Perfecting the rituals of beauty

06:46, Dec 19 2012
beauty treatment
JUST RELAX: A trained professional stroking your forehead or rolling your earlobes or spritzing your decolletage - what could possibly go wrong?

Summer is here - and with it comes the recurring round of hard summer truths to be faced. We must reassemble the sunscreen and hats and Cancer Society paraphernalia by the front door. We must conduct the annual search for a pair of togs in which it's possible to be seen in public. We must re-engage with salads. And worst of all, if we're women (and, indeed, an increasing number of men), we must begin a round of pilgrimages to the beauty salon.

Not all beauty appointments are bad. Some, of course - waxing, laser, and every other form of scorched-earth-policy depilation we force upon ourselves - are excruciating. But pedicures, for instance, are almost always gorgeous (bubbling water, foot massage, coloured toes: the holy trinity of personal grooming happiness). So are manicures, massages, and any process involving the smoothing on or buffing off of perfumed potions and lotions and unguents. A trained professional stroking your forehead or rolling your earlobes or spritzing your decolletage - what could possibly go wrong?

Well, plenty. Things can go wrong with the room, the products, the beauty therapists (as they all want to be called now, instead of the infinitely more sexy and '50s-conical-bra-style "beauticians"). My life is littered with beauty-treatment disasters. The day I got left with my eyelash tint on (eyes glued shut with caustic paste) for half an hour and was forced to wail into the void like Munch's The Scream to obtain assistance. The day the eyebrow wax pulled off my entire eyebrow, à la Ziggy Stardust. The day the vibrations from a nearby jackhammer (see point 3, below) sent a naked light bulb crashing onto the actual treatment bed on which I was lying.

In response - nothing like glass shards to focus the mind - I've developed a list. A kind of creationist list, if you will: The Seven Vital Ingredients for the Perfect Beauty Treatment.

1) A decent treatment room. By decent, I don't mean it has to be an open-air, granite-floored temple beside an infinity pool with white muslin drapes and frangipanis floating in the ylang-ylang scented water. I mean it's got to be clean and painted white, and all exposed plumbing and venting and cabling has to be painted white as well. (For some unknown reason, beauty treatment rooms are often subterranean, and therefore bedecked with miles of visible guts-of-building material stapled to the walls. This is not the Pompidou Centre, people.)

It's got to be free of all signs that any other person has ever undergone a beauty treatment there. Towels must be fresh. Bins must be lidded. It's like the confessional box: when you're grappling to come to terms with your own sins, the last thing you need is the evidence of anyone else's. Also, there is no sight in the world more appalling than other people's hair - follicles attached - embedded in yellow wax.


2) Soft whale music playing in the background. Whale music can be alternated with music involving waterfalls or windchimes, or pretty much anything with a soft-focus land- or seascape associated with its marketing. Baroque music is okay - Telemann and Bach are both lovely - but nothing post-Mozart: the sturm und drang of Beethoven et al have no place in the beauty treatment room. The main point is that it should be entirely instrumental, with NO human voices on it. I remember one facial during which there was a huge choir singing "Can you HEAR the dolphins?" in the chorus. You think I'm joking, but I'm not.

3) No other background noise. No jackhammers, to use an example not entirely at random. And most importantly of all, no sound of either: a) wax strips being torn off the person next door (which is, after all, the sound of someone being tortured), or b) unoccupied beauty therapists leaning on the counter at reception saying things such as: "And I was like, 'I don't think so, Jason,'" or "I saw this, like, mini-dress at Supré? And it had, like, a lamé belt? I thought I could wear it with my thigh boots?"

4) A beauty therapist in a white coat. Don't ask me why, but they have to be wearing a white coat. Also silent shoes - like a nurse. The whole quasi-medical thing is reassuring, somehow. It correlates with the pseudo-scientific nature of the whole beauty myth, as developed at the Pond's Institute or the Laboratoires Garnier. "Now the micronutrients in the pawpaw's cellular diphosphate structure will plump up the elastin in your skin and reduce the visible signs of ageing."

I know it's all crap, but I love it. It's like the liturgy in church. You barely listen, but the rhythm of the words is reassuring.

5) A religious silence. Having just said I like the jargon, I now say I don't want to hear it during a beauty treatment. Nor do I want to hear anything about anyone's holidays, or how long they've been in the country, or what the latest treatment for ingrown hairs is. Nor do I want to be asked any questions about same, or told I should be exfoliating more often. (Is there anyone in the world who shouldn't be exfoliating more often?) The whole thing should be conducted in an atmosphere of religious awe.
As may be clear by now, the whole point about a beauty treatment is that it's the closest thing to a sacred ritual I have in my life.

6) The person giving the treatment should be great at touching other people. This sounds perverted, but some people are just naturally tactile and confident touching other people. The therapist should be one of these people, because they are the only ones who can make their hands work symmetrically, with the right amount of pressure.

The therapist at the "Hear the dolphins" facial not only pressed much harder with her right hand than her left, but also, when she brought her fingers up to my temples or the hinge of my jaw, actually missed both spots. Not by much, but enough to be totally disconcerting.

7) A beauty therapist should be like a priest. Or a doctor. Just as on rock tours or sporting trips, things that occur in the therapy room stay in the therapy room. A crucial facet of beauty treatments - at least for me - is that they should appear never to have happened. They should make you look as if you just naturally have radiant skin or perfectly manicured eyebrows - and it should be your prerogative to pretend that this is the case. "My eyebrows? Oh, we're just lucky in my family, our arches naturally resemble Angelina Jolie's."

Ergo, therapists must preserve a holy silence about you, and your treatments, to the rest of the world.  I am not sure if, at the time of writing, beauty professionals are required to swear a confidentiality oath on completion of their training, but they should be. And so if they meet you on the street, or at a party, they should smile and pass on, silent as a sphinx, carrying your beauty secrets far, far away. Or as far as next summer, at least.

- Daily Life