Arts·Pandemic Diaries

After a lifetime of always wearing makeup, the pandemic finally set me free from beauty standards

Writer Sara Atnikov has found unexpected liberation in letting herself be a little less put together.

Writer Sara Atnikov has found unexpected liberation in letting herself be a little less put together

Sara Atnikov on a Zoom call. "Accessory use for distraction from our new reality." (Sara Atnikov)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

I was five months into my 38th year on earth and two months into isolation when, for the first time ever, I appeared in front of people (via Zoom, of course) wearing no makeup.

This is the part where some of you might be like, "Yeah, and?" — but for me, it was a big deal.

I can remember watching Cindy Crawford on Oprah telling everyone that you should extend your blush up into your hairline. I bought Kevyn Aucoin's book, Face Forward, when it came out all the way back in 2000. From an early age I was a disciple of the church of Fashion File, and I have memories of being in the car with my family and not letting them roll the windows down because it would mess up my hair. I was 12.

It could be easy to dismiss this as just part of growing up, but like so many things from my youth, it was part of a bigger picture: my attempts to be okay and to maintain some sort of control during a time when I consistently felt like I didn't have any. This was part of the foundation that was laid that makes up who I am as an adult today.

In my mid-20s, a friend of my boyfriend at the time said, "You're pretty for a bigger girl." We were at a cabin, yet I still always made sure I had some sort of makeup on. There could be volumes written on the relentless stupidity of the phrase "pretty for a bigger girl," but when you have a body like a Botticelli instead of the models you grew up watching and are always careful to make sure your face is right, and some guy says something calling attention to that while giving you a backhanded compliment, you feel all the things. Basically, you're back to being 12, and no, you can't roll the windows down because it will mess up your hair.

The view from Sara Atnikov's laptop. "Waiting for people to join the meeting is like hosting a party and waiting for guests to arrive, except you're just sitting there staring at your face, realizing how weird everything is." (Sara Atnikov)

It turns out that those feelings of not having control aren't things of the past. In the middle of a pandemic, the fact that keeping up with relationships and doing my job requires sitting in front of a camera and inviting people (virtually) into my home has reignited all my perfectionist tendencies and my need to never be seen as vulnerable.

These days I may have whittled my routine down to the basics, but I most certainly will not appear without my under-eye circles concealed. There may be a virus spreading across the world, forcing us to change how we live our lives, but you can be sure my brows will still look great.

For the first while, this seemed manageable. I'd clean myself up, make sure the area directly behind me looked good, and sit through meetings. But after the initial feelings of positivity and purpose about staying inside waned and the ones wondering what the point is took over, I realized just how much of my precious mental energy (some days I was both Artax and Atreyu in the Swamp of Sadness) was going toward something that really didn't matter.

Sara Atnikov, emotionally. (Artax and Atreyu in The Neverending Story.) (Neue Constantin Film)

I started to notice other people showing up to meetings looking less put together than they previously had, and I realized that things went on as usual, the earth continued to spin, and collectively we all continued to be freaked out by our new realities. It really didn't matter.

On an episode of the podcast Still Processing that I was listening to a few weeks ago, the hosts were discussing how we've all been thrown into a situation where we're having to be more vulnerable and our daily lives are being put on display — and that might not be a bad thing. They talked about the Stephen Sondheim birthday special that gifted us Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, and Audra McDonald bare-faced and resplendent in hotel robes, drinking wine and cocktails, tipsily singing a tribute, and how endearing it was to be let into their lives this way (like seeing that their streams were displaying device names like "CB's iPad").

So, bolstered by this, I hosted a Zoom meeting sans makeup. And guess what? No one cared. As the meeting went on, I found myself caring less and less, too. I was doing the thing I never did. Yes, I felt weird and vulnerable, but maybe that was okay. I am all for doing whatever you need to do to feel alright in these times, but it's empowering to realize that some things don't serve you the way you think they do, or the way they used to.

Everyone's lives look different than they did three months ago, and who knows what our futures will hold. I think mine might have a little less makeup, and I think I'm going to try and embrace this new forced vulnerability. It can take that place in my foundation where the need for perfection used to be.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Sara Atnikov is a freelance writer and organizer living in Winnipeg. Her work is focused around knowledge mobilization and arts and culture. You can see most of the things she's done at saraatnikov.com.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now