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The pandemic has taken a toll on our self-esteem

After two years of eating more, moving less, and staring at my every wrinkle on Zoom, I feel self-conscious reentering the world. And from what I’m hearing from other parents, I’m not alone.

According to Joanna H. Ng-Glazier, a plastic surgeon at Emerson Plastic Surgery Associates in Concord, people are in two post-pandemic camps: liberated from the need to wear makeup and dress up, or vulnerable about their new debut.Ally Rzesa

“I want to normalize Botox. Everyone does it but no one wants to talk about it,” a mom of two texted me last night.

I had put out a call on parenting message boards asking about how women felt about their self-image in this COVID Spring, when we’re reemerging into the world mask-less with the worst of the pandemic (hopefully, for now) behind us.

This woman, a high school guidance counselor north of Boston, wanted to share the importance of agency and confidence in every form — even if it comes from a med-spa. Then she texted me back early this morning.


“I woke up, and I’m too anxious about using my name,” she said.

I get it. After two years of eating more, moving less, and staring at my every wrinkle on Zoom, I also feel self-conscious. Earlier this year, I made my first appointment for Botox and then canceled at the last second. Somehow, it didn’t feel like “me”: vain, unnatural, maybe even spoiled. Then I saw myself on a cooking webinar and noticed a vertical crease the size of the Grand Canyon. I rescheduled. Why shouldn’t I feel good about myself?

According to Joanna H. Ng-Glazier, a plastic surgeon at Emerson Plastic Surgery Associates in Concord, people are in two post-pandemic camps: liberated from the need to wear makeup and dress up, or vulnerable about their new debut.

“I feel that many people either made a change to improve the way they emerged from the pandemic, or they became comfortable with not having to commute and put makeup on, or get dressed daily, and decided no big changes were needed. Unfortunately, the societal pressure on women to be perfect at all times still exists,” she says.

It’s especially true for moms, who come to her office requesting “Mommy Makeovers.”


“Those who’ve had pregnancies and have given birth are more interested in looking like a less-tired, more rejuvenated version of themselves,” she says. They ask for Botox, diastasis repairs or tummy tucks, labiaplasty, liposuction, even eyelifts for dark circles.

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons actually calls it the “Zoom Boom,” and it’s not just about vanity. It’s about self-respect.

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“I feel [COVID] has made many women realize that they are worth it,” Ng-Glazier says.

But COVID has also made many women feel worthless, from gray hair to weight gain.

“The pressure to ‘bounce back’ makes me feel like I failed,” one such mom told me.

“I find that staring at myself all day creates all sorts of perversions in terms of how I see myself. I get overly fixated on everything from wrinkles to facial expressions. It’s like having my inner self critic staring back at me all day long,” another one said.

Roslindale’s Eileen Fairley got pregnant a year into the pandemic, and she’s uncomfortable with her body now.

“The little boy I was growing made me exhausted, starving, and repulsed by healthy food,” she said.

She began to obsess over her weight. Now six months postpartum, “I’m still disappointed in myself for the weight I’ve gained,” she said. “I find myself constantly comparing my body to that of my other friends who are postpartum. In my pre-pandemic life, I used to go to yoga and spin classes and rock climb all the time. Now, while trying to protect my yet-to-be vaccinated baby, the only exercise I do is the occasional walk outside. I still find myself agonizing over how I feed my body.”


“I’m struggling with self-confidence, self-identity, self-worth, and what my path forward looks like,” agreed Arlington’s Courtney Zwirn. “The last two years show on me. I look exhausted all the time and have gained a ton of weight — menopause during a global pandemic, plus antidepressants that keep me afloat but cause weight gain.”

Alison Frazee, also in Roslindale, worries about her weight, too, and she feels disconnected from her previous form.

“I’m very insecure about the weight gain. I’ve never been this big before, and I don’t feel like myself,” she said.

Working from home has made exercise harder. For now, she keeps her old clothes in tubs as motivation to fit into them again.

“I don’t need to be skinny. I just want my normal body back. I don’t want this to be my new normal,” she said.

She didn’t want to remain anonymous for this story, hoping she can validate these feelings for other women.

“We should all be talking more openly about this stuff,” she said.

It’s hard, though, because COVID was a universally disastrous stretch. It feels downright ungrateful to relish its silver linings, which, for some of us, meant the ability to hide out at home. And worrying about silly things like weight gain and wrinkles seems like the epitome of a first-world problem these days. But self-image — and self-esteem — still matters, especially as we head back into the office.


So where does this leave us?

Rachel Estepa, plus-size wellness expert and founder of More to Love Yoga in Somerville, wants women to reframe their stories as they step away from the ring light, a process they liken to the first day of high school. If your hair is gray? Own it. If you want Botox? Own that, too. It’s all about what they call “body acceptance.”

“Tell your own story around it. Talk about the struggle and how we’ve managed it and release that. Tell someone, write about it, talk about it,” they said. And most of all, remember: We’ve been through a massive collective trauma.

“We are allowed to change,” they said.

And we’re allowed to take matters into our own hands, even if it involves something seemingly frivolous like Botox. The friend who texted me last night said she suddenly felt “embarrassed” about the procedure — even though it boosted her confidence.

I understand. I felt embarrassed making the appointment, like I was auditioning for “Real Housewives of Suburban Boston.” I thought, if I were truly evolved, I’d flaunt every last wrinkle like a badge of honor. I was ashamed of myself for having wrinkles, and I was ashamed of myself for trying to fix it: a no-win scenario. Now, I’m coming to realize that actual confidence comes from doing whatever makes you feel good.

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.