During the first lockdown Afsaneh Parvizi-Wayne, a 55-year-old entrepreneur, went for a drive around London. “I remember looking in the rear-view mirror,” she says, “and I noticed all these little hairs coming out of my chin. That was a bit of a shock. Like, bloody hell, I’ve really been growing these out.”
Parvizi-Wayne is of Iranian heritage, and hair removal is a big part of her culture. “Grooming, for Iranian women, it’s essential,” she says. For her entire life, from puberty onwards, Parvizi-Wayne had scrupulously removed her facial hair. “It was like a jack-in-the-box reaction,” she says. “If I saw a hair, I’d go to the salon.” If she failed to do so, a relative or family friend would take care of it for her. “Iranian aunties literally pin you down if they see a stray chin hair,” she laughs. “They pull out a piece of string to thread you then and there.”
But during lockdown, the salons closed and she didn’t think to tackle her facial hair herself. In the car that day, Parvizi-Wayne was confronted by the sight of her facial foliage, in all its natural splendour, for the very first time. “It was less Frida Kahlo,” she says, “more the bearded lady.” After the shock subsided, she realised something more surprising. “I didn’t care. It was liberating.”
Who could blame anyone for looking at the chaos and uncertainty of this wreck of a year and cultivating, say, a luxurious monobrow? Quite reasonably, in 2020 many women contemplated their tweezers, shrugged, and thought, ‘There’s a pandemic happening’.” Head shots displaying newly drab hair, starved of highlights for the first time in years, have been shared on social media in the manner of surprising natural phenomena. Legs have bristled beneath the embrace of thermal leggings. Chins have sprouted solitary hairs, like lone flags atop the summit of Everest, fluttering proudly in the wind. It was not a strike, per se, but a nationwide grooming hiatus.
Research from Mintel shows that 51% of UK beauty and personal care consumers feel a reduced need to be groomed as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, while 15% of consumers have been removing their body and facial hair less often since the start of the pandemic. Partly, this was due to financial reasons. We are in straitened times: 30% of the consumers Mintel surveyed cut back on their spend on beauty treatments as a result of tightened household budgets. It was also logistical – beauty salons were among the last businesses to reopen in the UK after the first lockdown, with restrictions not lifted until July. Since then, they have been subject to regional guidelines.
“I’ve been dyeing my hair since for ever,” says Amanda Armstrong, 54, a recruitment boss from Bournemouth. “I was one of those people who, the minute I got a grey root coming through, I’d book the appointment.” Armstrong formerly specialised in fashion recruitment, meaning that it was particularly important that she was well-groomed at all times. “I felt like I had to dress and look a certain way,” she says. “I couldn’t bear to be seen with grey roots. I thought people would think I didn’t care what I looked like.” When the pandemic hit, Armstrong’s hairdresser closed, but even when it reopened in the summer, she didn’t think to return. Her hair hasn’t been dyed since February. “The longer it grew out,” she says, “the more I got used to it. It was a bit streaky, but I felt like ‘this is natural. This is who I am.’”
Armstrong feels able to let her hair grow out in part because she is no longer meeting candidates and clients face to face, but via Zoom. “When I’m video calling,” she says, “I’ll make sure my hair is always clean and glossy, and put a bit of lippy and maybe some blusher on, because I want to look professional. But on the whole, I am so much more casual.” She is surprised by how freeing the experience has felt. “It’s totally empowering to not dye my hair any more,” she says. “It’s not about the money – I was happy to spend it. It’s to do with age, as well. I don’t give a flying fuck any more. I just don’t.”
Practical reasons alone cannot explain why so many women have opted to grow out their hair colour, or rewild their eyebrows. “The pandemic has uprooted all of our ways of being in the world,” says Jaclyn Wong of the University of South Carolina, an expert in gender and attractiveness. “The fact that women aren’t doing this beauty work is exciting to me, because it represents a disruption of how they normally comply with our society’s expectations of femininity.” While it may not feel particularly radical to cultivate body hair – after all, armpit hair has been in vogue for years, and feminist activists in the 70s loudly affirmed their right not to depilate – this is a grooming stoppage on a much greater scale, and as such, it is quietly subversive.
“When I stopped shaving,” says Georgia Collier, 26, from London, “it started out because I wasn’t leaving the house, so there didn’t seem to be much point. But then it changed.” Collier has had a rough year – due to the pandemic, she was made redundant from her job as a PR manager at a brewery. She was motivated in part to stop removing her body hair because she has a tendency to pick at ingrown hairs when she is anxious or stressed – which she says has been often this year – causing her skin to bleed. As these hairs are only visible on shaved or waxed skin, Collier decided to stop removing her hair entirely. “When everything else was spinning out of control,” Collier says, “I stopped trying to control my body. I decided to just be who I am.”
The need to maintain grooming routines has often been less about personal preference, than economics. Wong has published research into the returns on perceived attractiveness experienced by men and women in the workplace. On average, attractive people earn 20% more than less attractive people. While this phenomenon is observed equally in both genders, female attractiveness is much more closely linked to personal grooming than male. Other studies have found that women who wear makeup in the workplace are seen as more professional and industrious by their colleagues and bosses. “Before lockdown, most of my time was spent meeting candidates and clients face to face,” says Armstrong. “And it felt like if I had grey hair, that wasn’t very professional. I worried that clients and candidates would think: ‘If she can’t do her roots properly, will she look after me properly?’”
