One day, in the darkened center of COVID Winter, I let myself stew for eight hours in my small bathtub. 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. After the clay mask had dried, I rinsed it off and shaved my legs. The conditioner was then taken out of my hair. Finally, I pulled the drain to let the water go. I filled the tub again, applied a hydrating mask to my hair, and then applied another conditioner, despite it being scientifically impossible for my hair not to be more conditioned.
This might look like a luxurious spa day. It’s the kind of thing you can indulge in if you are single and don’t have children and have enough income to buy beauty products that contain ingredients such as snail or kelp. But there was another side to this ritual that was less about self-care as it was about self-preservation. It was less about delicate, wellness-minded escape than it was about my obsessive thoughts. It was less about the spa experience than about the terror and ambivalence that it was about.
These days would go by quickly for me while I was in quarantine. It would change from dark to light outside, so I applied and reapplied skin care treatments. I also brushed my hair 300x on each side and steam my face for hours, making it stay red for hours. It was something I could hold onto, a controlled environment in which I knew exactly what to expect. The rest of my life felt chaotic. As everyone else (literally everyone), I was hit with a series of increasingly stressful situations after COVID forced me to move into my home in April 2020. My job was terminated in a shocking and public manner. After a painful breakup, I was left with a lot of questions about my life, my relationships and the traumas that I had experienced. Although I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, it didn’t provide any relief. Finally, just before Thanksgiving 2020, my grandfather passed away from COVID. My family was plagued by immense grief and fracture, which neither we were able to adequately address and that prevented us from being able travel and gather.
I was a sloppy beauty guru. I used to shave, brush, apply, and splash my skin for days. I felt that my absurd beauty routine was the only thing that would keep me grounded. Subconsciously, I believed that directing all my energy to small tasks would help me get rid of the anxiety, guilt, and uncertainty over what was next.
A self-indulgent beauty regimen is a good way to get by on the What We Did in Quarantine spectrum. I was able to see that I didn’t need to leave my home to earn a living. I also knew that I didn’t have the burden of caring for sick children in a hospital. I didn’t have 18 months of worrying about my child’s safety. My beauty regimen was my version of a ‘sourdough starter’: a meaningless hobby of a wealthy person who took desperate, ritualistic forms. Several months later, some parts of my life feel more light.
The vaccines are here, yes, but we’re still hanging in limbo, waiting to see what the Delta variant will bring. Although we can leave our homes, there is still a high level of risk. I spend less time in the bathtub, but more time in my head. I wonder what darkly ritualistic behavior my chemically imbalanced brain will engage in if we don’t have to leave the house this winter. It was tempting to spend hours on my own with creams and serums, but it felt dead.
It seems that what we did in pre-vax COVID’s darkest months should be left behind, buried with all the other things. This is me saying goodbye. It is a little bit unhinged to write two eulogies in the space of one year – one for you and one for your grandfather. It’s also what a person can grieve over the past year-and-a half. The small, stupid rituals that tied us to existence when nothing else could, and the immense losses that left no room for escape.