How important is your image when nobody is looking?

16 Apr 2020

What social distancing could mean for style, beauty and personal care rituals during C-19 and beyond

by Alice Mathews and Rose Crabb


“Now we have to be able to go into work mode and be professional from the place where we sometimes eat chips that fall into our sweatshirts”   

Blog, US


Chances are your style, beauty and personal care routines are going through some changes right now. But with everything that is going on at the moment, sartorial and beauty decisions might seem, at best, irrelevant.

Our analysis of online conversations over the last few weeks suggests that this is not the case. Beauty, grooming and style are still indelibly linked to the existential (our identity, our purpose) and the essential (our work and professional lives).

The usual conditions in which we live – and that help us to understand who we are and what we are all about – have shifted beyond measure. The PAUSE button has been pressed on life ‘outside’ and we must (depending on our circumstances) play out the full spectrum of our professional and private selves in the confines of a singular domestic space.

It is known that beauty and grooming is part of a process of identity creation, or negotiation. It is undeniable that rituals play a key role in the punctuation and the psychological, social and practical management of our lives. With this in mind, we were curious about how beauty, grooming and style practices are playing out: How they are adapting and mutating, disappearing or providing solace in tough times and how brands might adapt their dialogue and purpose during or post lockdown.

Building on our recent COVID-19 projects (‘human stories’ and ‘the new normal’) we’ve run some additional work to ‘deep-dive’ into the impact of social distancing on style, beauty and personal care and what this means for brands playing in this space going forward.

The following are some initial highlights from this work. If you want to find out more about this and see what it might mean for your brand and category then get in touch.


Style, beauty and personal care during social distancing can be about…



“I've been wearing some everyday, usually bronzer in the crease and blush, just to keep a sense of normalcy. It calms me somehow, and I need as much calm as I can muster.” 

Blog, US

There is no ‘generalised’ response to the current situation, least of all not in how we retain our sense of self.  From exposure to front-line danger to complete isolation, from jobless to round-the-clock working, from asymptomatic to intubated and ventilated, there is a spectrum of many extremes, along which we are all trying to function.  Slipping into beauty and fashion as a means to ‘return’ to ourselves feels reassuring and nurturing. But it also appears frivolous or selfish to publicise this, which leaves the Insta influencers with very twitchy thumbs…


“..things i learned about life: - wearing a full face of makeup and a party dress with house slippers to make pasta is a perfectly acceptable coping mechanism in this dark timeline” 

Social media, US



Style, beauty and personal care during social distancing can be about…



“Getting up and getting dressed is good for the soul it will make you feel put together and in work mode”

Blog, UK

At this time of crisis, style, beauty and personal care helps us to embody different versions of ourselves and to demarcate the different activities that make up our lives.

Beauty rituals are themselves a liminal space, helping us move between different parts of our lives and versions of ourselves. As some of the other transformative spaces in our lives disappear (e.g. the morning commute), are these routines becoming invested with even greater significance?

With so much else suspended, can our beauty and grooming habits – and the version of ourselves that they help us achieve – help anchor us in a place and face of familiarity?



Style, beauty and personal care during social distancing can be about…



Might we bear witness to an intensification of investment in our bodies? The body is something tangible, that can be acted on at a time when we are rendered helpless. Will nourishment and protection (and brands that offer these benefits) temporarily become the new means of investment in face, hair, skin, as we have jumped off the treadmill and have time to think about what to prioritise / adjust / invest in?



Style, beauty and personal care during social distancing can be about…



Instead, might we see a renegotiation of beauty ideals? New ways of working render us vulnerable in new ways. On every Zoom call we expose ourselves and our lives – right down to our bedrooms and our bare faces. How will we go back once we have seen the stripped back reality of ourselves and others?

Or is the pressure still there – maybe even intensified? We already lived much of our lives online. You Tube was already full of tutorials for makeup looks designed to impress on Instagram rather than real life, and if you don’t have time for that there are filters. Anyone who has seen themselves on video conferencing knows its blanching and flattening effect –  thank god for the Image Perfecting function!

There is an immense curiosity to see and experience how the titans of self-image – the celebrities – are dealing with quarantine, through detailed online tutorials, ‘face-mask and chilll’ YouTube channels and influencers desperate to retain followers. Advocacy to ‘natural’ beauty is growing along with the curiosity and revelation of what we – and them – really look like once several layers of enhancement and fakery have been peeled back.


"While the beauty routines we once knew begin to submit to quarantine, celebrities’ natural hair textures are triumphantly emerging from underneath the usual protective hairstyles, extensions, and wigs we usually see them in."

Social media, US



Style, beauty and personal care during social distancing can be about…



One thing is certain – the queues outside hair salons will rival those currently outside supermarkets once lockdown rules are relaxed. But will we be cautious about ‘hands-on’ beauty and style practices?  Is there a need to review and sanitise the tools and methods we use? Will applying a face of make-up on a packed train with repeated hand-to-face contact be relinquished not only as a sign of poor social etiquette but also irresponsible and unsafe?


“People will buy hundreds of dollars worth of makeup, hair, outfits, etc...and nitpick the eff out of a "look" in hopes of impressing people (don't act like I'm lying -- it's true), yet when it comes to saving lives by staying on top of having proper hygiene and practicing social distancing, they can't be bothered”

Social media, UK



Style, beauty and personal care during social distancing can be about…



Apart from all of this though what has also come through strongly is that beauty can be an act just for oneself, and a source of joy – and at a time like this who could ask for more than that?


“Sometimes, I'll start reading the news more and panicking more and then I'll put on a red lip or a sparkly eye to make myself feel better :D

Blog, US


We are just starting to see how new experiences and behaviours are shaping people’s approach to style beauty and personal care and there’s plenty more insight we can share with you.  If you want to find out more about this and see what it might mean for your brand and category then get in touch


Written by Alice Mathews
Qual researcher with a passion for people, trends and culture having studied anthropology at Oxford University and UCL.

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