Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Face Time: Has The Pandemic Changed How We Feel About Our Appearances For Good?

For many of us, Covid has changed what we wear on our bodies and our faces. Could we also be questioning the everlasting quest to be more attractive?

“Why is it so important to be this thing called ‘attractive’?.” I heard Australian cartoonist, writer, painter, philosopher and poet Michael Leunig ask this question at a writers’ festival when I was in my 20s. It startled me. I looked around the room and some other people looked dumb-struck. I remember thinking, ‘but of course I need to be attractive!’. That had always been an internalised goal.

The way I saw it, make-up turned me from plain into pretty. My last, faint protest against ‘I Must Be Made-Up’ was being barefaced during my last years of high school, when I only wore make-up at parties in the weekends. For the 25 years since I left school, I’ve worn makeup nearly every weekday (assuming I’m leaving the house), and most weekends. Foundation, concealer, eyeliner, mascara, blusher, and lipstick or lip gloss. Just the basics.(I now wear eyeliner on my eyelids rather than under my eyes, after my sister admitted it made me look like a chipmunk.)

Make-up sales have fluctuated in these seemingly everlasting days of Covid. Because we’re often wearing masks, lipstick sales are down (they’d just get smudged, right?) and eyeliner sales are up (because the eyes are pretty much all you can see). Interestingly, perfume and fragrance sales are up – is that a whiff of ‘hell yeah I’m a woman even though you can barely see my face’? Sure is.

In my case, and that of several friends, the Covid era has changed the way we dress. Many of us are working from home, wearing trackpants and (in my case very-inactive) activewear. If you’re having online meetings, odds are you’ve worn a Zoom-appropriate top with pyjama pants at least once. Some of us have gained weight because the chocolate biscuits are in dangerously close proximity – and we don’t need to fit a waist-nipping dress the next day. When more of us are working from the office again, might we, having got into the habit, continue to dress more informally at work? Could Casual Friday become Casual Every Day?

Writing this, I keep thinking about what Michael Leunig said about attractiveness. I thought it was, perhaps, a throwaway comment, but then I found a poetic essay he’d penned called ‘Thou Shalt Be Attractive’. “There is no escaping the image of the great tyrant – and no refuge from the dictator’s dire commandment: ‘Thou shalt be attractive,” Leunig wrote. “It is difficult to imagine any time in history when so many people claiming to be so free have lived in so much fear of being unattractive.”

“It is difficult to imagine any time in history when so many people claiming to be so free have lived in so much fear of being unattractive.”

For me, that was a big fear for some time. For a few years around the age of 20, I ate and drank the wrong things, and was more ‘padded’ than usual for me. Not much. One day, walking to university, I was passing a building site when one construction worker yelled to the other, knowing I must be able to hear, ‘would you f**k her?’ The other one said ‘Depends on how drunk I am”. Being physically slapped in the face would have hurt me less. I can still physically feel how objectified and insulted I was in that moment. It drove me directly to the gym.

The following year, when I was a little lighter, I was at a bar with friends when one guy asked his mate what he rated my looks out of 10. I was annoyed with myself that I was almost pleased with the score, but I told these guys where to go. Out of my booth.

I later realised that both these incidents have something to do with “the male gaze” – and, no, this isn’t just the way a man looks at you. Verywell Mind, an award-winning online resource for reliable, up-to-date information on mental-health topics, defines the male gaze as “a way of portraying and looking at women that empowers men while sexualising and diminishing women”. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying most men are guilty of this. However, some are, or were once. I’ve chosen to be in relationships and friendships with men who don’t think that way, one being my husband. In fact he tells me he prefers me without makeup. But maybe he’s just saying that…

So here I am, turning 42 as Covid turns three. My (non-tracksuit) clothes are a little too tight, my gray hairs are clustering around my side part, and my crinkle lines (I hate the word ‘crowsfeet’) are deepening around my eyes. One day, rather than feeling annoyed about it, I did an experiment. It probably sounds like no big deal, but I walked to my office without makeup, my hair unbrushed, in an over-sized t-shirt and trousers that, through washing, had become faded and fairly shapeless. On that walk I was surprised just how self-conscious I felt when, hello, probably no one noticed and, if they did, why would that even matter? The guys at my co-working space didn’t flinch. Naturally, knowing my luck, I spied an ex-boyfriend while walking home, and hastily crossed the road.

My challenge to myself? Not to suddenly change my all my ways. But to accept that looking okay-ish is okay. And yes, some days I’ll go out with some thick eyeliner and mascara – and that’s okay too.

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