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I’m Willing to Dye for Normalcy

I haven’t worn makeup in 34 days. Or pants, for that matter. Since my family and I decamped from our New York City apartment to our upstate home, I wake up every day and slip on one of the two pairs of black leggings I have with me, and one of two stretched-out sports bras. Apparently, when packing for a pandemic, it’s smarter to bring an assortment of workout clothes than it is to bring cute sweaters. Those sweaters, along with a couple of pairs of jeans, remain folded in my duffel bag, next to the flat iron I thought I might use. 

Use for what? To make my rooty hair look better as I trudge between my kitchen and garbage shed for the hundredth time? Or sit across a silent breakfast table from my shell-shocked family who could care less how I, or they, look?

I was never much one for elaborate beauty routines but my regimen has now been reduced to face splashing and teeth brushing. Last night I tweezed my eyebrows for the first time in three weeks. I just plain forgot about them. Jewelry? I haven’t worn earrings or a necklace in weeks, let alone a watch or even my wedding ring. 

There’s no scale in this house so that’s that. Hopefully, the cobbled-together mishmash of exercise routines I’m doing will keep the poundage from exploding, but who knows? I certainly won’t.  My carefully curated gym routine has been replaced by walks in the woods and online workouts from a site called The Sculpt Society. I’m on Day 8 of my 14-day free trial, praying this will all be over before I have to commit to paying. The teacher tells me how impressed she is with me as I jump around my bedroom holding hot pink three-pound dumbbells. I know she can’t really see me but I pretend she can so I don’t quit 12 minutes into her crazy hydrant sequence. 

This recent dearth of attention to how I look is actually freeing. It’s like when you’re a kid and you put on whatever is at top level in your dresser drawer, or in the heap next to your bed. It doesn’t matter if your outfit is coordinated or even makes sense. A few days ago, my daughter-in-law – one of the chicest women I know – came downstairs wearing cropped tie-dyed sweatpants with a red and navy plaid coat and gray socks with tiny turquoise dinosaurs. That’s what was clean. Her outfit hurt my eyes.

In spite of my new affection for a bare-bones approach to beauty, the brittle grays multiplying alongside my cheekbones and above my forehead were too much to swallow.

Before anyone indicts me for thinking only of how I look at such a horrible time, I promise you I am not. I’m scared and sad like everyone else. I’m humbled by the bravery of our healthcare workers, and the people who keep the shelves stocked in the stores that remain open in my town. I’m constantly worried for my in-laws who are locked down and lonely in their assisted living facility. And I’m grieving for the millions who have lost loved ones or their jobs or both. 

And yet, the other day I found myself studying the instructions on a box of hair dye as I contemplated coloring my own hair for the first time in about 30 years. In spite of my new affection for a bare-bones approach to beauty, the brittle grays multiplying alongside my cheekbones and above my forehead were too much to swallow. They looked awful, but the deeper issue was this: My roots are an all-too visible reminder of these pandemic days ticking away – days that have turned into weeks and now months. On a subconscious level, I reckoned if I could fix those grays, I could stop this runaway clock that’s robbing us of the precious time we have. Dyeing my hair felt like grasping at a shred of normalcy in a world spinning upside down.  I can’t do anything about Covid-19 but these roots, I can fix.

Update: In the few weeks since I first wrote this essay, I broke my wrist and had surgery to insert a metal plate and pins. Now, tugging on my black leggings takes a lot longer. My budding exercise routine has evaporated, replaced by sitting on the couch with an ice pack, bingeing My Brilliant Friend on Netflix.

I’ve had to enlist my son to put my hair (now completely rooty again) in a ponytail, and my husband to wrap my cast in a plastic bag and duct tape so I can take a shower. So those beauty routines I was kind of missing, like wearing makeup and having my hair professionally colored? Ha! Now I’d give my right arm – the only one that functions – just to be able to shave my armpits. No matter how nicely I ask, I don’t think my son will agree to that chore.

The good news: I’ve got another box of dye stashed beneath the sink. And I’m not afraid to use it.

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