"I’m a beauty therapist, and the government has left us behind"

·11-min read
Photo credit: Alice Cowling
Photo credit: Alice Cowling

From Cosmopolitan

It was only when I found myself sofa-bound, munching my second bowl of off-brand cereal (lunch cornflakes are a thing, right?) and crafting a livid email to Tesco Careers, that it hit me how my life has changed in this messed-up year.

I’ve been in the business of beauty for over a decade. Make-up artistry, brows and lashes are my bread and butter - meaning all of my work is considered ‘close-contact service’.

This, in turn, means that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I've gone without any income for five months. Having only my own face to paint during the lockdown, I felt less “self made” and more “selfie brigade”.

You might already know that on August 15th, at long last, the government reopened the close-contact beauty business, finally permitting services like eyebrow threading and makeup artistry. But that doesn't change the fact that my income, financial security - and entire profession - was shattered by the government's treatment of the beauty industry.

The first ray of hope

A flood of satisfying pings on July 21st was the first clue that we’d been given a date to reopen. Ecstatic, emoji-filled DMs from clients clamouring for long-awaited brow services. A gaggle of giddy brides, relieved to have one less thing to worry about. Not to mention the wobbly voice-notes from industry friends, for whom throwing open their clinic doors on 1st August would be the light at the end of a long, dark, Zoom-heavy tunnel. I filled my work diary to bursting and triumphantly poured myself a celebratory prosecco. Finally, back to sweet, sweet normality.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

But then; a creeping feeling of dread. My first rumblings of doubt appeared when - a week before opening - we’d still received no governmental guidance as to how we should protect ourselves and our clients from Covid-19, specific to our lines of work. The types of measures a client might take for granted; Should we clean the floor three times a day or four? Should I change my mask between appointments? Is it safe to offer close-contact services to my clients who are critical care nurses? Can they bring their babies along?... Their dogs?!

Of course, I’m no stranger to ultra-hygienic standards. Pandemic or no pandemic, my job demands a scrupulous approach. After all, just one case of mild conjunctivitis could be career-ending, let alone potentially life-threatening viruses. I’ve spent sleepless nights mentally checking off the extra measures I’m taking to protect my clients and the general public. It does prompt the question though: doesn’t the government trust our industry's health standards? And if not, why have they waited until now to say so?

That said, we’d all heard the warnings of 2 year prison sentences and hefty fines should our re-openings not be up to scratch. But with nothing to go by - was reopening a risk I was willing to take? After all, bankruptcy and prison time didn’t feel like the best back-to-work package. I prepared myself for the most stringent restrictions imaginable. An army of beauty pros, ready to reclaim our income.

Risky business

With my risk assessment completed, I bit the bullet and cracked out my credit card. Public liability insurance renewed, PPE ordered, expired stock replaced. I spent hundreds of pounds on preparation. And for multi-employee businesses? This financial investment would have certainly entered the thousands. What’s more, the question marks loomed.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

48 hours before re-opening, I was still frantically refreshing the government website. Sure - I was hyped to get back to cutting creases, but did obligatory face coverings make lipstick application no-go? Barbershop beard trims had been back on the menu for weeks (the scrupulous governmental guidelines on this service was very prompt)... but was facial threading allowed?

Bad news

Then came the devastating blow. Less than 24 hours before I was due to work again, I was on a bizarrely normal-feeling coffee date with a friend when I got the text; “Babe, I’m so, so sorry. This makes NO sense!!! Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” ...Wait, what?

Our reopening had been pushed back by the government by a fortnight, “at the earliest”. A disaster. As the news sank in, I felt a wave of panic. I absent-mindedly pulled up my instagram feed in search of pacifying, glossy content, but instead found clip after clip of teary beauty pros. My mind was cast back to the recent jeering in parliament when male politicians openly mocked and belittled our beauty business. I’ll admit: I was riled.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Look, I know how this sounds. It’s not the end of the world, right? What’s another two weeks? Plus, we’re fighting a global pandemic! Put your big-girl knickers on and get over it. As a wise Kourtney once said: people are dying, Kim.

And I hear you. The thing is, for beauty professionals, the safety of the public has always been our primary concern. But delaying our re-opening at such short notice with no clear plan gave mixed messages, and no doubt caused problems with compliance.

“It is too late to be announcing that businesses should not open.” Millie Kendall MBE (CEO of the British Beauty Council) tells me when I reach out to her. “They have prepared extensively for weeks if not months in order to be Covid-secure. So announcing at 12pm on a Friday is irresponsible and will only cause more people to practice underground.”

A reasonable prediction. Months ago, while the UK was fully locked down, I’d (rather preachily) talked a close friend out of accepting an illegal make-up job. “Come on! If a model became poorly after shooting with you, how would you feel?” I begged her to take it seriously. “It’s not just your reputation on the line - you represent the rest of us. And we have to be exemplary.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

What do I say to her now? The fact is, without more robust financial support, many people will be forced to go back to work regardless of the law - meaning they’ll do so without insurance, regulations or proper tracking.

