I learned in my long ago teens, plagued with more weight than I wanted and less hair, that rituals of presentation could bring about extraordinary transformation. Or maybe it was just illusion, but it was extraordinary anyway. A week of fasting (coffee's okay, right?), a new outfit, and two hours of careful makeup application, eyelash after tedious eyelash, meant that I could go out into the world not simply as my best self, but as another self, sophisticated and worthy.
Those adolescent impressions tempered in adulthood, as worth became more about being myself than looking like some self I'd hoped to be. And the formula for looking well morphed into a healthier equation: good living plus good grooming, and then—still—the remarkable makeup job. (I did whittle the time on that down to 50 minutes for going all out, 10 for the everyday.)
Personal upkeep had long been on a calendar that seemed inviolable: the gym and yoga classes, one or the other, pretty much daily; manicure, every seven days; pedicure, facial, brow wax, and root touch-up, monthly; and my haircut with Denise every eight weeks. The haircut called for a trek from Harlem to Tribeca, but having tagged after Denise on four salon moves over fifteen years, I'd figured I'd follow her anywhere. She kept me in a 1920s bob that, provided I wasn't late for a trim, fell and moved just as it was supposed to. It was my trademark, or so I thought. But I did have a shameful secret: I could not for the life of me blow it dry properly. This meant that I had a $37-a-week blow-out habit, and the three days leading up to my salon fix had me depending on dry shampoo and head wraps.
Then COVID hit. The news reports were horrifying, and when I lost a close friend and writing mentor to the disease in April, it became personal. The only way I could help, Dr. Fauci kept saying on CNN, was to stay home. I did, but it seemed passive, unsatisfying, and as if it wasn't helping much. Still, being on the cusp of the age at which COVID becomes statistically more serious, I stayed in, a day at a time, the way people get sober or wait for a vacation. I read more and cleaned more and worked more. And while I paid attention to those activities, my hair was growing out. I hadn't had even long-ish hair in more than two decades. I'd read that a woman over forty should never have hair past her shoulders. I went to Catholic school. I follow the rules. If I'm never again supposed to have long hair, well then, I never will.
But neither the nuns nor the beauty magazines took a pandemic into account, and soon my hair was long enough that I was able to put it up, an amazing feeling after so long with a bob. I developed a fondness for my Audrey Hepburn French twist. In the summer when New York City opened up a bit, I went in for a color and trim (not with Denise, sadly; that would have called for public transportation). Attempting to give me a "look"—I think she was going for Jennifer Anniston in her Rachel Green days—the stylist made the sides too short to allow for my updo without extra pins. My hair hasn't been cut since.
And guess what's happened? I can blow-dry this longer hair myself. I can make it straight and silky and fun. It feels a little wrong to find fun in anything when so much suffering is taking place, but something I've learned as an animal activist is that my sometimes having fun doesn't make the suffering any worse and it gives me more energy for the struggle. So I started having fun with clips and barrettes, and with the scrubs and masques that came in the Kinder Beauty boxes, and those I concocted myself out of oat flour and almond milk yogurt. It's moderately fun to do my own nails and more fun take baths with essential oils or salts from the Dead Sea or mud from some other sea. There's a sweet satisfaction to it. Everybody can use some of that right now, even those of us who are fortunate enough not to have lost health, family, and an income.
I've long worked from home as a writer and vegan educator, but before COVID, working from home didn't mean staying home. It meant taking my laptop to a coffee shop or the stunning Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library; and often meeting someone at a cafe or nail salon or yoga studio for some splendid collaboration. When sheltering in place, for those lucky enough to have that option, became the gold standard for protecting ourselves and others, my commute destinations became a bed, a desk, and the dining room table. Since I was going out only to walk my dog, makeup wasn't necessary. But when Zoom started to become the way we did business and activism and education, makeup made a comeback in my life. When I wore seriously red lipstick, people said they liked it. I think think they saw it as, "Take that, COVID times! You've caused pain and loss and upheaval and tragedy, but you're not going to get us down."
When this chapter in history ends, it's likely that many things will return to "normal," and some never will. In the big, important sense, I have a feeling we'll all have matured in a spiritual sense, that we'll find ourselves in possession of a stronger character and greater courage. And in the lighthearted world of "OMG, I love your eye shadow," I predict we're going to be more enchanted than ever by these simple pleasures. I, for one, look forward to reinstating some of the self-care that's been on hold. I'll even get my hair cut, but not very much. I'm hanging with Audrey on this one, and saying to that writer who told me how long my hair could be: "You ride out a pandemic. Then tell the rest of us how we ought to look and how we ought to live."
Victoria Moran is the author of Main Street Vegan, host of the Main Street Vegan Podcast, and director of Main Street Vegan Academy—which trains and certifies vegan lifestyle coaches and educators.