The Pressure To Look Good After Lockdown Is Unbearable

Illustrated by Megan Drysdale
Once the vaccine rollout began, hope crept in. Even with delays to the vaccination programme, that hope has stuck around, but bound up with all the (tentative) excitement about face-to-face socializing and – for some – a return to the office, came a distinct panic about our appearance.
As if navigating the virus risks and worrying about whether we’ll have anything to say to each other aren’t enough, there’s the undeniable pressure to look our best post-lockdown. Amid the outrageous party memes are quips about how dire our dress sense has become, how much we’ve aged and how much weight we’ve gained. Since the government’s masterstroke of giving us a four-month run-up to the #hotgirlsummer of all summers, the deluge has been hard to ignore.
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Those who had searched anything tangentially related to beauty on Instagram were assailed with ads explaining how to fix 'lockdown face' and cover wayward grey hairs. Beauty brands and salons wasted no time in hyping up treatment offers alongside galleries of before-and-after shots. And of course, the more you click, the more you’re fed. But it’s not just advertisers spewing anxiety-inducing before-and-after comparisons. My iPhone has been particularly efficient lately in presenting me with unsolicited photo montages. Why wouldn’t I want a string quartet soundtrack as I contemplate whether I look older, more haggard, sad or unkempt than in selfies from this time last year?

The popularity of 'tweakments'

For months, many of us have been dreaming about our chrysalis-to-butterfly moment but it seems we're planning to go beyond a mani-pedi. I have friends who are making 'get done' lists, from microdermabrasion facials to CoolSculpting for quick-fix weight loss, and they aren't the only ones. Save Face, the national register of accredited aesthetic professionals, saw a 37% increase in people researching nonsurgical procedures (aka 'tweakments', which include filler and Botox) after the government's announcement. London-based cosmetic practitioner Dr. Vincent Wong’s phone is ringing off the hook as old and new clients rush to book appointments ahead of June.
Dr. Wong explains that Botox and hyaluronic injections are the most popular among his clients in their 20s and 30s, closely followed by lip filler. But why the surge in newbies? "Most women aren’t wearing makeup [during lockdown] so they may be seeing fine lines, discolouration – anything that was previously concealed by makeup – as if for the first time," Dr. Wong says. According to a study by No7, 82% of women are wearing less makeup and 56% go for a more minimal look for video calls during the pandemic. 
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In 'normal' times, we might talk out our insecurities with friends at the pub. Now, we're facing them alone in our lockdown silos, compounding already spiralling emotions.

While filler has been popular among a younger cohort for some time, lockdown has changed the demographic of women seeking tweakments. Discussing the so-called 'Zoom Boom', Ashton Collins, the co-director of Save Face, says: "We’ve seen a shift towards a more professional-aged group of people who are on constant video calls, which, let’s face it, can be unflattering even on the most attractive." Ashton adds: "The video calling has undoubtedly driven their huge interest in procedures and they are mostly asking for Botox to look a bit fresher."

Comparison culture

Since it was announced that the beauty industry is opening up again, salon app Treatwell has experienced a 1,645% increase in bookings as many of us make a beeline for hair, nail and facial treatments and everything in between. These treatments are undoubtedly enjoyable, rejuvenating and, more recently, much-needed acts of self-care. But with June looming, the notion that we should all emerge from our homes looking picture-perfect is a stressful and unrealistic ideal.
As well as getting her hair, nails and eyelash extensions done, 21-year-old Lauren is contemplating post-lockdown lip filler. "My top lip is really small and when I smile, I lose it. Now that the majority of women my age have had lip fillers, it emphasizes the fact I haven’t. In group pictures, I feel really self-conscious about my lips." Lauren isn't alone in comparing herself to friends. Twenty-eight-year-old Georgia* thinks this will intensify once lockdown lifts. "I know that I'll be in so many pictures when we can head to bars again," she says. "There's so much peer pressure to look amazing and have a major lockdown glow-up. It feels like everyone I know is booking in for something, whether it's a hair transformation or injectables. Since the announcement was made, I've been targeted by loads of treatment ads on Instagram, particularly lip filler, and even though I can't afford that right now, I'm very tempted, especially as everyone else is doing it."
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Tweakments can be great when done safely but if you are considering anything, it pays to do your research and, of course, to do it for the right reason: because you want to. Rushing into things as a result of pressure or feeling as though you should be doing something can be dangerous. Dr Wong recommends using the consultation (a prerequisite to any good procedure) with a registered professional to make all your wishes clear. "Don’t hold back and make sure all of your concerns are addressed,” he says. "No matter how small or weird it may sound, practitioners have experience dealing with these issues and there’s nothing a patient could say that would surprise us." Your specialist will then be able to recommend an appropriate treatment and any medical skincare to enhance the procedure. Equally, if they cannot deliver what you require, an ethical practitioner will not hesitate to turn you away. 

