By the time COVID-19 lockdowns started rolling out, it was abundantly clear that many aspects of our normal lives were to be transformed or modified to fit the current reality. Those changes had a ripple effect, on everything from what we wear in public to how we put away our groceries. It also changed things for beauty culture on social media — to which its influencer set quickly adapted.
In a flash, Instagram videos and TikToks of makeup tutorials for going out or creating the perfect “office” look were swiftly replaced with beauty content with a heavy “self-care” slant. Just like that, the hyper-polished, face-beat-and-filtered-for-the-gods look that dominated our feeds gave way to an increasing number of folks wearing robes and towel turbans. The Facetune-level contouring seemed to evaporate, to be replaced by clean, dewy, bare faces with nothing on them but a set of disposable Chanel eye mask strips.
In search of tactics to maintain our mental health during lockdown, “self-care” became more important than ever. Bubble baths and homemade banana bread reached viral status, beauty tutorials unveiling elaborate celebrity skin-care routines racked up views, and loungewear became, well, everyday wear. Kim Kardashian, then offering underwear and shapewear from her brand SKIMS, pivoted to accommodate the shift — and made a killing.
A Low-Key “Luxury”
As such, the dynamics of keeping up with the Joneses online took on a whole different meaning. The collective physical and emotional suffering made status signaling with the usual symbols — designer outfits, pristine vacation vistas, and luxury vehicles — feel grossly inappropriate. In the spirit of sink or swim, influencers had no choice but to embrace the moment: self-care selfies. They turned to elevated versions of self-care products — usually under the $50 dollar mark, but always far pricier than what one could find from drugstore brands — to communicate a more palatable aspiration. It was a necessary move, says Mariah Wellman, a social media researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Utah.
“Influencers are in a very precarious position, and COVID didn’t help matters,” says Wellman. “[But] some of the best influencers are those who are strategic in their presentation of self within online spaces. They are very good at distinguishing what needs to be shared in order to be perceived as authentic. [Throughout COVID,] the majority of influencers promoted self-care products that cost money and yes, many of their followers bought into that and purchased those items as well.”
While the FTC obliges influencers to disclose when they’re earning money to promote a brand with paid product placement, they often appear to buy into the mystique of certain products the same way we do. When Kylie Jenner was also seen in Harry Josh’s signature green wave-setting barrettes, despite her cosmetics line carrying a similar product, it served as a testament to their cache. Allure even documented Kaia Gerber’s selfie in the clips, which, even if they were placed by a hair stylist, set off a chain-like embrace of the accessory.