I had first approached this salon because it sat within the same building structure I lived in and faced St. Pauls’ which I frequented but was not consistent. But, a simple pedicure turned into hives and a week-long rash, and so I was given a free service to come back—a manicure with the same specialist.
Last time, conversation felt strained and distant, as though she was trudging through every word, taking longer and deeper breaths. I could tell something was wrong, but only offered her comfort and space, as she did eventually share, probably grateful to not be the listener.
This time, she greeted me with a brighter smile; it was different. I had heard her talking to the client before me and it was all bright there too. I even got to speak French with the woman she treated, who had just come from France. It put me in a softer mood too. I had worried my skin reaction had gotten her in trouble, but she apologized for the fumbling of product saying that she was grateful I had said something.
And I did notice the difference. She told me of her love and the recent sunrise she saw. She told me of her mother and sister and how she felt different from them. The same age as me, we walked through both of our feminine stories and landed upon this: her job was not just beauty, but rather a source of empowerment; “I’m a healer,” and I knew what she meant.
It reminded me of this ethnography I read in college: Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s Experiments in Skin. Drawing upon the chemical warfare during the Vietnam War, Tu supplies a case study of skin care in Vietnamese spas. Beauty is her gateway into understanding the traumas and strengths of culture. It is both racially focused, as we learn of how the United States government forged inaccurate skin results to say that Black skin was more tolerable to chemicals—in order to justify the killing of black bodies by increasing Black soldiers into combat and reducing white—and gendered, as women lead the charge in skin care and have been historically the healers and problem-solvers. The way these spa women are able to adapt and navigate the harm done, reveals the crux of this work: beauty is feminist and patriarchal; it is a reflection of a people fighting in the ways they know how.
In order to reach one’s full empowerment, we need the guidance of our healers. And this, this is what my new friend meant. She, like others within beauty, is the vessel to my own strength. The facilitator of knowing. The magic that awakens the soul.