In pandemic era’s isolation, meaning of ‘self-care’ evolves

Anne D’Innocenzio & Sophia Rosenbaum

NEW YORK (AP) — 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 prioritise 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 centre, re-configuring 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 skyrocketted 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 focussed on yourself,” said CEO of Edgewell Personal Care Rod Little, 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 said, “is one way for me to have control.”


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. 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-coloured lipstick. She did her make-up “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 colourfully 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 skincare 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, make-up sales have been rocky, and sales of skincare products are up. In fact, 70 per cent 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 make-up as the top category in the beauty industry’s market share.

“People are being more mindful of what people are putting on their skin and in their bodies because of the pandemic,” said 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.”


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,” said Senior Director Dr Vaile Wright 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 said, 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 said. She highlights other types of self-care like meditation, journalling and organising — each of which has its own culture and committed practitioners. “We have a tendency to isolate emotionally,” Wright said. “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 (WHO) 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.