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23rd of March 2017

Women



The Mirror Has Two Faces: How a Beauty Practitioner Copes With Loss

Melissa Broder takes a closer look at the beauty rituals we love.

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Welcome to Beauty and Death, a column that examines beauty rituals. Why do we continue to invest time, money, and energy in our bodies despite the inevitability of death? Is it because these rituals distract us from our questions about the meaning of life? Melissa Broder—a.k.a. @sosadtoday—wants to find out.

Throughout my life, I've used beauty rituals to distract myself from big questions regarding death and the making of existential meaning. Sometimes I'll project my free-floating fear of the unknown into anxiety about a haircut that seems uneven, or an ombre disaster where the ends fried off. Other times, the excitement of a new keratin treatment makes me feel like I at least have control over one aspect of an uncontrollable world.

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Of course, it's a privilege to be able to shut the blinds on life's more amorphous terrors in this way: not only financially, but also in terms of mental health. There have been a few times when I've been in a place of such deep depression that a beauty ritual failed to avert my attention. That's when I knew shit was really dark.

Can I really talk to my colorist about the inevitability of death? Or is there a certain level of distance that I am supposed to maintain?

But what is it like for a beauty practitioner who is grappling with similar existential questions? Beauty professionals are expected to bring a glossy joie de vivre to their jobs: a surreal state of excitement about bettering you, which is what makes the beauty treatment feel like a psychic rescue in the first place. But what about their emotional lives? How does trauma impact a worker's ability to provide relief for others? How might an everyday experience like a mani-pedi, which the customer might deem self-care, impact the person on the other end if they're in emotional pain themselves?

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I spoke about the psychological implications of working in the beauty industry with my friend Steph Stone, a celebrity nail artist, who, by nature of her clientele, is required by industry standards to maintain a cheerful, "light," and congenial attitude at all times. When Steph first started her career, she was enthusiastic about her profession. "Though nothing is ever perfect, after a few years of doing editorial and on-set work I was happy and pleased about the life I had built for me and my son," she says. "I had an impressive celebrity client list, had keyed a Louis Vuitton fashion show, started a nail tutorial YouTube channel, shot campaigns for everything from Saint Laurent to Louboutin…I didn't struggle as hard with the things my mind used to battle with." She booked job after job, and delighted in the popular following garnered by her Instagram account.

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"It's very much like transferring your energy—you're holding someone's hand for an hour."

But Steph's ability to find meaning within the world of glam changed last year when her boyfriend died unexpectedly; her grasp on even simple, everyday things evaporated. "Suddenly I wasn't sure what was real anymore. I wasn't sure if I really existed," she says. "There were times I was sure I'd be able to put my finger through solid objects because I was sure I was a fragment of someone's imagination or something."

All this pain meant that the exciting world of beauty was suddenly no longer a match for her emotional level, so she took a couple of months off. "I certainly couldn't go to work, where so much of my job was being bubbly and 'on' all the time," she tells me. "It's very much like transferring your energy—you're holding someone's hand for an hour." If Steph was having anxiety or feeling negative, she didn't want to spread that to her clients. And she couldn't afford the additional exertion it would cost to stay emotionally buoyant: "I felt like it would suck even more energy out of me, and if I did that, I was going to have even more of a breakdown."

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I tell Steph that I would love for a beauty practitioner to tell me that she is going through a hard time. I find fake small talk painful, but when I am helping someone else with their real, intense feelings, I feel less burdened by my own. The idea exists that beauty rituals should be uplifting. But can they be about therapeutic processing as well? Can we share some of the emotional labor?

Professionals like doctors and waitresses who are asked to do emotional labor while doing "labor labor" can often leave that behind when their workday ends. But for people like Steph who build their career via social media, the emotional labor doesn't stop. Despite the fact that Steph was unable to get out of bed, let alone do her own nails, she would post old selfies on her Instagram to create a facade of okayness. Such is the illusion of the Internet in an era when how we present our lives doesn't usually match the way we feel while living them. "I think I had convinced myself that I had to appear a certain way in order to maintain my success…a lot of people in my industry also feel that way because we have to be perceived as 'the best.'"

Beauty and Death Mia Feitel

But work—being present, in person—was much harder. "I remember trying to go back to work and getting a client ready during hair and make-up while tears silently streamed down my face. I kept my head down, finished the nails, and tried to go home as fast as I could." She wasn't ready, and it seemed impossible that she would ever be. "How could I do something so superficial while people were dying? We all die someday. We could die any moment. I could die any moment. That realization made me paranoid."

There were certain jobs that Steph was no longer able to participate in due to panic, crying, or the inability to get out of bed.

"I was told that I wasn't trying hard enough," she says.

Eventually she made her way back into the industry, but her relationship with it has changed. Steph now only works with clients with whom she feels naturally comfortable—like the celebrity client who texted her every day to make sure she was okay, wrote her a song, and even took her to get her own nails done during those difficult times.

And her view of what beauty can conquer has changed, too. "You can't find your fulfillment in an outward appearance. It only temporarily distracts. Because one day we'll be old and grey and wrinkly, and will still have to sit with ourselves."

Steph notes that everything still feels fragile and her panic attacks are still very consistent. "I have absolutely not made peace with death…I'm fearful that every day is my last, or that something bad is going to happen to someone I care about. My paranoia can definitely negatively impact how I view and approach my profession."

Mia Feitel

I wonder what would happen if, next time I go to get highlights, I were to broach existential matters. Can I really talk to my colorist about the inevitability of death? Or is there a certain level of distance that I am supposed to maintain?

Perhaps that's a step too far. But Steph says that discussing the real and difficult things that are happening to us shouldn't be totally out of bounds in the world of beauty. "I think when I first entered the industry I had an almost robot-like personality, because I assumed that's what the industry required," she says. "Somehow, after it all, being honest about my own story has made clients more comfortable opening up to me about theirs. At this point, hearing other people's stories and struggles is something that really fills me and helps me to overcome my own."

My next haircut is in two weeks. My stylist and I will likely greet each other with a big hug, and there will be a lot of fanfare over my hair. Then we will ask each other how we've both been, and both of us will say "Great!" Then, maybe I will ask, "But how are you really doing?"

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