There was one day in the dead, dark centre of COVID winter when I let myself stew in my tiny bathtub for the better part of eight hours. Before climbing in, I steamed my face, did a few extractions, and put on a clay mask to shrivel up whatever else was lurking inside my pores. In the tub, I exfoliated my skin and conditioned my hair. When the clay mask was dry, I rinsed it off, shaved my legs, got the conditioner out of my hair, and pulled the drain to send the filmy, stubbled water on its way. I then refilled the tub, put on a hydrating mask, and applied another conditioner, despite the fact that it was scientifically impossible for my hair to be any more conditioned.
At first glance, this might seem like some ultra-luxurious spa day, the kind you get to indulge in when you live alone and don’t have kids and have enough disposable income to purchase beauty products with ingredients like snail and kelp. But there was another side to this ritual that was less about self-care as it was about self-preservation; less about delicate, wellness-minded escapism than the urge to escape my own obsessive thoughts; and less about enjoying a spa day than it was about languishing in ambivalence and terror.
There would be a lot of these days for me in quarantine. Sometimes, it would go from light to dark outside while I applied and reapplied skin-care treatments, brushed my hair 300 times on each side, and steamed my face for so long, it stayed red for hours. It became something I could cling to, a controlled situation in which I knew what to expect, step by step, whereas the rest of my life felt like it was short circuiting. Like everyone (literally, everyone) else, after COVID forced us all into our homes in March 2020, a series of increasingly stressful events befell me. My job ended in what could only be described as an abrupt and public way. I went through a very painful breakup that sent me into a mental and spiritual tailspin about myself, my relationships, and the traumas I’d experienced. I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder as well as attention deficit disorder, which certainly provided some explanation for the thought loops and mental chaos, but the awareness didn’t exactly provide relief. And finally, right around Thanksgiving 2020, my grandfather died quickly and alone after being diagnosed with COVID. Enormous grief and fracture ran through my family, neither of which we could adequately address while not being able to travel and gather.
By the time winter rolled around, I brushed, smoothed, splashed, shaved, and applied obsessively, for days and days in a row. My absurd beauty routine felt like the only thing that could keep me grounded. Subconsciously I hoped that funnelling all of my energy into small tasks would relieve the anguish, guilt, and uncertainty about what was coming next.
On the spectrum of What We Did In Quarantine, a self-indulgent beauty routine is getting off pretty easy. I knew I didn’t have to leave my house to make a living, I didn’t have to treat sick patients in an overcrowded hospital, I didn’t have to spend 18 months fearing for the life of my child while also not knowing what to do with them being home all the time. My beauty routine was my own version of a sourdough starter: a privileged person’s meaningless hobby that took desperate, ritualistic form. Now, months later, certain parts of life feel lighter.
The vaccines are here, yes, but we’re still hanging in limbo, waiting to see what the Delta variant will bring. We can leave our houses, but still with an unsettling level of risk. I spend less time in the tub, but probably the same amount of time in my own head, wondering what sort of darkly ceremonial behaviour will grip my chemically imbalanced brain if we can’t leave our houses this winter. I contemplated allowing hours and hours to dote on myself with serums and creams, but something about it feels dead and gone.
What we all did in the deepest, inky black months of pre-vax COVID seems like it should be left there, buried in the dirt with everything else. I guess this is me saying goodbye. It feels ever so slightly unhinged to write two eulogies — one for your beauty routine, and one for your grandfather — in the span of a year. Then again, it’s what a person can grieve from the last year-and-a-half; the small, silly private rituals that tethered us to existence when little else did, and the losses so incomprehensibly huge there’s no bathtub big enough to escape them.