SALT LAKE CITY — “Who’s scruffy looking?” Han Solo famously asked in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
We now know the answer. In the second month of a global pandemic, almost everyone is.
With most states shutting down hair salons, spas and other beauty-related businesses to battle COVID-19, Americans are cutting and dying their own hair. They’re bemoaning “quarantine bangs” on social media. They’re painting their own nails and waxing their own eyebrows, sometimes to disastrous effect. In one city, women were sneaking through the back door of a “closed” beauty salon, until city officials showed up and issued citations.
Times are so desperate that even glamorous and wealthy stars are looking a little scruffy these days.
“Where is my hairdresser Megan? Where is my makeup artist? Where is my colorist? Where is my manicurist?” Martha Stewart recently moaned on Instagram.
While the loss of makeup artists and manicures may seem trivial in a time when thousands of Americans are dying from COVID-19, these little rituals are actually important components of our lives, and personal grooming is essential to all mammals, not just to human beings.
Grooming is part of maintaining health, and beauty services aren’t just about how we look. They are a means by which we create order and discipline in our lives, signal our status and worth, and develop meaningful relationships. For some people, a monthly hair appointment or biweekly manicure might be the only time they’re physically touched by other human beings.
So instead of feeling guilt or despair about quarantine hair, there are things you can do to feel and look better. Some, but not all, involve scissors.
Acts of intimacy
For some people, the pandemic has given them an excuse to embrace their inner hippie and grow out their hair. That’s not happening for U.S. Marines who were recently filmed standing in line for haircuts at Camp Pendleton in California. The footage was controversial, not just because the Marines weren’t all standing 6 feet away from each other, but also because some people questioned why haircuts are essential at this time.
Speaking at a press briefing at the Pentagon, Army Gen. Mark Milley used the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima as an example of why he believes haircuts are important.
“That Marine victory was the result of incredible discipline of America’s 911 force and the expeditionary force. It may seem superficial to some, but getting a haircut is part of that discipline,” Jeff Schogol reported for Task and Purpose, an online magazine that covers the U.S. military.
While buzz cuts are often associated with the military, the style is newly popular during the pandemic as some people have decided they don’t want to worry about their hair at all right now, The Guardian reported. In a feature accompanied by a video, The New York Times taught people how to give themselves a buzz cut, and the CEO of Walmart has said that people are now panic-buying hair clippers, as well as hair color.
The desire to groom ourselves doesn’t just stem from the desire to please our boss or partner, but is biological compulsion, said Jennifer Verdolin, an author and scientist who specializes in animal behavior.
Cockroaches scrub their antennae to remove secretions that interfere with their sense of smell. Chimpanzees groom each other to remove parasites and to keep their skin and hair healthy. Social bonding also appear to be part of mutual grooming, or allogrooming, among primates, research suggests, and the relationships that human beings form with their beauty service providers are similarly important, Verdolin said.
“Many people develop relationships because the very act of grooming is very intimate. Of course, there’s hygienic benefits if we’re getting a facial or spa treatment, but beyond that, among other species, the more you get groomed, the better your position. There might be a social-status component to the desire to be groomed, or to have access to these services,” she said.
“That’s not to shame anybody; it’s just a fact. We wrap up our identity and our status in those services, and that’s actually quite common in other species. Those who are higher in status get groomed more often by others.”
Moreover, as in animals, the physical touching that goes on in grooming rituals has a soothing effect; when we are touched, our bodies release oxytocin, which helps us bond with others.
During this time of enforced separation, “people may be missing that,” Verdolin said. “And many hairstylists will be missing their clients for the exact same reason. Aside from the financial impact, they miss their clients. There’s such a social component to hair salons.”
For people who live alone and rely on the companionship of a service provider, or who may be frail and unable to do something like trim their toenails, the loss of these services is much more than an inconvenience.
