Embracing ugliness in the pandemic

ugly girl Ugliness in the pandemic (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

The great pandemic of our times has taught us a lot of lessons– some in self-reliance, some in financial prudence and others in self-care. But I think the greatest one by far, for me at least, is self-acceptance and learning to love even the ugly bits — the zits, the superfluous hair and even the expanding midriff.

A disclaimer before I continue. I know we are all made in God’s image and we are all beautiful in our own unique ways. With that out of the way, let me state that 2020 has been a great ugly-fier.

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Stress makes us all ugly

It’s a fact that stress makes us ugly. But it doesn’t stop there. The stress of your sudden uglification adds to your existing stress, creating a never-ending loop of ugliness.

Any internal or external stimulus that causes a biological response is called stress. Depending on the type and timing, stress can cause various reactions on your body –from disturbing the fine balance of well-being to causing life-threatening diseases.

Without proper checks and balances to counter stress, we end up significantly uglier than before. Before you know it, your skin is pimply, your hair is scanty and your double chin is now making itself noticed.

“…women who experience high stress are 11 times more likely to experience hair loss,” says one study.

“…changes in acne severity correlate highly with increasing stress, suggesting that emotional stress from external sources may have a significant influence on acne,” says another.

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Big bad hormones

Adrenaline and cortisol – two hormones that are useful at first but overstay their welcome and wreak havoc. In the short run, they heighten your senses and help you tackle the immediate threat. In the long run, they can cause a host of physical and mental problems.

Human body logic believes that when you are in a stress mode, everything else can wait. This means, your body’s primary objective is survival and ensuring you are ready for either fighting or fleeing.

In a HuffPost article, Robert Tornambe (M.D., NYC Plastic Surgeon) writes that stress slows down the skin renewal process and hastens the ageing process.

“The excessive hormone production also stimulates the skin to create thicker hair follicles and increase the oil production, creating acne breakout. Rashes can occur from stress, too. The immune system is affected by stress, increasing the skin’s susceptibility to irritation from outside pollutants and free radicals, also inducing early aging,” he writes.

These hormones – Tornambe says – block absorption of certain vitamins, force hair to stay in the “fall off” phase and make nails brittle.

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Lessons in self-acceptance

The annus horribilis of our times,  2020 was a year of great stress. Yet, it saw two distinct types of people — those who took to self care in a big way and some who embraced self-acceptance. I belong to the latter camp.

My partner and I weathered many problems, from financial to emotional to health. Sleep was scarce —  nodding off during the day and lying wide awake on my bed at night. My appetite went haywire. Without a proper cooking routine, we went through packets of processed food and sugary drinks for sustenance. Ok… maybe we had laziness to blame for that one.

I put salon trips on hold till every inch of my face was covered in fuzz. My upper lip sported a modest peripubescent-boy moustache and my eyebrows were now conquering lost ground. My arms and legs were covered in a thicket of wiry hair.

Where do I even begin with the pimples? From jawline to hairline, in the course of 10 months, I’ve seen it all – from gigantic cysts to tiny pustules. Midriff expanded. So did my jowls, my thighs and my face.

These days, I can barely recognise the face staring back at me from the mirror.

But do I care? That’s the real 2020 miracle. Don’t know whether it is plain ennui, the great uglifier stoked something in me that I’d want to believe is self-acceptance.

After having spent my late teens and 20s worrying about my appearance, post-pandemic, something changed in me spiritually. Maybe I grew up or like many others during the COVID times, came to terms with my own mortality — something we often take for granted.

“In the larger scheme of things, what are upper lip hair and jawline acne?” I often muse. Although I suspect this sudden shift in my outlook is transient and I may soon revert to my vain self in a few months, I am grateful that the great pandemic of our times gave me a glimpse of what self-acceptance looks like.