As Tāmaki Makaurau enters its ninth week of restrictions, Anna Rawhiti-Connell takes a good hard look in the mirror.
The skin on my left eyelid is very scaly right now. I noticed this new development in the life of my 42 year-old face yesterday morning, driven to the mirror by the pain of a throbbing zit on my lip. Currently, the texture of my forehead is like a rice bubble party treat – waxy, crunchy and lumpy. A family of red spots have taken up permanent residence on my jawline.
According to all the stupid articles I have read at 4am this week, I have lockdown skin. Stress hormones, disrupted sleep, mask wearing, a lack of healthy routine and an oversupply of Wakachangi chips are to blame, apparently. All the things that could remedy this situation now resemble a wellbeing tsundoku – a pile on my bedside table that keeps getting added to, but never read. My friend used to yell “I am a beast of the lowest order, and so begins my sadness” when she was very hungover. I think about that a lot at the moment.
I feel my blemishes more than I see them. My lip stings when I eat anything acidic, my jaw itches and, for some reason, I touch my face a lot on Zoom calls. As Tāmaki Makaurau enters its ninth week of restrictions, my relationship with my face has taken on a more tactile and textural quality because I am finding it harder and harder to see it in the mirror. It’s there, but it’s ill-defined.
My features, which I used to paint, highlight, sculpt and colour-in, seem fuzzy. My skin, which used to be a testing ground for just how much beauty industry bullshit I could absorb and an exemplar of all the ways we’re told to gracefully make up our faces as we age, is amorphous. I am arguably in my most natural state, yet I do not feel like myself.
Early on in the lockdown, Instagram accounts issued clarion calls about self-care and more time for skincare. I tried to make an effort for a while, popping on a bit of lip gloss and firing up the blow wave. I think I even curled my hair one Saturday. I am old enough and ugly enough to know that making some effort to not be your worst self can help your mood but honestly, I can not be bothered right now.
With nowhere to go and no one to see, expectation has fallen away and standards have slackened. It washes its face, applies a lotion to its skin and brushes its teeth. Occasionally it slicks on a serum but, with no performance of appearance to worry about, it seems pointless. I no longer give a shit about what I look like on yet another Zoom call.
Part of me likes this freedom – ask anyone I’ve been camping with. I am all too eager to abandon the accoutrements of appearance on summer holiday. I will slope around in togs, a t-shirt and shorts, bathing only in the sea, for days. I genuinely regard the beauty industry as one might an ancient labyrinth. I am exhausted and confused by it, wary of it but also trapped inside it. Being free from it should be more than a summertime dream.
And yet here I am, a member of Mecca’s Level Three Beauty Loop, panic-ordering yet another face mask because I am feeling less like myself than ever before. I am spinning contradictions in the light, wrestling with the stupidest and shallowest of concerns at a time of national crisis with all the freedom to abandon them once and for all.
So why can’t I? Why do I miss the rituals of getting ready to go out? These rituals are the same ones that cost us billions of dollars each year. Rituals which cost the planet. Rituals which are the layering of unchecked dominant narratives about how we’re meant to look. Rituals knitted tightly to a culture of consumption which we, the consumer, are the smallest beneficiaries of.
Why do I miss the disciplined preparation of my face as a feast for other people’s eyes and expectations? Why do I mourn the careful application of a face that isn’t really mine, but a compendium of rules about brow shape, eyelash definition, flawless skin and alluring lips? These rituals belong to the same stupid family of expectations I am hoping will melt away in a post-pandemic world, one where we will perhaps become kinder and more accepting of ourselves and each other.
I stumbled across an Instagram post from Dr Jean Cheung, a clinical psychologist, the other day which held some clue to why I might miss my silly lipsticks and the final spritz of perfume on the way out the door:
“Pandemic fatigue affects us in ways that we might be aware of. One of its subtler impacts is how it may be keeping us in one role-self (our work self, our responsible self, our weary and anxious self). If you’re missing the experiences of other parts of yourself (your relaxed, fun, playing, holidaying self) you are not alone. All parts of us are important. There is fatigue from staying in only one part of ourselves at all times.”
For all the time I spend wrestling with the evils and ills of the beauty industry, and as trapped as I feel by them, my silly rituals are connections to my other selves. Selves which aren’t accessible right now. Selves that are reflected back to you by other people. Selves that are bolstered by those interactions.
I do not miss my eyeshadow. I do not miss the highlighter I can never apply properly. I do not miss my eyeliner. I miss me. I miss the self that is not my lockdown self with lockdown skin. I miss the holiday me that abandons all this bullshit. I miss the me that knows it’s bullshit but does it anyway. I miss looking in the mirror and seeing someone defined by more than a pile of worries and work. I miss having the energy and surety to spackle over a family of spots, head out the door and forget why they’re there in the first place.