“For people who live alone, the simple act of having someone washing your hair provides physical contact,” Verdolin said. For others, looking a certain way can be an important part of their identity. “Grooming is for bonding, grooming is for hygiene and grooming is for companionship. We can clean ourselves, of course, so it’s really the other two.”
Doing your nails
Anna Fielding, an executive administrative assistant for an accounting firm in Salt Lake City, uses her hands a lot in her work, and so how her fingernails look are important.
“I don’t dye my hair, I don’t do my eyebrows or have fake lashes,” she said. But, until the pandemic, “I haven’t not had my nails done for years.”
Fielding gets a special kind of manicure that is done with a gel polish that lasts for two weeks or more; the polish has to be dried under ultraviolet light and won’t come off with regular polish remover. When her regular salon, Nailed! in Salt Lake City, was about to close, the employees distributed special kits to clients, touch-free and curbside, with products to help them remove the polish. But after that, she was on her own. So Fielding ordered gel polish and her own UV light and is attempting to do them on her own.
It’s going all right, she said, but her regular nail technician need not fear that she will lose a client.
Rickie Mehl, director of Cameo College of Essential Beauty in Murray, Utah, has also been handing out kits outside her business — to the 190 students who are continuing to learn aesthetic procedures through virtual classes.
Cameo, founded by Mehl’s grandmother a half-century ago, also provides services to the public, which are temporarily halted since Cameo is considered a “non-essential” business in Utah despite its name.
Mehl, who was a hair stylist and aesthetician for 17 years before becoming director of the school now headed by her mother, said the inability to get beauty services makes a difficult time even harder.
“When people are not feeling good anywhere in their life, the quickest and easiest way to get a sense of feeling in control is to get a beauty or wellness service. And, to eviscerate that from everybody, not to be able to have this human contact — I worry about the emotional stress of people not able to do this kind of self-care,” she said.
“We’ve got clients who don’t have any other human contact other than with their hairdresser or their skin professional. And now they’re boarded up in their homes; you already don’t feel good in the mind, and now you don’t feel good physically. When you feel good physically, everything is a little bit brighter, even if it’s just temporary.”
Mehl said she is advising service providers to reach out to their clients while their businesses are closed, in order to check in on them and maintain the emotional connection. “That’s a big factor,” she said. “Clients tell hairdressers things they don’t tell anyone else.”
She also recommends that service providers give advice to their clients on how to care for their hair and body by themselves — within reason. “Try to stay away from the scissors, and try to stay away from any chemicals,” she said.
The fear of chemicals, however, may not be as powerful as the fear of gray hair.
One talk-show host in New York state made a video of her attempt at coloring her hair and posted it for her fans. Some stylists and aestheticians are posting videos on social media to show their clients how to touch up their roots or do facials.
Then there are those who may still be getting services illegally.
In Charleston, South Carolina, city officials recently issued citations to a gym and a beauty salon that were still operating despite the governor’s order to close.
Daniel Riccio, director of the city’s Livability and Tourism Department, said he’d already given the businesses a warning, but a tip came in on the agency’s hotline that the businesses were continuing to operate.
He went to the salon and found a “Closed” sign on the front, and there were no lights on inside. But when he went to the back and knocked on the door, someone answered, looking like “a deer in the headlights,” he said.
At first, she wouldn’t let him in, but after Riccio said he would have to call the police, the woman let him inside, where he found two women getting manicures and one getting her hair done.
The customers fled, leaving two employees who received $100 citations, along with the owner. (That was a pandemic discount; a typical fine would be more than $1,000, Riccio said.)
Riccio said he believes that news accounts of the incident have discouraged other salons from doing the same thing, but the city has investigators checking regularly just to make sure.
South Carolina isn’t entirely unsympathetic to the need for beauty services, however; the state still allows beauty supply stores to remain open, Riccio said. As for his own role in the enforcement, Riccio said the action didn’t just disappoint those clients, but also his wife.
“My wife said you should have told me first; I could have gotten my hair done,” he said.