‘No lashes, no nails, no underwear’: Give in to the joy of letting go

Use lockdown to relinquish high heels, painful waxes and constricting garments

Femininity is performance. What happens when no one is watching? Illustration: Margaret Riegel/New York Times

Femininity is performance. What happens when no one is watching? Illustration: Margaret Riegel/New York Times

 

Self-seclusion, Week 1. I’d been planning to watch over the health of loved ones. But I’d also been looking forward to having time on my hands: long idle hours during which I’d administer liberal doses of self-love. Ordinarily that would have meant communing with my wardrobe, weeding out nonessentials, planing my skin to ageless perfection, trimming overgrown hair, tending to visible roots and trying to stick with a diet of ripe avocados and sprouts.

Week 2: I found myself ditching those overzealous routines for a rigorously streamlined plan of action. I’ve razed my hair to within an inch of my scalp: a monastic look, I know, but somehow in tune with my cloistered state. I’ve trimmed my nails to the quick and discarded a cabinet full of salves and lotions in Favor of “99 per cent pure” Ivory soap.

Week 3: I’ve turned my back on the ascetic life, eating what I love: bananas in ripe quantities, dark chocolate, generous dollops of peanut butter mashed into just about everything. I’ve banished spandex and am wafting around my living space in an all-forgiving kaftan, congratulating myself for dispensing with other peoples’ notions of what a woman looks like.

With few beauty tools at hand, and no pressing reason to get gussied up, would I work more efficiently, reflect more profoundly and get in touch with my authentic self?

Still, I had to wonder: With few beauty tools at hand, and no pressing reason to get gussied up, would I work more efficiently, reflect more profoundly and get in touch with my authentic self? Femininity, it has been noted, is a performance (as transgender women know all too intimately). Would functioning without an audience make hash of our self-image? Would it undermine the foundations of our identity? Or would it free us to divert our energies in loftier directions? Who knows?

What I have learned during this interval is that it can be liberating, even enlightening, to sign on with a sisterhood – people of varying ages, racial and social backgrounds, professions and styles, openly engaging in a little self-neglect. We may be reminded of Germaine Greer, who famously said: “If a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have got? If she never takes off her high-heeled shoes, how will she ever know how far she could walk or how fast she could run?”

For years, outrageous social-media displays have aggravated Fomo, the fear of missing out. Now we can revel in the joy of letting go – technically Jolgo but, amalgamated with you only live once: Jolo!

“Some of us will regard this time as an opportunity to make changes we’ve been wanting to make,” says Carolyn Mair, the author of The Psychology of Fashion and a professor at London College of Fashion. “We may stop wearing high heels and shapewear. And, if we are feminists, we may see this as a chance to reflect on why we wear these things in the first place.”

We may also discover that we are surprisingly durable: the tougher sex, according to Sharon Moalem, a scientist and physician, who argued recently in the New York Times that, when it comes to survival, women lead with the advantage of a spare X chromosome that helps maintain vital functions in the brain and immune system.

I think about putting on lipstick, but then I ask myself: ‘why?’ Only the people at the supermarket are going to see you. And now that we have to wear masks, they’ll never know it’s you

But Moalem wasn’t taking into account the emotional adaptability that, in challenging times, allows us to drop our masks and, with them, the lavish indulgences that once seemed to prop up our lives. Many of us are mining the moment for laughs, skewering those self-care obsessives still mourning cancelled SoulCycle classes, ballooning hips and visible roots. There is bleak humour, after all, in doing less with less. “I think about putting on lipstick, but then I ask myself: ‘why?’” says Deborah Mitchell, a media and marketing consultant in her 50s. “Only the people at the supermarket are going to see you. And now that we have to wear masks, they’ll never know it’s you.”

Some have been struck all at once with the absurdity of primping. “Making up my face, I feel like I’m putting paint on a wall,” says Lindsay Goldwert, a year-40-old podcast host and the author of Bow Down: Lessons from Dominatrixes on How to Get Everything You Want. “Suddenly, painting on all those colours seems insane.”

