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The Lipstick Index: Beauty and the Pandemic

By Romita Roy

Artwork by Stuti Uniyal

Could there be a reason for the makeup industry’s loyal customer base apart from sheer vanity and appearing presentable? Are there stronger forces working behind the continued enamour around the cosmetic industry despite economic recessions? McKinsey credits it to something called the ‘lipstick index. “Noting the uptick in lipstick sales seen during the 2001 recession, Leonard Lauder of the cosmetics company coined the term “lipstick index” to describe this phenomenon. The principle is that people see lipstick as affordable luxury, and sales, therefore, tend to stay strong, even in times of duress.”

For me, the sense of letting go and submitting to the unknown during quarantine was the toughest. Cosmetically, my eyebrows were the hardest hit. Resembling a thicket that puts Cara Delevingne to shame, it was then that I really embraced my Benefit Ka-brow eyebrow gel. “If my brows are going to look like this for a while, why not aesthetically so?” was the line of thought. I thought I’d speak to more women on the reason they reached out to their makeup pouches on their best and worst days. Or why they didn’t, for that matter. And the reasons were surprisingly non-frivolous.

Coping in Quarantine

Forbes estimates the size of the global beauty market to be $532 billion, estimating it to hit $716 billion in 2025. Even though the economic magnitude of Covid-19 is far greater than any recession, beauty’s recovery signs show the market’s resilience. According to McKinsey, “In China, the industry’s February sales fell up to 80 per cent compared with 2019. In March, the year-on-year decline was 20 per cent—a rapid rebound under the circumstances.”

Part of this has to do with the use of beauty as a mechanism to make us feel somewhat normal in the most abnormal time of our lives. One of the many social media trends that emerged from quarantine was understandably makeup videos, flooding TikTok and Instagram particularly. While the more adventurous would try to slip into the garb of historical and fantasy figures using cosmetics, the more natural beauty loving segment started experimenting with their ‘paints and brushes’ so to speak, partly because of the extra time on their hands and partly to feel more 'put together.' Those who believe women get dolled up for the consumption of others, (cough cough, especially men), quarantine makeup is your counterargument. Contrary to the pyjamas all-day quarantine vibe, many people found getting showered and dressed made them feel more organised on those seemingly endless days at home.

Jewellery designer Alka Prakash spoke on this, saying “Maybe I wasn’t doing the whole foundation and bronzer regime but a quick eye and lip would help me feel ‘dressed’ on a particularly blah day. Initially, I would put on some makeup for video calls but then I started applying some every day after my shower. It gave me a sense of normalcy.” Samantha Boardman, MD, a clinical instructor in psychiatry and assistant attending psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College told Refinery29, “I tell my patients to put lipstick on in the morning if they're having trouble separating home and work life. It can [help] to separate your weekend self from your work self by presenting differently."

For those of us struggling with issues of anxiety and compromised emotional resilience, further heightened by the pandemic, makeup can surprisingly be one of the answers. Says model Disha Chowdhury, “Work was really slow in the early months of the year and I found myself alone with my thoughts. That was when I started spiralling into a phase of anxiety, overthinking and worrying about things that hadn’t even happened. One day while scrolling through Instagram I found a creator who painted these beautiful Halloween looks on her face and completely transformed herself. I remember thinking, can I pretend to be another person for a day so I don’t have to focus on my problems? That’s when my obsession with makeup began, and it’s been therapeutic. It’s the beauty equivalent of Mandala drawings”.

Tara Well, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College, whose research and client work focuses on using mirrors and reflections, echoed this too. “This juncture is a really great opportunity for people to confront themselves in new ways than they had before when their attention was always outwardly focused. Instead of thinking, ‘How do I look to other people?’ You can bring attention back to yourself. Try to look in your own eyes in the mirror and recognize, ‘I’m here, I’m relaxed, I’m calm, I’m okay.’ For me, I relate it back to mental health,” Greenberg says. “We’re so used to doing our makeup in a rush that we don't even pay attention to ourselves. We don't look ourselves in the eye. If you look at doing makeup while in isolation as a daily meditation, it can be a really pretty thing.”

