When did we start paying so many strangers to touch us?
Manicures, pedicures, facials, massages, blow dries, brow shaping, spray tans, brazilians, teeth bleaching and eyelash extensions are no longer just for ladies-who-lunch or celebrities called Jennifer (Lopez, Anniston, Garner, Love Hewitt, Hudson, Hawkins etc).
As the beauty industry helpfully invents dozens of new ways for us to ‘improve’ our appearance, the cult of pampering has become as widespread and classless as getting your hair cut.
Salon appointments have morphed from vain indulgence to baseline maintenance for loads of normal women whose me-time now revolves around paying people to make us look ‘better’.
It’s relentless and expensive and as a phenomenon, it’s pretty new. As British journalist Julie Burchill recently wrote; “Twenty years ago only prostitutes, kept women and other ladies whose looks were their living – like actresses and models – spent any amount of time undergoing beautification on a regular basis.”
This is true. My mum had her first manicure in her fifties and the idea made her so uncomfortable it took years of persuasion. Our vanity levels are similar but it was a clear generational divide, like the way she was scandalised when I hired a cleaner in my twenties.
Because unlike my typically DIY mother, my generation is very comfortable with outsourcing. Entire industries have emerged to cater to our laziness: dog-walkers, party planners and eyebrow shapers didn’t exist 20 years ago and yet today they’re mainstream.
And as nail bars and blow-dry salons pop up in train stations and shopping centres, office workers, students and stay at home mums are forming the bulk of their customer base.
Girlfriends now catch up over a mani/pedi instead of coffee, chatting away while the women trimming their cuticles chat in another language. Teenagers are having facials and brazilians at beauty appointments booked and paid for by their mothers. You can have your teeth bleached at lunchtime and a fresh tan sprayed every Friday. I know working women who no longer wash their own hair. Instead, they pay $30 to have it done each week. “It’s just easier” they shrug.
Sure it is. All that lathering makes my arms tired too.
Julie Burchill’s assessment of all this is scathing. “Pampering is one of the great cons of modern times, a new religion of narcissism, selling love to the loveless and touch to the lonely. Like sweet-smelling zombies, pamper junkies live a half-life where the body is a temple – but no one is home.”
Burchill calls this new narcissism “pamper-pimping” and compares it to the ‘strait-jacket of fashion’. Whether it’s due to Photoshop, magazines or the Kardashians, the bar has certainly been raised on how women are expected to look – and not just on special occasions.
Speaking for myself, I find ‘pampering’ joyless but increasingly necessary (surely this isn’t just a first world problem but a first class one: ‘Oh no, my manicure is boring me! And peel my grapes faster, Cabin Boy!’)
Asked to rate myself on the pamper scale, I’d say six. I have regular mani-pedis (you can read about them here and what happened when I got into a fight at the salon one time), my hair is cut and coloured every couple of months and I have my brows shaped and tinted professionally a few times a year.
Spas though, have always made me antsy and not just because I can never remember whether it’s knickers on or off before a massage. I just find the idea of those body treatments claustrophobic. Same with facials. Not a fan.
And frankly, I resent every moment and dollar I spend on pampering and maintenance. I feel guilty about stealing that time from my family, my work and the rest of my life.
So why do it? Well, nicely maintained hands, feet and hair are my personal vanity baseline. There’s nothing physically pleasant about having them done but there is an aesthetic benefit. When my hair and nails are tidy, my legs shaved and my skin clear, I feel that wee bit more capable of staring down my day.
True, it’s foolish to base your confidence on the way you look because polish chips and a dodgy tan can turn you into a tandoori chicken in seconds. Still, as part of the bigger picture, it can help. And if I’m perfectly honest, I also like that nobody can reach me at the salon. It’s some uninterrupted time where I’m forced to sit in one place and be still – even if I feel guilty and restless.
Sometimes when I’m having my nails done, I’ll look up and see a schoolgirl with her mother, having manis or pedis together. Occasionally, these girls are as young as 8 or 9 and that makes me twitch. Not because I have a problem with nail polish on children; I often paint my own kids’ toenails (it’s the closest I get to craft). The difference here is the outsourcing. It feels odd to watch grown women being paid to tend to little girls; the commodification of pampering and the acceptance of it as a childhood activity.
If little girls experience these professional beauty rituals so young, how do you keep marking those rites of passage? Brazilians when they reach puberty? Botox for their 18th birthday? A boob job when they’re 21?
Surely it’s a good idea to postpone their recruitment into the cult of pampering for as long as possible. It’s hard enough as it is to get an appointment.
NOTE: I will be here on this post live 1-2pm AEST on Monday to reply to comments and discuss this column so drop by for a chat! Or a question! Or to tell me how your spray tan is working out!
How do you rate on the pamper scale? Are you a salon girl? High maintenance (physically)? And what do you get out of your various pamper appointments?