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The pamper effect – beauty salons as the new women’s refuge

* 17 December 2003 *

The pamper effect – beauty salons as the new women’s refuge

Women burdened by the competing demands of job, home, family and fashion are seeking therapy in greater numbers than ever before. But it's beauty salons, not the services of analysts and counsellors, which are profiting from the stressed-out casualties of modern life.

Once the preserve of "ladies who lunch", beauty salons are becoming the refuge of harassed working mothers and time-poor, cash-rich female professionals, by offering escape from responsibility and a bit of TLC with the facials and manicures. A typical client is a thirtysomething career woman who may be juggling family responsibilities and who also feels the need to look youthful and well groomed.

The insights come from a new book by University of Sussex sociologist Dr Paula Black - The Beauty Industry: Gender, Culture, Pleasure - to be published by Routledge in the spring. Dr Black based her research on interviews carried out with beauty salon owners, beauty therapists and their clients in the north of England and the Midlands, and her findings highlight the social forces that shape our lives today.

"If you look at the stats, the beauty business is a real growth industry. I began my research five years ago, and Botox wasn't even heard of then," says Dr Black. "All of the beauty therapists compared themselves to nurses, even though they can't actually do invasive treatments such as injections. The clients themselves also believe they are deriving real benefit from these services, not just in how they look, but how they feel. They have busy lives and want to claim back some time for themselves in the salon"

Dr Black adds: "Women also have treatments such as eye brow shaping, manicures and fake tans, because they have to project a professional, well-groomed image, particularly if they work in the service industries, where they are in contact with the public. Some even use salon therapies such as reflexology and massage to ease the symptoms of conditions such as multiple sclerosis and RSI". Men are also buying into the beauty culture in increasing numbers; particularly businessmen who want to endorse their professional status. "Men are having treatments such as waxing and manicures," says Dr Black.

But there is another side to the booming beauty industry, says Dr Black. "Feelings of inadequacy are also driving women to beauty salons. People's natural bodies are seen to be 'wrong' and need disciplining into an ideal - having hair removed by electrolysis, for example, or thread vein removal. The beauty industry profits from this. Often women feel too ashamed to admit they've had such treatment, or can ill-afford them." The beauty therapists themselves are not always keen, either, to advertise what they do for a living. "Most beauty therapists will say they work in the health industry," says Dr Black, "because they fear being labelled a 'bimbo' or sex worker."

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