Gender in Quarantine

Design by Collette Lee

Image Description: Image is a red rectangular graphic. A college student with three pimples on their face and black and green colorblock-dyed hair uses a pair of yellow scissors to cut their bangs at home. Body hair is visible on their arms and armpits. Behind the student is an imitation of a computer screen, with one window opened to a Zoom waiting room on the top right and another opened to a Google search window where they have typed in “diy bangs at home” on the bottom left. A pointer cursor floats next to the student on the bottom right. Everything is outlined in blue.

The shock of life in quarantine has faded, but the pandemic still necessitates that many of us remain cut off from the outside world. Although being alone can force us to question our motives and identities to a greater degree, solitude can also free us from the constant gaze of others. When surrounded by people, it’s easy to criticize ourselves based on how we think others see us. We might feel pressure to adhere to gendered appearance-based norms or to behave in a way that reaffirms who we think others want us to be. 

In this way, quarantine has the potential to allow for greater exploration of one’s gender expression and identity. By being home alone, I feel less pressure to conform to certain expectations that often weighed heavily upon me pre-pandemic. Virtual school presents several obstacles to students’ quality of learning in 2020, but working from home has afforded us the rare ability to care less about how we look and present ourselves. 

Spending time picking out an outfit, or doing my hair and makeup, are less important to me when I know that the only significant social interaction I’m going to have that day is over Zoom.  As one of a hundred tiny pixelated faces on a screen, I’m not worried about other people noticing that I’ve worn the same outfit two days in a row or that I haven’t bothered to cover up a pimple. On the first day of classes for an in-person quarter, I probably would have wanted to pay extra attention to my physical appearance in order to feel more confident or make a good impression on others.  This quarter, I barely thought about what I wore to my first Zoom call. I threw on a comfy t-shirt and sweatpants and worried little, if at all, about whether I looked smart, pretty, or prepared enough. In the new world of Zoom, sweatpants are the norm. Quarantine has altered what we think of as acceptable clothing for work and school, putting less emphasis on traditional markers of femininity and masculinity and more emphasis on comfort. 

Challenging gender-based norms of appearance, while heavily discouraged in the traditional classroom and workplace settings, provides students and workers with more freedom to express themselves however they choose. Beauty standards and gender roles restrict personal choices and the desire to explore new ways of expressing gender in formal environments. Zoom, and virtual spaces in general, give us more wiggle room. Perhaps due to the fact that pretty much no one knows what they’re doing, there is less attention given to any one person’s mishaps or minor violations of traditional appearance-based social norms.

Social media trends have played a role in this shift, especially early in the pandemic, when nearly everyone was at home with nowhere to go. If someone wanted a haircut, they had to do it themselves. Experimentation with new hairstyles like bangs, buzz-cuts or colored hair became trendy and popular as new quarantine looks. Patriarchal gender norms dictate that women should keep the hair on their head long, neat and not grey, while all body hair should be removed on a daily basis. Many people challenged these expectations before the pandemic, but social distancing offers a unique opportunity to realize just how these norms are enforced and regulated. Women learn that having no body hair (and being thin, and wearing makeup, and other markers of traditional femininity) is more desirable than the alternative. These patriarchal and pedophilic norms haven’t gone away during the pandemic. However, once the pressure of social interaction is taken away, conforming to these standards doesn’t feel as necessary or confidence-inducing for many people. 

Time-consuming and elaborate beauty rituals, which often reinforce gender norms, seem less important when nearly everyone is staying home. The existential threat of the coronavirus and the effects of the pandemic also mean that people may have had less energy, money and time to think about ‘superficial’ matters like makeup or clothing trends. It’s not that the pandemic caused makeup lovers to realize that they never really liked makeup, it’s that the expectations of performing gender have shifted in the virtual social environment. This shift also means that makeup is able to take on new social meanings for women as a medium of art and creative expression.

I, as well as many others, let my body hair grow out, not as a conscious rebellion against the patriarchy, but simply because it was easier and more comfortable. Perhaps, you were too scared to experiment with winged eyeliner before, but now you have been able to find joy in doing it yourself. Or maybe you hated having to put on makeup every morning, and now you’re glad not to have to do it anymore. To some extent, gender identity is shaped by our conformity (and nonconformity) to reinforced norms such as those about women’s body hair and makeup. By challenging them we allow ourselves to consider what gender means for us. Do I shave because I actually want to? Or because I’ve been told that my body hair is gross and undesirable? The answer to these questions may be complicated, but being socially distanced helps us to better understand what we want without worrying about what others think. 

The biggest difference in my relationship with my appearance and gender identity during the pandemic is tied to my relationship with my clothing choices. Prior to quarantine, I felt as though it was important for me to assert my femininity and my personality through my wardrobe. In order to avoid potential judgement from others and successfully assert my womanhood, I needed to maintain the impression that I was up-to-date with current trends and understood what looked good on me. My relationship with my gender identity has become more complicated as I’ve learned to challenge the ideal of femininity that I sought to display through my appearance. 

While it’s possible to both identify as feminine and adhere to feminine beauty standards, we need to recognize that femininity is not defined by such adherence. My own reflections on gender identity have led me to question whether traditional beauty standards can ever accurately reflect my personal experience of gender. The difference between gender expression and gender identity has been well defined and documented by gender scholars and activists, but the two concepts heavily affect one another. In terms of my own identity, it’s been freeing to escape from an idealized vision of femininity that never accurately described my sense of self. I don’t become more ‘womanly’ on days when I shave my legs or wear jewelry and makeup. There are many different femininities, a fact which I knew before the pandemic but never fully explored in terms of my own identity. 

Whatever rebellion means to you, escaping a constant, critical and objectifying gaze can be helpful in formulating an identity that fits your actual desires in the present moment.  If nothing changed about how you presented yourself or identified with gender, that’s okay too!  The idea that we have to ‘remake’ or ‘renew’ ourselves during quarantine is itself tied to the harmful concept that we should constantly be increasing our worth or value with our free time, even in times of crisis. Self-reflection does not always have to produce profound or visible results. 

The pandemic has brought to the forefront a lot of the major issues with our society, including some cracks in the foundation of the rigid gender binary. The fallacy of choice feminism would have us believe that we are free when we are able to make our own choices, including choices about our appearance. The pandemic only makes it clearer that our choices are not always ours, but rather constrained by social fears and stigma. Beauty rituals become tied to identity and self-esteem over the course of our lives, as evidenced by the number of people who still shave their legs and do their makeup even when they aren’t going to see anyone that day. Socialization is a powerful process, one that we haven’t escaped by staying home. It’s important to note that many people’s jobs do not provide them with the opportunity to work from home or remain distant from other people. At times, an unsupportive home or living environment may make it even harder to live according to one’s desires than it was previously. In-person social ties remain vital, especially for LGBTQIA+ folks and other marginalized people, as resources for overcoming trauma and building strong communities. The most important goals cannot be achieved alone. That said, we can all benefit from stepping out of the social limelight for a few months to critically examine our lifestyle choices and explore what truly brings us pleasure.

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