Essay: Navigating Beauty Routines During a Pandemic

”Could hair extensions make up for having to hide my smile?”
Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

Desperate to feel attractive while wearing a mask, I made a decision. With my smile hidden, I figured that left only my eyes and hair to make a lasting impression. I considered fake eyelashes, but worried they’d cause my sensitive eyes to turn red, completing the Hannibal Lecter effect. Glamming up my naturally thin locks with hair extensions seemed the better way to go.

My stylist was all in, finding silky swaths of real hair that not only matched the honey brown color she’d used on me for years but also added a few highlights for good measure. I opted for the tape-on style, reputed to be gentle yet robust enough to withstand even the strongest Santa Ana winds. When the salons were allowed to open again in the fall, I was one of her first clients allowed inside after passing the no-fever test at the door.

It all felt so Hollywood. Sitting in the salon chair, watching my everyday ’do get transformed into a thick, bouncy style I prayed I’d be able to repeat at home. Hey, this was as close to cheerleader status as I was going to get: I wanted to make it last. I floated out on a cloud of hairspray that fine day, certain my clever mask misdirection was complete.

Of course, with great hair comes great responsibility—and a surprising amount of maintenance, I soon found out. The once-mundane task of washing my hair was now like trying to navigate an obstacle course. One wrong move and ow! my fingers would snag an extension along with any surrounding strands it had become attached to. And don’t get me started on how much time the added hair needed to dry, making me long for the blow-and-go ease of my morning routine before the upgrade.

Still, I soldiered on, telling myself a few false starts were to be expected. Not to mention the precious lunch money I’d invested—funds my husband and I could’ve better used to stock up on toilet paper or support a local business hard hit by the pandemic.

Plus, I was more than a little embarrassed. How could I complain when it had been my so-called bright idea in the first place?

I couldn’t. So get a grip, I told myself. Turn on the ol’ curling iron, add some extra minutes to the morning ablutions, and enjoy the big-hair buzz while it lasted.

It lasted less than two weeks. Twelve days, to be exact, before I begged my stylist to take them off, take them all off. And not just for reasons already stated, or even the sobering discovery that my husband could no longer run his fingers through my hair.

Blame instead my depleted energy and patience worn thin after a total (pardon my language) poop fest of a year. Before all this started, I’d been a good sport about the cost and inconvenience of beauty. Now, I didn’t have the stomach for it. Gone were the days of high heels and Spanx. Health and safety, comfort and care: These were my new idols. Home-cooked meals and sunset walks with my husband, my newfound treasures.

Which made what happened in the PetSmart parking lot a few days post-extensions more interesting.

I’d driven there to get treats for our kitties, Ginger and Mary Ann. Before leaving the safety bubble of my car, I took one last look in the rearview mirror. Mask on? Check. Nose covered? Check. The braces-fixed smile Mom and Dad had paid a small ransom for hidden from view? *sigh* Check-check.

Maybe it was that random thought about my parents. Or maybe it was the article I’d read that morning about Las Vegas’s continued economic struggles. Either way, my glittery hometown came to mind as I climbed out of the car, triggering one of those “Remember who you are” Mufasa moments from “The Lion King,” because all life lessons lead back to Disney.

So who was I? A Vegas girl! Born and bred in the catwalk capital of the West, tall by age 12, and destined to be a showgirl were it not for the fact I was too shy to wear even a swimsuit in public.

I realized in that hot-flash moment that my self-confidence had run a little thin of late, too. I’ve had to be so careful for so long—treading lightly, looking both ways before I crossed the virus-laden street—that I’d forgotten how to step boldly into the day.

And so I sauntered, not walked, not shuffled, toward the pet store, keeping a smooth, hip-swinging gait to not upset my elaborate, if imaginary, showstopping headdress.

I was about halfway across when I heard it: a classic singsong wolf whistle from days of old. I almost stopped to look around but didn’t, figuring it was probably some jokester making fun of me and my wayward hips so out of place in a family-friendly shopping center. And even if it were for real … it was probably not for me.

Then again, why not?

Because one thing 2020 has taught us, I would argue, is that anything can happen, often before breakfast. It occurred to me I’d become so focused on what I had to work with above the mask, I’d forgotten what was below it: the tall, curvy, comfort-food-fed rest of me.

I smiled to myself, my only option these days, and completed my some-might-say drunken approach to PetSmart without further incident.

The next day, a friend commented on Zoom how good the extensions still looked. I didn’t correct her, preferring to think my new and improved attitude was the enhancement she believed she saw. Turns out in our bid to be too sexy for our masks, it’s not the locks, ladies; it’s the swagger. Spread the word

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