Beauty Therapy

Health Profession or Cultural Practice?

by Eloie James

Beauty therapy is part of a wider, multi-national beauty industry that includes fashion, cosmetics, advertising and dieting. It covers areas of beauty concerned with personal care, health and well-being. Treatments include skin care preparations, massage techniques and the use of electrical equipment for electrolysis, figure shaping and body toning. Beauty therapists follow a recognised course of training at a beauty school; it is not possible to become a qualified, professional beauty therapist or aesthetician through an apprenticeship. They need to be able to offer sound health advice and to refer clients to medical or other specialist professionals where appropriate. The benefits of going to a professional beauty therapist for skin, nail, body and anti-stress care are only now becoming more widely known although they are growing rapidly in popularity. A survey showed that 13% more customers, mainly women, attended salons in 1998 compared to 1997 (The Beauty Industry Survey, Guild News, 1999). Therapy takes place in conventional beauty salons, hair and beauty salons, health clubs and mobile salons. Its values are supported substantially in the media. Health care products and beauty ideals are targeted at women in magazines. Advertising uses above all an idealised and sexualised feminine image as a marketing tool (Featherstone, 1982). Is beauty therefore a genuine concern for therapists as a health profession, or do its treatments simply reflect contemporary Western cultural practices?

Many beauty salons are certainly designed to draw relationships with a clinical setting. Staff may be dressed in white uniforms, formality emphasised, certificates asserting professional status and competence displayed. Customers are called clients. They are usually guided on entry to a comfortable waiting area with seating and assorted magazines. Beauty therapists carry out their work in either screened cubicles or communal treatment areas such as those where manicures are performed. Smells of equipment, lotions, chemicals and nail products permeate throughout. Intimate routines of health and beauty are carried out in a professional, therapeutic climate.

Beauty therapists themselves are concerned to distance their work from the beauty side of the beauty/brains dichotomy. A refusal to talk about beauty in relation to their role as therapist suggests a desire to prove their intellectual and professional capabilities (see endnote). The daily work of a beauty salon does not appear to draw overtly on a stylised, general standard of feminine appearance. Treatments are selected instead according to the specific needs of each individual client. Therapists’ skills are shown in their ability, following professional training, to assess and select the most appropriate forms of treatment. As one beauty therapist stated, “I do more at work than just the nails and make-up of blond bimbos.” Methods of treatment that make no reference to an assessment of the client’s own characteristics are deemed to be as inappropriate in the beauty salon as they would be in a hospital. Beauty therapists clearly provide more than a cosmetic service.

How then does beauty therapy define its work on the body? Therapists’ services are routinely divided between ‘pampering’ and ‘treating’. Pampering involves the relaxation and even indulgence of the client in the face of everyday stresses, and escape from the pressures of their work or family commitments. Rather than being seen as a necessity, pampering services are offered as a luxury to those with the economic means to finance their free time in this way. The costs of pampering may contribute to the guilt commonly experienced by women receiving these services, especially given the more widespread struggle of women to legitimise and create a space for their own leisure activities (Deem, 1986). However, this on its own does not mean that pampering is nothing more than a culturally acceptable form of femininity. Many complementary therapies document the reduction of anxiety and stress among the aims of the treatments they provide.

Services in beauty therapy that are defined as treatments include the removal of facial hair and acne. Unlike pampering, these services are regarded by therapists as essential in helping the client to overcome a problem they experience in relation to their body. Facial hair may be so distressing that a woman lacks self-confidence to appear in public situations. One beauty therapist commented that, “When I remove facial hair from a woman, she is often so embarrassed by her problem that it’s like a secret between us that she’s ashamed of and doesn’t want anyone else to know about.” It appears to be difficult to separate this area of beauty therapy from the medical concerns of other health professions.

However, an association of facial hair with characteristics of masculinity suggests that cultural values underlie the believed necessity of these treatments. Facial hair questions a woman’s social identity through challenging the perceived femininity of her appearance. Why should an essentially biologically-born woman struggle to look ‘normal’ through regulating her appearance if this is not measured against some culturally-held yardstick? Facial hair can hardly be regarded as life threatening in its own right. If it is threatening to the enjoyment of life, surely this must be based on a socially constructed notion of what is normal or even natural.

Perhaps therefore it is necessary to look beyond the work of beauty therapists towards the role of women’s bodies in a consumer society in order to decide whether beauty therapy is a health profession or cultural practice. Turner (1996) argues that patriarchy relied on a particular form of discrimination against women. This was systematically normalised in the institutional structures of religion, law, employment and politics. These practices no longer discriminate explicitly against women in Western democratic societies however, and Wolf (1992) argues that the maintenance of male power has shifted instead to an all-pervasive beauty system that she labels the ‘beauty myth.’ In this view, women are complicit in using their bodies to perpetuate their own torture under male oppression. Beauty therapy would then play a negative role in supporting the pressure on women to conform to an ideal of femininity.

Ultimately, it may not be possible to reconcile this tension in beauty therapy between individualised treatments and idealised femininity. Market forces encourage both individualisation and consumption (Featherstone, 1982). Women once pursued beauty in attempting to win the love of a husband; since the 1980s, women have increasingly sought self-discovery and fulfilment in their pursuit of beauty (MacCannell and MacCannell, 1987). Beauty therapy perhaps bridges both health professional and cultural practices by allowing a woman to consume mass-produced beauty products while believing they are uniquely designed to meet her own individualised needs.

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