Beauty often feels like a trivial and selfish thing to think about—especially in times of personal and/or global crisis—but for some, there is comfort to be found in it. “What makes self-care a powerful and therapeutic act is the opportunity to make time for the relationship we have with ourselves,” says Toronto-based psychotherapist Armita Hosseini. “Self-care can affirm our self-worth, enhance our self-awareness and help alleviate psychological distress and anxiety.”
The last time I found myself isolated from the rest of the world was when I was recovering from double hip replacement surgery ten years ago. For a month, I stayed in a rehabilitation hospital room with three other women and had no privacy beyond a thin curtain. Other than physiotherapy appointments down the hall and some short walks around the floor, I was bed-bound. I expected to be able to go home after two weeks, but had an accident that undid all of my progress. One by one, I watched my original roommates recover and be replaced with new patients. Having little control over my circumstances, my depression and anxiety quickly caught up with me. One evening, an angelic nurse named Valerie offered to rub lotion on my back to soothe my dry, tight skin. This small act of kindness meant the world to me and changed my entire outlook. I slept better that night—not just because of Valerie’s tender touch, but because my skin no longer itched against the starchy sheets. From then on, I decided to make small acts of self-care a priority.
My hospital beauty routine wasn’t anything fancy—it involved just a few basic products, unlike the 10-step K-beauty routines that have since become popular—but it allowed me to reconnect with myself daily. Every morning, I’d spray a few spritzes of dry shampoo onto my roots and apply some hydrating lip balm. At night, I’d use cleansing wipes to freshen up and lotion to soothe my dry skin. My morning and evening beauty routines were an accessible form of self-care, and the fact that I didn’t need to drag myself to the shared washroom to do any of it made life easier. Beyond that, taking the time to put on a lightly scented lotion and run a comb through my hair kept me feeling like myself, giving me a connection to my pre-surgery life and making me feel a little more at home in the cold, clinical environment.
I still look for comfort in beauty rituals whenever I need to find myself again. After every break-up, loss of friendship or professional disappointment, I turn to the same few steps: cleanse, cry, moisturize. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been moments where it feels like I’m back where I was ten years ago, except that, this time, the entire world is in isolation, too. During this period of uncertainty, anger, anxiety and grief, one of the only times I feel totally in control is when I close the bathroom door at the end of the night to begin my skincare routine. Massaging a mud cleanser onto my face and being extra gentle with myself reminds me to be present in the moment. That right here, right now, I’m okay. It gives me time to focus on how much I have to be thankful for: my family and my friends, my adopted dog Bigsby, access to clean water, summer sunshine. And let’s be honest: There’s something therapeutic about having a good cry while the water is running and no one can hear you.
I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that I can mask all my troubles away—it’s important to acknowledge that there’s more to self-care than skincare and bubble baths. The term “self-care” itself evolved from a medical term in the 1950s and was made popular in 1988 by Audre Lorde, who, as she battled cancer, famously wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Over the last decade, the term self-care—and Lorde’s quote—has been co-opted by the wellness industry, which has simplified it, changed its focus and made it something to be shared on pastel-coloured Instagram feeds. These days, self-care means different things to different people, from taking steps to improve mental and physical health to taking a long nap to sinking into a warm bubble bath. Also important to note: Taking time for self-care shouldn’t become an all-encompassing excuse for ignoring social injustices. The point is not to coddle ourselves into thinking the world is just fine, because it’s very much not. For me, it’s about maintaining the mind-body connection so that I can make sure I have the energy to take action.
Not having control over a situation—no matter what it is—is frightening. There are days when it feels near impossible to drag myself out of bed. Showering is no longer a daily occurrence— it takes too much energy. Taking care of yourself doesn’t always feel joyful. It’s okay to cry through the whole process. It’s okay for our commitment to our self-care routines to fluctuate wildly from day to day. It’s okay not to have the energy to do it. It’s okay to find solace in it. It’s okay not to want to do it at all, ever. But if I do nothing else for myself in a day, applying coconut-scented hand cream after each hand-washing session is at least enough to make me more comfortable in my own skin—literally. And with almost every other daily routine thrown off by a months-long lockdown, basic skincare and beauty rituals can still serve as markers in the day, whether it’s a morning face wash or a pre-bedtime serum application.
Thinking back to the last time I was separated from the ones I loved, I remember how much these small rituals helped. Ten years ago, a little hand cream and some dry shampoo went a long way in making me feel like myself again. As things slowly begin to reopen, marking what will hopefully be the end of total isolation, I keep reminding myself that it’s okay to find comfort in small luxuries when things get chaotic.