Do we care less now about how we look?

Illustration shows three young people floating in bubbles. One is looking in a mirror, the second is relaxing in comfy clothes and the third is dancing.

Is our beauty obsession a thing of the past?

There seems to be now two distinct ways of looking at the world, with time separated into Before Pandemic (BP) and After Pandemic (AP). This vaguely biblical way of looking at events is actually very useful, because they feel so very different. BP was defined by going out to places with lots of human contact like pubs, bars and concerts, holding people’s hands, meeting strangers on Tinder and associating the words ‘face mask’ with a beauty trend popular on Instagram. AP is characterised by staying indoors and staring out the window like a war widow in a film, trying to get to grips with social bubbles, Zoom dating, being more interested in statistics than an A-level Maths student and going around looking like you are intending to rob a bank.

The general wisdom is that BP was a much more fun, simple time and certainly the world did feel a lot simpler when you could view your neighbours as people and not a potentially deadly petri dish of germs.

Is life better when you can dress like a slob?

However, as we lean into life in AP, people are getting more reflective about the possible upsides of life in a bubble, and as we’ve discussed here, life at a slower pace has taught people to be more reflective, develop new hobbies and really cherish loved ones. The other result of AP is people have turned into massive slobs – and let’s not be coy here – people are loving it. Prior to AP the word ‘slob’ had pretty pejorative connotations and this isn’t really surprising – we were all living under a beauty tyranny that had kind of crept up on us.

Like the proverbial frogs in saucepans, the last ten years had evolved from the expectation of nice makeup and a cute outfit to the insistence we all permanently look like we’d wandered off the set of Love Island with a filter on. The laws of Insta-beauty and TV-hotness had terrorized everyone into hair extensions, nail extensions, 3D-eyebrows, Botox, learning makeup tutorials and photoshop more diligence than we had GCSE subjects, waist trainers, weird diets, drinking tea that made you incontinent, teeth whiteners, and a crushing, existential knowledge you’ll never look like you do with your favourite filter!  

And then Covid-19 hit and suddenly it exposed this beauty tyranny for what it was – all a bit pointless. Suddenly, with no one to see us and no salons open to enforce the Laws of Beauty, we not only abandoned our beauty rituals but positively embraced our inner Tom Hanks in Castaway (hello, 90’s reference!). Highlights grew out, eyebrows got bushy, nail extensions didn’t get replaced, we ate ice-cream for breakfast, and we not only survived, but it’s been pretty damn nice.

There’s been too much pressure to look good all the time

Katie (19) has become a huge disciple of AP-beauty: “I was literally spending all my money on, and thought constantly about, how I looked. I got my highlights done every eight weeks, hair extensions every six months, nails done every week and I was constantly buying clothes just for going out which I know is really bad for the planet. I was actually thinking about Botox because I have frown lines – and I’m 19! Stopping it all has made me wonder who I’m doing it for, and I don’t think it’s me. I’m definitely going to cut back on my beauty rituals.”

Radhika (17) agrees. “Sixth form college has definitely become like a fashion show. I was literally waking up two hour earlier to do my makeup and decide what to wear. I haven’t worn a bra or shoes for nearly three months, let alone foundation. It’s definitely made me realise how much time I was wasting on my appearance, I’ve been able to put into schoolwork and reading instead. It’s been really nice.”

And it’s not just women and girls that have enjoyed throwing off the shackles of oppressive beauty standards. With men in the UK now outspending women on grooming (£3,367 to women’s £3,060), boys and men were definitely feeling the bonds of the pressure to look good all the time, BP.

Embracing the “hippie look”

Lee (18) explains: “There is massive pressure to look good and it’s expensive and time-consuming. I was actually thinking about applying to Love Island or Too Hot to Handle if it continues, so I’ve been hugely invested in making my hair and face just right. I’ve got a personal trainer, spend a lot on face products and get my hair and eyebrows done on the regular. Why do I want to apply for Love Island? Fit girls, attention, and it’s a much easier way to get rich and famous than going to uni. But since the lockdown, being made to relax over my appearance has been sort of nice. At first, I bitched more than my mum about not being able to go to the hairdressers, but now I think this hippie-look sort of suits me.”

The ‘hippie-look’ that Lee refers to has been kind of imposed on all of us, and there’s also a growing sense this deconstructed look is quite fitting for the moment. While we’ve been under lockdown – and perhaps in part because of lockdown – there have been huge, seismic social and cultural shifts. The planet continues to heat up, the economy is in meltdown and of course, the world watched in horror as another white policeman casually murdered a black man – George Floyd – in broad daylight in front of horrified onlookers and later the rest of the world on the internet. What it triggered was first massive protests first in George Floyd’s native country, the USA, which later spread across the globe, led and united by the Black Lives Matter movement.

There are bigger things to motivate young people right now than beauty

There is little doubt that these protests will become historically symbolic of the strange and important moment we are living in, and it’s been goosebump-inducing to watch crowds of face-masked young people across the world march for their rights and lives. And the AP-look we’re all sporting somehow fits aesthetically as this feels like our own cultural and political moment in the same way the Civil Rights marches were in the 60’s and Vietnam protests were in the ‘70’s. I chatted to some teenagers on the BLM-march in London and they all agreed, the weight of this moment had rendered a lot of other things BP fairly insignificant.

Aliyah (17) explained, “I look like shit (editor: she doesn’t look like shit at all) – my hair is awful, and I’ve gained a bit of weight in lockdown and I’ve given up on makeup. Previously I probably wouldn’t have come out looking like this, but this is much, much bigger and more important than how I or anyone looks. I had to come today for me and everyone else. Who cares what I look like, especially as most of my face is covered?”

We’re questioning the way the world works

Incredible as it seems, it’s not even been three months since lockdown and yet the world AP seems like a very different place, where we’re questioning the validity and stability of every institutional stronghold from the police to the government to the education system. It is therefore somehow fitting we are also taking a look at ourselves and questioning what is right and best for us. The beauty standards of BP were both rigorous and restrictive, demanding we all look perfect all the time – and it was exhausting. Everyone is understandably looking forward to getting highlights, haircuts, nails and brows done. However, the AP world has also put our approach to beauty and ourselves into a different perspective.

Cara (17) who admits to being a “total beauty and products junkie” explained, “I think I got really into the habit of looking perfect for everyone else. And you wonder who for? If everyone’s doing that, why don’t we all relax a bit? I’ve loved having to spend less time on my appearance and I think the natural look actually looks good on everyone. I’m definitely a bit more focused on the world now than looking Insta-perfect.”

For support and advice on body image and beauty

Read The Mix’s article on how to handle body shaming and find out more about male body image. If you’re feeling the pressure to look good because of social media, read this article to get tips and advice.

Contact The Mix to get free and confidential support about body image, beauty, or anything else. Post on our discussion boards to get support from our community.


Next Steps

By Holly Turner

Updated on 02-Nov-2022