In The Midst of the Pandemic, I Finally See Myself

woman in brown and white floral long-sleeved shirt

My face has been meant for the world’s eyes for so many years, as if it were an invitation. A minor personal miracle happened in the midst a worldwide pandemic: I found that I like my face without makeup. It was already a favorite of mine. Bold fuchsia lipstick gave my face a feeling of power. It was as if I had suddenly become bold and daring. I had my eyelashes curled with mascara and my eyelids darkened with shadows. There were shades of rich browns and aubergine on my eyelids, and dots of gold glitter at each tear duct. All of this was a delight, even if it had become a routine and a way to control. I could make sure that I didn’t look wobbly from the inside if I felt like I was. Being well-constructed was a form protection.

woman in brown and white floral long-sleeved shirt

Over the past year and half, I felt quite wobbly. Los Angeles was put under lockdown in March. Soon enough, I only used makeup for Zoom class. What was the point of it? Whether I was at home wearing sweatpants, waiting in a long queue outside Trader Joe’s or simply walking around the same block in a futile attempt to get my steps in each day, it didn’t matter what my face looked. Makeup was no comfort in the face of anxiety and fear that became our new normal.

The semester was over. Summer arrived and the pandemic continued. Every day my face met me in the mirror, even without makeup. There was no place to go, there was no reason to make my eyes shadowed or put lipstick on my lips — I would hide my mouth under a mask if I ventured outside. There was also the sadness, the loneliness, and the hapless longing for the old life. My real skin with visible pores and blemishes, as well as the dark circles under my eyes due to lack of sleep seemed to be the perfect match for these difficult, uneasy emotions. I was depressed and looked like it.

In the years that I had been putting on makeup every day, I started to see my clea face as just my “tired” face. I had to make my face look more vibrant, alive and energetic. Before the pandemic, my skin was private. Only my friends and strangers in the locker rooms saw it occasionally. An intimacy for lovers: Sunday morning coffee with my Sunday face after I’ve spent Saturday night in bed.

My face has been a symbol of my humanity for so many years. It was as if I had extended an invitation. Yes, I wanted my face to be beautiful. It was a part of the equation that makeup was necessary. Although it would be untrue to claim that I wore makeup to please me, it would be inaccurate to state that I did so with the intention of gaining admiration from others. Both were impossible, but I managed to navigate it as honestly as possible, trying to understand the desire for confidence and less wobbly. It was difficult to discern what was real from what was performance. It was work, just like writing or teaching. We touch the invisible corridors between the interior, the exterior and our minds. This allowed us to map the transactions and compromises between our bodies and our minds and how we live. I wanted to be looked upon, but I was more interested in being seen.

Many of the social and routine structures that kept us together before the pandemic collapsed in 2020 were lost: schools, workplaces; gatherings for community affiliations; religious gatherings. I was absent for days and sometimes weeks. I kept in touch via phone calls and text messages with my friends, but it came to a point where another invitation for virtual happy hours made me grumble. I was the only one who looked at me for the first time in a very long time. Only me, I looked at myself.

In that blurry, tired time, something happened. My face was normal, unadorned. My “tired” facial features. My Sunday-morning, vacation, and bedtime faces. It was so long since I had seen this face in the mirror. It was unadorned and I suddenly saw it. It was there, my mother’s soft eyes and my father’s high cheekbones. With lovingly practiced penmanship, my grandparents have also left their signatures. What I saw was very pleasing to me. It was like a return to some obvious truth that I had forgotten or been pretending not to know.

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