Making-up Communities

As well helping with the mental separation of work life and home life, make-up also continues to serve another purpose: expression and forming a community. Social entrepreneur Aditi Singh said that “Using makeup puts us all in the same boat, and normalises our imperfections. It’s a way of saying that we all have our vulnerabilities and we’re okay with that. It puts us on the same platform, in a sense.”

Interestingly, the beauty industry has taken off in what once would’ve been thought as unlikely havens. According to Business of Fashion, Saudi Arabian women in particular spend more on makeup than food, transport or clothes. Dubai now rivals Seoul as the beauty capital of the world. Known as the halal beauty market, the Muslim beauty industry is estimated to be worth $53 billion by 2023. Often raised in criticism to this, make-up can be a grey area for those adhering to cultural norms, and the conservative are divisive on the topic. But like with many areas of religion and culture, inevitably impacted by the consumption-driven market, notions such as a woman should only wear makeup for her husband’ are being challenged by millennial and Gen-Z Muslims. “I’ve been reminded by family elders to have authenticity and not change my exterior appearances as the Quran preaches. Other hijabi girls would remind me that to wear makeup means wanting to attract the opposite sex. I think intentions are very important. If I’m using makeup for my own pleasure, why is it of concern to anyone? My faith is as important to me as the next girl. Whenever I feel my need to look beautiful is overpowering my modesty, I compensate by trying to be a better human being. Makeup and values have nothing to do with each other. The prior is just another form of self-expression. Women are much more than that,” says Imara Mohammed*.

Another community that fosters strength through make-up is the queer community, as many non-binary and gender-fluid people showcase their beauty and fashion as a form of creative expression.

Texas-born Indian American influencer Alok Vaid-Menon commented: “I struggle with having to choose ‘one thing, one gender, one aesthetic, one medium, one field... Things are so much more fluid than that. I fundamentally believe in cross-pollination.”

David Lopez, a non-binary hairstylist who has gained major traction on social media this year is another influencer to look out for. “I want to degenderize the beauty space,” says Lopez, a mission “born out of publications and brands never really speaking to me.” Most magazines and websites assume their reader is a woman, and brands tend to package “everything in ways that are clearly marketing toward cis-gendered women and feature only cis-gendered women in their ads,” he says. The disassociation of beauty and gender is high-priority on the agenda of these influencers and brands are sitting up to take notice.

But the beauty industry is not unique, it has polarities as much as any other sphere of life. The no-makeup movement, similar to the concept of the no-filter movement on Instagram, is making pace. Alicia Keys created a buzz when she announced she was quitting makeup altogether in 2016 — even on the red carpet. Gwyneth Paltrow snapping makeup-free selfies garners a lot of social media awe and love. Lately, Instagram has been abuzz about the irrelevance of makeup post-pandemic, almost to the point of judging those who wish to partake of it. Of course just as there are blurred lines to every rule, apparently the following products still come under the no-makeup look: Tinted moisturizer, oil or serum with glow or other effects, lip balm, eye drops and coloured contact lenses. But even then, going makeup-free is a bold decision for many. Says Rashi Chowdhury, PR consultant, “Going makeup-free has actually pushed me to work harder on skincare and health. Telling myself that I don’t have concealer to cover up an acne scar makes me want to eat healthy and take care of myself better.” Isn’t that an optimistic way of looking at it?

Bottom line is, there’s no right or wrong answer. The most important thing is a personal choice, whether it be to wear makeup to make yourself feel good, or to ditch make-up to make yourself feel good. It would be interesting to see what route the beauty industry takes in the next 3 years: personalised beauty filters? More intrusive methods? Completely chemical-free? No one is sure. But the industry isn’t becoming irrelevant anytime soon. That’s a given.

*Name has been changed upon request


About the author

Romita Roy is a freelance writer & illustrator. She has a fashion background from NIFT and has written for Bombay Times, Quint and BW Businessworld. Follow her IG @consciouslycreativebyromita for her take on slow fashion & lifestyle.



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