From Instagram to IRL interaction

Beyond comparison culture, a proliferation of new skin-tracking apps, not to mention TikTok beauty tutorials and Instagram Reels on how to make your lips appear bigger or eradicate lockdown body hair may also be amping up beauty anxiety, providing more data with which to critique ourselves. The ongoing digital bombardment feels toxic to the fragile relationship between body image and mental health, which has taken a pummelling during the pandemic. In ‘normal’ times, we might talk out our insecurities with friends at the pub. Now, we’re facing them alone in our lockdown silos, compounding already spiralling emotions. Women have spent the past year navigating a different relationship with their appearance and body confidence without some of the pressure of societal influences. The Big Return risks replacing that positive progression with turbocharged insecurity.
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Women have spent the past year navigating a different relationship with their appearance and body confidence without some of the pressure of societal influences. The Big Return risks replacing that positive progression with turbocharged insecurity.

Nalea, 33, has become more aware of signs of ageing in her skin in recent months and agrees that the digital sphere is a contributor. "There’s been more time to browse on social media and all the filters have made me look at myself more critically," she says. "I've never been concerned about my features but I am about my skin." Nalea is planning on getting the injectable hyaluronic acid treatment Profhilo, and is also looking into radio frequency, ultrasound, microneedling and mesotherapy. "It was when we heard that things would open up that I really started considering it," she adds. Similarly, Jamieson, 34, is working through why she’s considering tweakments when lockdown lifts. "My body image and the way I see myself has actually improved," she says. "However, having never really filmed myself before, I’ve started a TikTok account and that has made me more self-conscious about forehead lines." Jamieson has had a consultation but hasn’t made up her mind yet. She says: "Is my desire for Botox just for me because I like the way it looks? I hope it’s because I’m making a choice about what I want and not because I exist within a world that values youthful-looking women."

The link between stress and skin

Perceived ageing isn’t the only impact of emotional distress on our skin. Psychodermatologist Dr. Alia Ahmed, who specializes in skin and mental health, has seen more stress-exacerbated hair loss, known as alopecia areata, as well as acne and facial rashes. This is generating extremely high levels of anxiety in some patients whose worries about their skin and its response (or lack of) to treatment are all-consuming. It can be overwhelming to see Instagram flogging us a buffet of aesthetic perfection, from serums to enhance already blemish-free faces to trends such as 'glass skin'. The pressure to get hair and skin in tip-top condition and emerge from lockdown with a clear, glowing complexion is real.
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R29's beauty editor, Jacqueline, knows this all too well. "Thanks to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and the anxiety of returning to 'normal', my skin is in a bad place at the moment," she said. "I have been a little anxious and even embarrassed about returning to the office with breakouts, especially as the beauty industry places a big focus on a 'summer glow' or 'summer ready' skin. We have so much on our plates, like returning to work and adapting to the new normal, so the pressure to look great or 'better than before' is unbearable, not to mention ludicrously expensive."

The invisible 'should' – whether it comes from peer pressure, social media or the need to enact change after feeling powerless for so long – will suck the joy out of our unfurling freedoms if we let it.

In fact, anyone with an existing skin condition like psoriasis, acne or eczema may have seen symptoms increase because of lockdown-related stress. While flare-ups may fade away when we return to some semblance of normality, Dr. Ahmed says that stress-related issues can continue long after the initial stressor has resolved. As a result, those with skin conditions are at a higher risk of developing poor psychological health, she adds. As well as seeking professional help from a GP or dermatologist if possible, Dr. Ahmed encourages us to think about why we feel a certain way about our skin. It is unlikely that the billion-dollar beauty industry will stop bombarding us with images of blemish-free faces but maintaining a positive environment is a great place to start. It might be time to unfollow that celeb with flawless skin and give yourself a much-needed break.
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Everything has changed, including our appearance

There is no denying that the strain of the past year has been immense. It might catch us unawares in a supermarket queue, sneak up on us as we drop off to sleep or, for many, taint every moment. Everything is different so why would we expect to look the same as a year ago? We’ve experienced loneliness, long-distance relationships, job losses, grief and an unrelenting news cycle. Forty-four percent of women between 25 and 34 years old say that lockdown has aged them. No one has had an easy ride and it has taken a toll on our appearance, but that's entirely normal.
Personally, I'll borrow from the principles of body neutrality and hope to focus on what my body has achieved, not how ‘good’ it looks, to quell negative thoughts as I nudge toward a social life. The invisible 'should' – whether it comes from peer pressure, social media or the need to enact change after feeling powerless for so long – will suck the joy out of our unfurling freedoms if we let it. The face that made friends feel less alone on endless video calls, the eyes that took joy from the simplest things, the skin that gave me the heads up when it all got too much will be the same features I’ll catch in a car door or shop window and think, Yup, that’ll do, as I hurry to wherever my presence is required next. 
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Here’s hoping we’ll be too high on speaking without needing to unmute, listening without cutting out and basking in the presence of loved ones to stress about society’s next definition of 'perfect'. Maybe laughter lines won’t be the worst post-lockdown look. 
*Name has been changed
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.

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