Why self-care priorities are shifting during the pandemic

Self-care doesn't have to be skin deep. The concept has taken on new meaning and new expressions during the pandemic as people spend more time alone. 

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
Cashier Druhan Parker (center) attends to shoppers behind a plexiglass shield at an Ulta beauty store on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, Nov. 19, 2020. The beauty industry has seen a shift in consumer behavior as sales of skincare have overshadowed makeup this year.

These days, amid a pandemic, this is what life can look like:

Staring at your face on Zoom for hours instead of occasionally glimpsing it in the mirror. Living out the days in loungewear. Wearing minimal makeup because no one sees much of you. Considering an investment in home exercise equipment because gyms are closed or restricted.

The pandemic has forced people to spend more time with themselves than ever. Along the way, it has reshaped and broadened the way many think about and prioritize how they treat themselves – what has come to be called self-care.

The pandemic-era incarnation of self-care isn’t about buying a signature outfit, wearing a trendy shade of lipstick, or getting a perfect haircut. It has, for many, put the purpose and meaning of life front and center, reconfiguring priorities and needs as the months drift by. And it's given people permission to indulge in “me” time: stress-baking the latest viral creation, tending to a garden, learning a new skill, getting dressed like you’re going out just to feel some semblance of normalcy. Lockdowns have created the space for reflection through long walks in nature, meditation, and prayer. Quiet time, hobbies, or even reading poetry can help remind people they have inner strength. 

“People are social beings. And while the social fabric has been torn down, and you can’t be a normal social person, you have been more focused on yourself,” says Rod Little, CEO of Edgewell Personal Care, which makes Schick and Bull Dog products. “It’s beautifying for longevity, as opposed to how I look in the office tomorrow.”

Beyond the ‘lipstick index’

Self-care isn’t a new fad. The difference is that pre-pandemic, it could fall by the wayside if a to-do list got crowded. Now, eight months into the new reality, it is a priority. After all, the thinking goes: If we’re not taking care of ourselves, how can we do jobs, parent children, care for loved ones?

For those who have the means – and that’s no small caveat during this pandemic – feeling good can mean looking good. And the widespread isolation has produced new trends in beauty and clothing.

Companies like Signet Jewelers and Blue Nile are seeing a surge in sales of earrings, which are visible on video calls and when people are out wearing face masks. Department stores like Kohl’s and Macy’s are expanding casual clothing offerings as more people stay close to home.

During the pandemic, makeup sales have been rocky, and sales of skincare products are up. In fact, 70% of consumers scaled back their use of makeup this year, according to the NPD Group Inc., a market research firm. As a result, skincare has eclipsed makeup as the top category in the beauty industry’s market share from January through August.

And companies are responding accordingly. Beauty chains like Ulta and department stores like Macy’s are ramping up offerings in moisturizers and bath and body products. Walmart teamed up with Unilever, maker of Dove and Suave, to launch shops called “Find Your Happy Place” aimed at customers looking to destress. The concept, in the works before the pandemic, was accelerated by one year.

Says Esi Eggleston Bracey, chief operating officer of Unilever North America’s personal care and beauty division: “This is a wellness revolution.”

A deeper importance

How deep does this run? Is all the pandemic self-care working, or are people are just going through haphazard motions? One psychologist compares it to a roller coaster – up on some days, down on others.

“Some days, you have a great day when you did all the things you wanted to do. You got up on time, you made a salad. And then the next day, it’s Cheetos for lunch,” says Dr. Vaile Wright, a senior director at the American Psychological Association.

Being kind to one’s self feels especially important during the pandemic, where every aspect of human life has been impacted and there is little control over what’s next. That level of uncertainty is unnerving, Dr. Wright says, and further depletes already limited energy levels.

Self-care, of course, is only one dimension of coping during stressful times. 

“Having a toolbox of coping skills is really critical,” Dr. Wright says. She highlights other types of self-care like meditation, journaling, and organizing – each of which has its own culture and committed practitioners. “We have a tendency to isolate emotionally. It is really important that people don’t do that.”

Ultimately, “self-care” contains as many definitions as there are people who take care of themselves – a Google search of the term will show you that. The World Health Organization takes an expansive view, describing it as a “broad concept” that includes hygiene, lifestyle, social habits, income levels, and cultural beliefs – and, in the best cases, can “strengthen national institutions” to encourage a society’s overall health.

As the world navigates a web of unknowns that sometimes feels like the Upside Down in the television series “Stranger Things,” there is one thing that people can do something about: themselves. For all the horror the pandemic has brought, it has also revealed things that matter. And from the way people have reacted through this year, it seems clear that, in all the forms it takes, self-care matters – particularly right now, particularly with so many unknowns still ahead.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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