Eight forty-five am at Arissa Beauty, and the excitement is palpable. For the first time in almost four months, this well-loved salon is about to open its doors to the historically groomed ladies of Chigwell, Essex: for manicures, pedicures and leg-waxes (but not treatments to the face, which remain prohibited).
The beauty salon is an important part of many a high street, but in Chigwell, it’s the heartbeat of the “Parade”. “Yes, people are interested in their appearance round here,” says owner Jasmine Chadda. “There are lots of professional ladies – as well as stay-home mothers – our midlife women want to look well-presented. The younger people follow the Instagram influencers and the TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex) crowd. I don’t see anything wrong with it: looking nice brings wellbeing and confidence.”
On standby are nail technicians Mona Kabena, and Dimple and Roop Kaur. They are wearing ‘triple’ PPE: Honeywell N95 masks (to protect themselves), topped by the usual blue surgical cloth coverings (to protect the clients) – and a see-through visor as the cherry on the cake.
“We want our staff to take the burden of the safety precautions,” says Chadda, whose husband, Rajesh, is a doctor. “But, before they come to the salon, all our clients fill in an SMS consultation form, which asks whether they have Covid symptoms. We request that people wear masks, and offer them for free. But we won’t turn people away who don’t want to wear them.”
In the salon itself, extra hygiene measures are discreet; they have removed the seating bench in the middle of the room and cleared surfaces, “but have kept perspex to a minimum so clients will feel relaxed and pampered. We sanitise the area after each customer, and will be defogging with a disinfectant air-spray which lasts for four weeks.” The Chaddas have even done up the small garden at the back, with a view to offering al-fresco treatments.
First through the door is Sharon Lavender, “a lady who lunches” in her 50s. There is general rejoicing, at least until everyone examines – with horror – Sharon’s solo growing out acrylic nail, barely hanging onto her finger, and bashed up varnish.
“There is no way I would touch my own nails,” she says, as Kabena files away. “Ohh, this feels fantastic.”
The next client takes her socially distanced seat, grinning widely with relief.
“Lockdown has been horrendous,” says Lisa Abbott, 58, a medical practice manager from nearby Theydon Bois. “I am so excited to be here.”
Abbott, who generally takes care of her appearance with regular hair and nail appointments and facials, is sporting a head of fresh, blonde highlights. “I was very unhappy in lockdown with my Marmite-and-custard roots,” she says. “There I was, a wild woman with terrible toenails: I couldn’t reach my feet to do them properly so just put on this pale pink varnish, which I don’t love. Did I embrace the natural? Not really.”
Luckily, Abbott’s local hairdresser called offering her one of the first appointments, and she got her colour refreshed last Tuesday. “Waking into the salon was like a party,” she says. “It’s so lovely to see everyone coming out of hibernation, and peeking at what they have had done, and what still needs fixing. I’m still desperate to have my eyebrows threaded.”
A passerby sticks her head through the door, also asking after the same treatment. “I’m sorry,” says manager Julie Farrugia. ”Nothing on the face. We aren’t allowed.” Because despite salons, tattoo parlours and spas being allowed to open yesterday, beauticians remain unable to carry out facial treatments such as eyebrow threading and waxing, or eyelash tinting. Whereas men are free to have their nostril-hair removed and their beards trimmed.
This seemingly random ruling is of great consternation to salon owners, clients, and politicians alike: “There does seem to be a serious gender divide here,” said MP Caroline Nokes, chairman of the Women and Equalities Committee, last week. “You see these double standards creeping in. We’ve seen barbers trimming beards and we still have a range of facial practices that can’t be done on women.” The industry, she says “has been trivialised, and marginalised.”
Chadda is baffled by the ruling, adding that her husband, working on the NHS frontline, “thinks it is completely unnecessary. It’s okay to go to pubs, because that’s where the politicians want to go. But they don’t care about the beauty salons.” Chadda calculates that 60 per cent of her business is waxing and threading; “I will lose £3,000 in the next two weeks because I can’t do brows,” she says.
Of further consternation to her are those beauticians who have been operating illegally. “We have lost clients,” she says; while they are busy, “I know for a fact our diary is not as crammed as it was in the run up to July 4, when everyone thought we would be ‘going back’, along with the hairdressers. If clients can’t get a threading appointment, they can’t be bothered to make a special journey [just] for their nails. I anonymously called up a salon last week and asked for the whole works, including a facial. They said they would do it. I could name and shame a few local salons.”
Moreover, says Chadda, for some people, removal of facial hair is more than a cosmetic tweak. “We have clients with sensitive hormonal problems such as polycystic ovaries, or thyroid issues. We know they are suffering because they can’t have their facial hair removed. This isn’t just a frivolous service we are offering here. And if clients fall into the vulnerable ‘shielding’ community, we have dedicated hours where we close the salon just for them.”
Paloma Mairone, a 20-year old student and aspiring TV presenter, is at Arissa for a Hollywood bikini wax. But her main beauty concern is her excess facial hair, a product, she says, of her Sicilian background.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” she says of the remaining treatment restrictions. “So many of the Covid rules have been contradictory.”
Mairone has been waxing her own face during lockdown: she bought a wax- melting machine, and accessories – “but it’s not the same.” Suffering from lockdown isolation after being cut off from her usual social life and moving back in with her parents in Hertfordshire, this 40 minute journey to Chigwell is well worth it. “Everyone is obsessed with beauty, but it feels so good to be here,” she says of her maiden voyage to the beautician.
“You can’t believe how much I have missed being pampered.”