Life Hacks by Charles Assisi: Covid-19 and the maskara effect
In hard times, looking one’s best creates a semblance of control, normalcy. Usually lipstick sales boom; this time, it’s eye make-up.Updated: Jul 12, 2020 07:46 IST
I thought the jokes were greatly exaggerated, about the lengths to which people will go to look good on video calls. But how large an issue this is became obvious the other day, when I typed “How to look…” into the Google search bar, and among the top autocomplete suggestions was “…good on a video call”.
Even the algorithms have figured out that millions of people around the world are worried about how they appear to others, as we work and socialise via smart screens amid the pandemic.
Being compelled to appear on screen practically every day myself, it was inevitable that I would become a bit more vain too. After all, out in the real world we were not constantly confronted with pictures of our own faces; here, I see my digital avatar staring back at me constantly, and feel myself cringe over things like, for instance, the lack of a haircut.
A voice in my head began to ask, “What’s this obsession with looking even better than normal?” I mean, the economy is in free-fall. People are losing their jobs. Household debt is mounting. Friends have begun to say to one another, “Be grateful you still have work to do.”
Amid all this, does a massive narcissist lurk within, whom I just never acknowledged? Is this true of everyone?
Well, if you take a look backwards you will see that, through the history of our species, the urge to look good to other humans has been a primal one. Women are more unabashed about this, but the truth is we all feel it.
In times of anxiety and uncertainty, it often becomes one of the things we cling to — to indicate to others that we are doing okay, as well as to give ourselves a sense of normalcy, control and pleasure. To place that in context, during the four-year economic crisis that followed the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, lipstick sales doubled. In the wake of the global economic crisis of 2008, sales of cosmetics in China grew 116% in a single year (2009), the highest rate in its history.
This understanding of the human psyche pointed Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of the cosmetics company Estee Lauder, to predict that when times were bad, the consumption of relatively inexpensive cosmetics such as lipsticks would always boom. The figures would rise, he said, because lipstick becomes something the spirit needs when bad news abounds and other pleasures are gradually lost or taken away.
Dig deeper into history and heart-breaking narratives emerge. Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem holocaust remembrance centre, in a section of its online archive, documents the lives of the women held in concentration camps.
“By removing women’s hair… at Auschwitz, the Nazis deconstructed their personalities,” the commentary reads. “Nevertheless—when the murderers photographed women… the objects of the pictures suddenly tried to look their best, to lift their heads, to look forward, to straighten their hair. A tiny orange bead embellishes a prisoner’s garment. The woman who placed it there did so in order to feel like a person...”
We can only try to imagine what these women were going through, and yet that orange bead mattered; it made that human being feel more human, more seen, a tiny bit more in control.
My intent is not to equate that horror with our times, but only to suggest that even in the worst of times,we have within us an intrinsically human urge to look our best.
How else is it that, in the midst of the current pandemic, Lauder’s hypothesis holds? Things look bad. We now wear masks that cover most of our faces. Yet mascara and other cosmetics that enhance the eyes are seeing sales figures rise.
I’m not sure what I can do to enhance my look other than get a haircut. The wife has offered to pad the dark circles under my eyes with her make-up so that I don’t “look like a racoon on video calls”. I might take her up on that offer one of these days.
The writer is the co-founder of Founding Fuel and co-author of The Aadhaar Effect