Alex* is a fermentation scientist who never misses a Botox appointment, even in a pandemic-stricken year when the service has been deemed non-essential. Thanks to a deal too good to pass up, she’s also tried Voluma injections during the past few months, along with a clandestine spray tan appointment (“They ushered me in through the back door,” the scientist says). But don’t tell her family or friends, much less her thousands of followers on Instagram — Alex is keeping her beauty treatments during Covid completely hush-hush. “I just felt like I needed to do something for myself, but it’s not something I voiced — even to my fiancé,” she says. “The climate of the whole world right now is in such turmoil and I feel like being self-centred is not really something I need to broadcast to everyone.”
Alex isn’t the only one who’s keeping her treatments a secret. When Jordan’s* eyebrow specialist announced he would be taking appointments following the initial reopening of California salons in July, she secured a first-in-line appointment straight away, along with an in-home hair appointment, Botox and filler injections, a lash lift, a spray tan, and a PRP facial. As a content creator and brand consultant, it’s second nature, if not part of her job, to document her beauty treatments online. But not during the pandemic. Jordan has kept nearly every experience close to her chest. “I did post the PRP facial to Instagram Stories, but if anyone came back on me for it, I was prepared to say that I had filmed the treatment before the pandemic.”
Because of people like Alex and Jordan, business at hair, nail, and skin salons has surged — and held strong — after US statewide re-openings between May and September. Dermalogica, which works with some 20,000 skin service providers worldwide, reports that customers largely resumed treatments as soon as they were able and booked appointments ahead of re-openings in some states (something that helped garner a 250-person waitlist at the brand’s West Hollywood location). But you wouldn’t know it from talking to your friends or even scrolling Instagram.
As Amy Ling Lin, owner of the New York City nail salon Sundays, notes, business was fully booked after reopening in early July, but sharing on social media had plummeted to about 10% of what it was before the pandemic. Though clients were hurrying back, they did so with a more somber tone, Lin says. “When we opened, it was definitely very, very quiet in the salon. There was no conversation, whereas normally [getting a treatment] is a very interactive experience.” Though business has since held strong in her three locations, social sharing has only crawled back to 50% in September from what it was before initial closures in March.
Given the devastating magnitude of COVID-19, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 220,000 Americans, public health officials rightfully exercised extreme caution when making reopening recommendations. But beauty treatment providers, who have largely been the first to close and the last to reopen under state and county mandates, argue that those in legislative positions are inherently biased toward their line of work. “I think part of it is due to a lack of diversity and inclusion at the legislative level,” says Aurelian Lis, CEO of Dermalogica. “To put it bluntly, too many men who don’t understand what the industry is about make the decisions. Though they have all the best intentions and are working to keep people safe, they are using their own value systems in deciding whether something is important or not.”
Though most salons offer built-in hygienic practices and low foot traffic, that bias may have pigeonholed beauty treatments as the pinnacle of “non-essential” services — in some states surpassing crowded bars, sweaty gyms, and social gatherings, like weddings. As a result, there’s been a massive shift in the perception of beauty treatments and even providers are grappling with the stigma. “I struggle with the idea that I own what can be considered a very ‘vain’ business and I should help with my community more,” says Tran Wills, owner of Base Coat nail salons in Los Angeles and Colorado. “There’s this guilt and almost shame that I feel and my husband and friends had to shake me out of that. The business is ‘non-essential’, but it is essential. I provide financial stability for staff and relief of clients.”
For customers, beauty treatments can be a form of self-care and a way to find peace, especially during trying times. As co-owner of LA’s Highbrow Hippie Atelier, celebrity colourist Kadi Lee has felt nothing but support from her clientele, who see the value that hand-on care can provide. “In the beauty industry, we’re touching people and it’s an energy exchange. I’m the furthest thing from all woo-woo about it, but you really are affecting the client’s self esteem. Maybe you’re the only person touching them that day. I take that part of the job seriously because sometimes people really need that connection.”
All the beauty service providers we talked to for this story note that in an era of social distancing, they’ve seen an amplified need for connection and safely-administered touch among their clients. For her part, Lin reports an uptick in bookings for her manicure service with guided meditation. She’s also noticed clients taking the time to privately thank their nail techs via DM, which is something that didn’t happen as frequently before the shutdown.
But in a time when both researchers and leaders in the wellness movement widely recognise the mental health, stress-relief, and mood-boosting benefits of beauty treatments — and officials have deemed them safe by most statewide mandates — why do we still feel the need to hide these forms of self-care? Dr Sana Sheikh, a psychologist who studies moral emotions and guilt, notes an element of sexism at play. “There is, of course, a gendered component to what we categorise and condemn as frivolous,” she says. “This has been true long before the pandemic even hit.”
Both Alex and Jordan are highly cognisant of balancing the personal, self-care payoff that comes with getting a beauty treatment with how optics may be perceived by friends and followers on social media. “Anxiety and depression are at an all-time high and people are lacking social interaction, so it’s almost more important that I continue doing these things if it makes me feel good and I can afford it,” Jordan says. “At the same time, being vague when sharing this stuff protects me; I can’t be quoted for something I didn’t say.”
But there’s a deeper charge to living with this duplicitous point of view. “If someone is keeping their beauty treatments a secret — even if they may say they are fine with it — I would still suspect that their concern about others’ judgments serves as a mirror, on some level, for their own judgments about themselves and their actions,” Dr Sheikh says. “Secrets indicate that a person is likely navigating a conflict—and suggests the presence of shame, which is all about hiding from a real or imaginary other judging you harshly. Secrets are, in a sense, a compromise: doing what one wants while avoiding reproach from others or even from oneself.”
Alex has thought about this. But for her, discussing her latest beauty treatments “feels like it’s in poor taste,” she says. “There’s much more serious matters going on right now. How can talking about beauty treatments stand up against the pandemic, the political tension, the racial inequalities, the fires, and climate crisis? I wouldn’t dare undermine any of those things.” Dr Sheikh acknowledges that sensitivity. “For some, the choice to keep a treatment quiet may not be based in shame but in thinking it’s good social etiquette not to take shine away from important issues of our times.”
In the end, whether we choose to advertise our beauty treatments matters less than confronting our own biases surrounding beauty. “One doesn’t need to announce everything to the world,” notes Dr Sheikh. “But I would suggest that people explore all parts of their feelings, rather than hide or avoid them [and instead] unpack and acknowledge both their wants and their fears.” Being more transparent with ourselves may not only help ease beauty’s societal stigma inflamed by COVID-19 — it may also deliver what we’re actually striving for in this pursuit of wellness to begin with: a sense of inner peace.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
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