How did this happen?

In my opinion, in keeping us out of work, the government made a terrible miscalculation of risk vs. reward. We, as beauty practitioners, know that our jobs are more than skin-deep - the social and mental-health benefits of our industry are tangible in every interaction. Human touch, informal counsel, a shoulder to (distantly) cry on. Many of us even have specific training to recognise the subtle clues of domestic violence. In hard times, our clients rely on us to call upon our expertise and emotional intelligence, helping them to feel more like themselves.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Besides, we’ve all seen the botched bleach-jobs and shaven heads during lockdown; what happens when untrained people attempt their friend’s lash-infills (or botox!) in unsanitary environments with rusty tweezers and a youtube channel for guidance? The consequences could be catastrophic.

It’s not just me who’s concerned. “The hair and beauty industry is in crisis”, a spokesperson for booking service Treatwell said in response to the news. “Our partners will be losing upwards of £250,000 in earnings in the first week alone”. We earn the UK £7bn tax revenue per year (more than car manufacture), so have we been so sorely neglected?

Is this sexism?

“It’s misogyny at the highest level.” Caroline Hirons said, when she took to social media to express her fury at the inequality. And heed my words: Hirons doesn’t hold back.

“I have never seen such disregard, disrespect and undermining of an entire industry that is predominantly feeding women and their families. And you [the UK government] are making sure that you can trim your beard, have a pint, watch the football and go for a game of golf! [...] People are going bust, people are loaning money, families are going to food banks.”

As CEO of the British Beauty Council, Millie Kendall consults directly with the Government on our behalf, but even she is baffled. According to Kendall, it’s due to what she describes as “a lack of respect” for the sector. “Is it because of our value? 1 in every 60 jobs in the UK and £30 billion isn’t small change.”

For Sharmadean Reid, (founder of innovative nail salon WAH and BeautyStack booking platform), a huge concern is the financial implications for those who couldn't afford this further delay.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

“It seems extremely inconsiderate to those whom the restrictions actually affect. It’s been absolutely devastating for the beauty industry and decimated their income. On top of this, many of the professionals in this industry are not eligible for the government grants that would help them at this time of need, especially those who are newly self-employed."

It’s why Beautystack organised a peaceful “Beauty march” in support of the industry. Their demands? A firm date. The opportunity to plan our diaries. Staffing. Childcare. Budgets. A day before this march was scheduled, we were given this date, only to be called off two weeks later.

But apart from a financial safety net that never came, what could have been done differently? Kendall’s opinion is that better communication would have made the biggest impact.

“The fact is that all along we have asked about the science, and I have never once been given the courtesy of having this explained. [...] If the government believes doing someone’s makeup will mean you could be at a very high risk for contracting the virus then they should say so.”

Queen of brows Suman Jalaf (founder of Brows by Suman) went as far as to say that she feels the government was “trying to disrupt small businesses”. She described the prioritisation of pubs and restaurants as “backwards”, when “a therapist couldn’t see a client safely and with PPE”.

Trying to move on

I can’t help but agree with her. After all, I’ve trained make-up artists for some of the world’s biggest beauty brands, and built my own business from the ground-up. Now, I find myself trying hard not to scream down the phone at the job centre staff when they ask me “So… what exactly have you been doing to find work?”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Sure, we're able to go back to work - for now. But I’m thanking my past self for putting a small amount of disposable income aside for a rainy day (or year?). Being child-free, I can just about get by with some scrimping and hustling. But many of my peers have staff looking to them for reassurance, not to mention their own children to feed, mortgages and bills to pay. Despite our industry being largely “covid-secure” by nature of the job, there’s just no guarantee our businesses will be stable after this reopening. Will we have to close again at some point? Are our future business plans dependent on a vaccine, whenever that may be? This in itself could be fatal for many.

So, what now? England's Chief Medical Officer originally warned that the UK may have reached its "limit" for reopening businesses (code for “beauty is cancelled”?) - so I was skeptical. But I optimistically rescheduled all of my appointments, and have begun working through my enormous back-catalogue of clients.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

What next?

Now that the business of beauty has reopened, many industry professionals are campaigning for lowered VAT to help ease the financial damage already done to salons and individual businesses. It's a start, but there's so much more to be done - by everyone - if the industry is to survive.

“Go and book a beauty treatment. Offer to buy a voucher. Keep these businesses afloat.”, Hirons said in her air punch-worthy IGTV rant. She since shared - with visible devastation - a heart-wrenching letter from a struggling beautician and single mother, (in which she admitted to eating only once a day and limiting hair washing to save money on shampoo). In response, Hirons has established an entire digital movement, BeautyBacked.com, where you can donate to support women in the industry who’ve been left behind, and sign a petition to get them back to work.

Hirons' message to the government?

Simply put: without women’s labour in the workforce and the home, “society would grind to a halt. And what you’re doing in this government is pissing off every single woman who has a vote. [...] Good luck next time round. We will not forget.”

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