And more than a few are venting pent-up resentments. Jody Crane a 66-year-old marketing researcher and strategist in California, has travelled this ascetic route before. While being treated for cancer in the early 2000s, “I couldn’t dye my hair for a year,” Crane says. “My skin was aging. And I thought, Oh my God, I’m going to be this old, fuzzy-haired kind of woman.”

Now, 20 years later, “I’m annoyed to find myself still thinking about these things,” Crane says. “Keeping up with expectations, other peoples’ and my own, is such a burden. Aren’t we burdened enough just trying to get through this difficult time?”

Illustration: Margaret Riegel/New York Times
Illustration: Margaret Riegel/New York Times

Ashley Longshore, who is 43, and an artist and entrepreneur in New Orleans, has little use these days for high-maintenance cosmetic rites. “No lashes, no nails, no underwear,” she says, exultant. Even manicures and pedicures, she says, have always been a pain. “These rituals chew up my most precious commodity: my time,” she adds, with some vehemence.

Lindsay Knapp, a 41-year-old social worker in Connecticut, has been feeling just as cheeky. “I haven’t worn a bra or make-up in almost two weeks,” she says. “I’m letting my greys grow in and not blow-drying my hair. That’s beyond empowering.”

Catherine Burgess, who is 71 and a literary consultant in Massachusetts, is dispensing with scarves, jewellery and the suddenly redundant notion of accessorising. “Since I’ve been diagnosed, via teleconference, as a probable Covid statistic, I’m doing away with bras,” she says, “though I may later feel societal pressure to return to some form of breast bondage.”

Undergarments have become optional, too, for Shanna Goldstein, the 48-year-old founder of a plus-size clothing line. “My husband and my best friend begged me not to admit that I haven’t been wearing a bra,” she says. For a fashion designer, her look has become surprisingly (and refreshingly) lax.

“I haven’t been reduced to a Slanket yet, but I am wearing a Onepiece,” Goldstein says. “I may never go back to real clothes. Not having to think about these things gives me that much more brain room to think about things like “Should I bake banana bread? What snacks will we be having with cocktail hour?”

You know, the important stuff. “Do I get on the scale every morning? Not so much. There is plenty of time for that post-Covid.”

My uniform through all this time has been leggings and a hoody, which leaves more time for baking blueberry muffins with my daughter and watching Disney classics on TV

Even Nicky Hilton Rothschild, the designer and American society figure, has been keeping things simple and focusing on cosier pursuits. “I haven’t worn make-up or blow-dried my hair,” the 36-year-old says. “I like seeing it in its natural state.” Although she did don a flowery frock for an Easter photo, “my uniform through all this time has been leggings and a hoody.” That casual approach, she says, “leaves more time for baking blueberry muffins with my daughter and watching all our favourite Disney classics on TV.”

Letting go tends to leave plenty of time for introspection, not all of it welcome. Karla Wright, who is 77 and a retired lawyer living in Greece, rarely studies herself in a mirror. “That hasn’t changed in this crisis,” Wright says. “What has changed is that I’m doing a bit of soul-searching. I think about the things that scare me. I keep having these visions of ventilators. I can get very anxious.”

Some of us are still finding reassurance in ritual and routine. “It can be a real slippery slope from not washing your hair to hanging out in a bathrobe all day,” Goldwert says.

Personal upkeep remains essential to Chelsea Frazier, a fellow in the English department at Cornell University and the founder of the online learning hub Ask an Amazon. “Beauty for me is 100 per cent performance of my blackness, my queerness, my femininity,” Frazier, who is 31, says. “A worldwide pandemic will certainly affect that. But it doesn’t eliminate it.”

“A lot of my beauty rituals are social,” she adds. “I’m contacting friends. We’re giving each other tips about how we’re dealing with our skin, what we’re doing with our hair. All of this sheltering in place is an opportunity for connection.”

And Marian Rivman, a 74-year-old communications consultant in New York, is religious about attending virtual classes in yoga and self-massage. “And I’m still wearing lipstick,” she says. “That’s who I am.” – New York Times

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