One of the various unhealthy habits I've adopted since the beginning of quarantine is spending an hour or so scrolling through the news and my social media feeds each morning before I get out of bed.
Sprinkled between daily reminders that our world is barreling headlong into a destruction of its own doing, I often come across messages that emphasize the importance of taking care of yourself, especially right now. These posts are usually accompanied by a photo of someone drinking a matcha latte in an aesthetically pleasing nook, or something of the sort that gives the impression that they sprung out of bed at dawn, went for a run, ate a bowl of oatmeal with fruit, meditated, journaled, and read an entire book all before I dragged myself to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.
I hope for their sake that they really did all those things, but I secretly hope for my sake that they did not. My own attempts at quarantine self-care have been somewhat less fruitful: In July I tried daily journaling and meditation—both of which lasted exactly a week and a half—and I've done yoga exactly six times (but at least two of those times I quit part-way through). I'm usually an avid reader, but since April, I've read only two books in their entirety, and then started and forgotten about probably seven more.
I'm not always this lacking in self-discipline—but the absence of external structure that quarantine entails has thrown any semblance of routine out the window. Action begets action, as they say, and I'm much more inclined to keep up with hobbies and maintain a healthier lifestyle when I have a busy schedule. But a couple of months ago, in a last-ditch effort to incorporate some form of ritual into my life, and because my newfound social media obsession has left me hopelessly susceptible to Instagram ads, I decided to take up skin care. It seemed manageable and fun, and I thought that seeing tangible improvements to my skin while our country spirals catastrophically might restore some sense of personal psychic balance.
Some brief Googling led me to the conclusion that the world is divided into two groups: those who apply sunscreen every morning, and those who do not. I was part of the latter, until I discovered UV rays that cause wrinkles can reach through windows. "90 percent of early aging is due to sun exposure," says every website, YouTube video, and piece of content written on the subject. I found a suitable sunscreen for around fifteen dollars and purchased it immediately.
Further down the rabbit hole, I learned my current face wash was likely damaging my "moisture barrier" and bought a new one along with a moisturizer formulated specifically to repair it. With the basics out of the way, I discovered my skin type and identified my "skin needs," then added a couple of serums to the cart made to target them.
As it turns out, I'm not alone. Between February and May of this year, online searches for "skincare" almost doubled. In a 2017 New Yorker essay entitled "The Year That Skin Care Became a Coping Mechanism," Jia Tolentino writes that after Donald Trump's election, she was "unsure if I was buying skin care or a psychological safety blanket, or how much of a difference between the two there really is." I wonder how many early morning jogs, elaborately-prepared meals, or my own attempts at achieving a glowing complexion are safety blankets too, and how many provide something more than that—something more fundamental.
The concept of self-care is hardly new, and the market for it had been booming before COVID-19. If it was a buzzword before, it has now morphed into something more closely resembling a way of life. It is touted not only as the antidote to personal stress, but as vital preservation of our collectively dwindling mental wellbeing.
The premise of self-care, with its variety of definitions and forms, is built upon the same foundation as the well-known flight instruction: You can't take care of others unless you first take care of yourself. The notion fits well within the resounding narrative of the past six months: that staying home is a heroic act. By protecting yourself, you simultaneously protect the community at-large.
In April, Amanda Hess wrote a piece for The New York Times about how the wellness industry is stepping in as a bizarre surrogate for our failing healthcare system. "Wellness content used to merely gesture at some kind of spiritual necessity, but it has now proved itself truly crucial," she wrote. "Public health legitimately relies on the efforts of each individual to cope in isolation."
Big Beauty and the explosively lucrative wellness industry have caught on, and both are tailoring their safety blankets specifically to our current brand of fragility. One marketing website explains that companies who pivot to mental-health oriented branding will do better in the long-run, writing: "Consumers who wouldn't typically spend $100 on a skincare product or invest in a meditation app subscription may now be categorizing those purchases as necessities…instead of splurges."
Beyond brands themselves, media sites, YouTubers, and influencers who all stand to profit from promoting skincare as self-care often do—and not subtly. Cosmetics site Dermstore tells its customers in a blog post that "self-care is often misconstrued as self-indulgence—or treating yourself to things you don't need—but caring for yourself now feels more vital than ever," and then links a $72 face oil that has alleged superpowers.
An Elle Magazine article calls out the fact that we began "rabidly buying things we never knew we needed" once lockdowns began and yet champions the benefits of a 205 pound (around $265 USD) face cream that does it all. Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop website goes as far as to say that "taking care of ourselves—our skin, our hair, our bodies—can be a key indicator of mental health," as though massaging our faces with her $200 Gold Sculpting Bar will prove to the world—and to ourselves—that we're doing alright.
In 2001, Leonard Lauder, the chairman of Estee Lauder, observed that after 9/11, lipstick sales shot up. He coined this the "lipstick effect," and lipstick sales have proved such a stable indicator of economic downturn that they are sometimes used to actually predict recessions.
These patterns hint at an underlying truth: When we look good, we feel good, and that there is something psychologically reassuring about presenting ourselves as put together when our lives feel anything but.
It's quite possible that as mask mandates and lockdowns have made lipstick moot, serums and night creams have stepped in to replace it. And even though it feels almost sinister for brands to sell self-love in a jar of moisturizer at a time when we need the real thing the most, it's not really self-love that we're buying. Self-care, as I've learned, is less about the act—or product—itself than it is about the various meanings we ascribe to it.
As much as I want to resist admitting that Gwenyth Paltrow is ever right about anything, maybe she's onto something...this time. Maybe my skincare routine really is, more than anything, about showing myself every day that I'm capable of the simple task of caring for myself, worthy of a minor indulgence.
My skincare routine is little more than a relaxing ritual where double cleansing marks the end of a day and applying sunscreen after my moisturizer marks the beginning of another. Some mornings I still find myself reading though skincare companies' promises that a toner will change my life, and it makes my pursuit of perfect skin feel frivolous and fraught. I know that no product is capable of making the future any less terrifying, but maybe the fact that it provides any comfort at all, right now, is enough.