Of course, the decision to stop grooming is not always a straightforwardly feminist act: many feminists much prefer having two eyebrows. But inasmuch as higher grooming requirements are placed principally upon women – a 2016 survey from market research firm GFK Global found that women spend five hours a week grooming, compared with just three hours for men – the pressure to conform to these expectations is a burden. “On one hand, on an individual level,” says Wong, “grooming practices do make you feel good. I myself like to wear makeup. But as sociologists, individuals are never separate from the society they are embedded in. As much as grooming routines may feel empowering on individual terms, as a practice within the broader landscape of a patriarchal society, they are ultimately disempowering.”
Even in Iceland – a country ranked sixth globally for gender equality by the UN – women are not immune to this social conditioning. “We are not a feminist paradise,” exclaims Dr Ásta Jóhannsdóttir of the University of Iceland. Jóhannsdóttir began a six-year survey into female grooming habits in 2011: for her research, she asked female university students to grow out their body hair, and document the emotional impact of the process. “They felt disgusting and dirty and hated it,” she says. Jóhannsdóttir herself grew out her body hair, too, and found the experience unexpectedly confronting, particularly when she showered in front of other women in public pools. “I knew it was crazy,” she says. “I shouldn’t care how others perceived me. But some part of you still does care. You don’t want to be seen as disgusting. Humans fundamentally want to be accepted.”
Virtually every woman can recall a moment in puberty when they felt repulsed by their body: its secretions, smears and smells, the unutterable messiness of being a woman. “Shame is ingrained into women from a young age,” says Jóhannsdóttir. “There’s an unwritten rule that hair under your arms or on your bikini line and legs is disgusting.” Hair removal is often framed as a way for women to manage otherwise wayward and errant bodies, using pseudo-progressive language. “Even though I identified as a tomboy growing up,” says Collier, “I’d always remove all my body hair, because I’d tell myself that it was ‘cleaner’.” This sentiment recurred in Jóhannsdóttir’s interviews. “Men’s body hair isn’t seen as ‘dirty’,” Jóhannsdóttir says. “We police women’s bodies much more. Post-feminist discourse tells us that women remove their body hair because they like it, and it’s considered ‘pampering’ to have a hot wax. But of course, we all know that it’s not pampering – it’s painful.”
Often, it is women who take on the labour of surveilling other women’s bodies, whether they are mothers or daughters or friends. One of Jóhannsdóttir’s students told her that she started removing her pubic hair after another girl made fun of her for having a “bush” in a swimming pool at school. For Parvizi-Wayne, it was well-meaning Iranian aunties; for Collier, classmates. “I remember being 13 and in PE class,” says Collier. “A friend came up to me and said: ‘I’ve just shaved all my pubes off and it’s life-changing. I thought, right, I need to get on this.’” When Collier stopped removing all her body hair during Covid, she felt empowered; weightless, even. “It felt like I was unlearning the societal pressure I put upon myself,” she says.
There is another reason why many women abandoned grooming during the pandemic: time. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that women on average carried out two-thirds more of the childcare duties than men during the first fortnight of lockdown. “Honestly,” sighs Carly (name changed), a 32-year-old business owner from Peterborough, “dry shampoo is my life now.” In the background, I can hear her two-year-old son playing noisily. During her 20s, Carly tells me: “I wouldn’t leave the house without makeup. I’d never leave the house looking like I do now.” Although her beauty routine had relaxed in her 30s, with motherhood – Carly would happily leave the house without a full face of makeup – she would still wax her facial hair and shape her eyebrows, paint her nails and shave her legs routinely, and her hair was washed multiple times a week.
But juggling the demands of childcare with running her burgeoning toy-selling business during a pandemic has proved overwhelming, even though Carly’s husband does do his fair share. Grooming was the first thing to go. “I work long hours,” she says, “and if I have an hour off, I think, I could shave my legs and paint my nails and wax my eyebrows, but that’s just an hour of time that I could be working, or spending time with my kid, or sleeping.” She painted her nails once this year, on her birthday. “I feel like a slob,” she says, “but I also don’t have the motivation to do it. I just don’t care.”
Will these women resume their traditional grooming regimens when salons reopen? Armstrong is adamant that she will not. “There’s no going back now,” she says. “That’s it. No more dyeing.” But it’s hard to unlearn decades of social conditioning, particularly when those norms are being enforced by your own family. Parvizi-Wayne’s daughter recently returned home from the US and was horrified to see her mother’s newfound hirsutism. Parvizi-Wayne allowed her to wax it off. “Although I have learned that I don’t care what other people think,” she says, “I do care what my children think. I think part of that comes back to the fact my own parents were immigrants, and were always very different from the other parents at school. Is this about me trying to be like all the other parents? Possibly. But it’s a small price to pay, if my upper lip shadow causes my daughter embarrassment.”
Recently, Carly was in a park with her son. “I had holes in my leggings,” she says. “I can’t remember the last time I had washed my hair.” Also in the park were two women in full glam. Their hair was perfect, their makeup immaculate. Carly looked at them, and momentarily felt bad about herself. But then she realised that she really didn’t care how she looked, smiled, and went back to playing with her son.