a challenge to shake off, even in a crisis.

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Last year, Glamour reported: “Historically when we [feel] good, cleansing ourselves, grooming ourselves and doing makeup and hair serve to increase confidence and self-esteem. Conversely, if on a downhill spiral, many would stop doing basic things like washing themselves, wearing makeup and brushing their hair and teeth.”

In 2019, an assertion that not wearing makeup might indicate some sort of mental breakdown might slip by largely unnoticed. Fast forward to mid-2020 and women are publicly considering giving up makeup permanently, while Harper’s Bazaar is asking if we’ll ever wear bras again.

Up until the strangeness of the last few months—even in these Gen Z, gender neutral, natural eyebrow-embracing times—a woman proudly wearing her naturally gray hair remained a talking point. Just think about last year when Keanu Reeves and Alexandra Grant debuted their relationship at the LACMA Art and Film Gala.

The 55-year-old actor’s decision to date a 46-year-old woman with gray hair was seen by a majority of commenters as confirmation that Reeves was a “Good Man.” As if dating a woman with non-colored hair was a penance of some sort. Grant later felt pressured enough to make a public statement about her haircare decisions, citing the “toxicity of dyes” in her decision to go au naturel.

Nine months later and—despite there still being no female equivalent of the “silver fox”—numerous women are embracing the salt in their pepper like never before. Celebrity examples have been set by the likes of Kelly Ripa (who has been doing regular “Root Watch” stories on Instagram since shelter in place began), Tamera Mowry-Housley and Lily Allen.

For those not ready to take the plunge, box color kits are a fall back option—in April, research firm Nielsen reported that hair dye sales were up 23% compared to the same time last year. Even more telling was the news that the sales of hair clippers increased by more than 160% in the same period. Shaving it all off during shelter in place has been embraced by both men and women.

Lisa Swiss, a stylist at San Francisco’s Hairetics says her clients reflect the mixed reactions to salons being closed. While demand for Hairetics’ customized color kits, available for curbside pick-up, has been very high, a lot of clients are also rolling with new, natural looks—at least for the time being. Swiss has also been video conferencing to help people safely remove their hair extensions.

The stylist says it’s hard to know the lasting impacts of how people will treat their own beauty regimes when services are readily available again. “Maybe we will see more gray,” she says, “but I think the trends will be all over the place. I do think the majority of people are going to want a big change though—people have had too much time to stare at themselves. I also think people are going to value their hair stylist more than ever.”

Stephanie Reeder, practice manager at Belle Marin Aesthetic Medicine in Mill Valley, says that their clients are having a similarly mixed response to lack of access to beauty services. “I think a lot of people are getting creative with ways to keep up their beauty habits at home” she says. “Based on the amount of product we’ve been shipping, I’d say a lot of people are sticking to their skincare routines. But there are also plenty of people who’ve stopped caring as much now that they’re either wearing a mask, or at home all the time.”

In 1990 feminist classic The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf made the argument that, as women made social and professional strides forward throughout the 20th century, they were bombarded with ever more impossible beauty standards to adhere to. “More women have more money and power and scope and legal recognition than we have ever had before,” Wolf wrote, “but in terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.”

The body positivity movement enabled by the arrival of social media has gone some way to undoing that structure. But not since World War II have women been denied access to hair and beauty treatments on this scale. Once the standards we were holding ourselves to became physically inaccessible, it actually opened up new realms of possibility for how we may treat self-care in the future. For many of us, things that once seemed essential no longer rank particularly high on the list of priorities.

In the course of our conversation, my new friend at the post office also confided that, having been hair-free for the entirety of her marriage, she is now learning to live with hairy legs. “It’s okay now that I’m used to not going to the waxer,” she shrugged. “Weirdly, I’m just now realizing my husband doesn’t care either. Who knew?”

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