By Mary Ellen Dowd

The current pandemic has isolated nearly every person globally from interaction with family, friends and most notably, strangers. This limited interaction with the outside world has undoubtedly left time for self-reflection, and for some, self-scrutiny, say researchers.

“Certainly during the initial spring lockdown period, our screen time increased, meaning that we were more likely to be exposed to thin or athletic ideals through the media, while decreased physical activity may have heightened negative thoughts about weight or shape”, said Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU). “At the same time, it is possible that the additional anxiety and stress caused by COVID-19 may have diminished the coping mechanisms we typically use to help manage negative thoughts.”

A study conducted by Anglia Ruskin University in October of 2020, investigated the connection between anxiety produced by the pandemic and body image issues among both women and men. Women, specifically, often found themselves increasingly preoccupied with generalised beauty standards when coping with pandemic stress and anxiety, according to the study.

“Our study also found that when stressed or anxious, our pre-occupations tend to follow gender-typical lines. During lockdown, women may have felt under greater pressure to conform to traditionally feminine roles and norms, and messaging about self-improvement may have led to women feeling dissatisfied with their bodies and having a greater desire for thinness”, said Swami.

The COVID-19 pandemic did more than just leave individuals with time for self-reflection. Since the start of the pandemic, researchers and members of the public alike have coined the term “The Zoom Effect”, to describe the phenomena of the rise of plastic surgery during the pandemic.

According to Rachel King for Forture, “In June [2020], a survey conducted by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) of more than 1,000 consumers found that 49% of those who haven’t had plastic surgery indicated they are open to cosmetic or reconstructive treatment in the near future. Another ASPS study published the same month found that 64% of U.S. plastic surgeons had seen an increase in their telemedicine consultations since before COVID-19 began”.

The same article goes on to describe the testimony of a dermatologist named, Dr. Marie Hayag, who noticed a shift in her clients following the COVID-19 pandemic. Hayag described an increase in clients coming in to complain about things like “double chins, wrinkles, and eye bags”, which they all happened to notice while video conferencing.

Dermatologists, and plastic surgeons alike, also cited an increase in down time as an opportunity for clients to jump into procedures they may not have otherwise.

“Masks can cover any temporary bruises and marks on the lower part of the face”, Hayag says. “Patients that delayed their maintenance treatments for months were desperate to begin anew their beauty regimen after seeing what a difference it made to their appearance.”

The age demographic of those interested in plastic surgery also continues to fall as overall interest in minimally-invasive rises.

“According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Botox injections have increased 28 percent since 2010 amongst 20 to 29-year-olds. And the Zoom effect has only added to surge in requests for aesthetic treatments, with Botox coming in as the top minimally-invasive cosmetic procedure of the last year, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons’ (ASPS) 2020 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report”, writes Lauren Valenti and Chloe Atkins for Vogue.

Nevertheless, the moment of downtime that the pandemic provided to so many undoubtedly exacerbated issues revolving around societal beauty standards where it could have provided a brief moment of rest and relief. Perhaps we can fault social media for this.

Valenti and Atkins write, “The impact of social media cannot be underestimated. From the constant stream of supernaturally smooth jawlines and chiseled cheekbones to celebrity plastic surgeons posting before-and-after images of their work, the age of 24/7 self-documentation has spurred a novel set of beauty ideals—and, with it, a dramatic increase in cosmetic procedures”.

In the age of social media it is clear that beauty standards have become impossible to escape, especially when there is plenty of free time to be had. But has there been a positive effect on self image and beauty routines since we have started wearing masks? Some women may have found masks a relief from the daily application of foundation, sculpting products, lipsticks since they know that no one will see their face when they go out.

And as the pandemic wore on and teleworking persisted, have we not all used the bad connection excuse to keep our video off when we didn’t want to put on makeup and fix our hair for a 15 minute call? This small step, and a daily experience of the “natural” face may, in the long term, help more women get comfortable in their nakedness. If women spend 10 to 15 hours a day wearing makeup, the natural reflection, at first, may feel uncomfortable. But as we spend time with ourselves and glance at ourselves throughout the day here and there, we may feel more and more comfortable with an unaltered appearance. These are the small wins that we can have in a difficult time.