Men are real, women are ’made up’: Beauty therapy and the construction of femininity (1)


Paula Black and Ursula Sharma

The Sociological Review, 2001, vol, 49, no. 1, ps 100-116




Beauty therapy as an industry is multi-faceted; as a set of practices it is complex. The beauty industry has been the subject of much critique but comparatively little empirical study. Based upon research with beauty therapists themselves, this article investigates the complex relationship between femininity and beauty. The beauty industry is located within debates about the body and leisure. The growth in the beauty industry is also linked to the commodification of body practices. Despite remaining critical of the role of beauty in the lives of women, we also emphasise the fact that women are not 'cultural dopes' (Davis, 1991). The actual experiences of beauty treatments and the testimonies of women involved in the industry paint a picture of competing discourses and contradictory outcomes. This is not least because both clients and therapists deny being concerned with beauty, but rather aim to provide 'pampering', 'treatment' or 'grooming'. The beauty salon may be seen as the site of both compliance with, and escape from, a feminine ideal. The role of class, ethnicity and age in breaking down the monolithical concept of beauty and in fragmenting the experiences of beauty practices are also discussed.




All societies require work to be done to the body to change it from the 'natural' to one that is specifically cultural (Falk, 1995). However, the ways in which feminine and masculine bodies become culturally acceptable differs greatly. In a late 20th century European and North American context, what might be called the ideal of femininity and the accompanying beauty industry are systems that regulate and commodify the bodies of women to an extent and in a form not experienced by men. In this context, male bodies require a very different form of maintenance in order to conform to hegemonic masculinity - men are 'real' without this work. This is not to deny that in the acquisition of varying forms of masculinity intensive work is done to the body; body building is an example. Young men too are under increasing pressure to obtain and maintain a specific 'look'. However, on a routine day to day level men are not required to paint, moisturise, deodorise and de-hair their bodies in order to appear masculine. These activities, however, form part of the day to day routines of femininity (Holland et al., 1994). In this sense then femininity is a state to be constantly sought.


The beauty industry fuels this acquisition of femininity and even for those women who do not visit beauty parlours themselves, the beauty system is all pervasive. This does not necessarily mean that all women will equally achieve this ideal, or that all women will strive to attain it, but rather than as a feature of the everyday lives of women, femininity, and the discipline of the unruly body, form an inescapable backdrop (Holland et al., 1998; Weekes, 1997; Skeggs, 1997).


In this article it is our aim to outline the work of beauty salons, and to investigate in some depth the claims surrounding what goes on there. The salon has been chosen as a site par excellence, where this attainment of femininity, and its definition and negotiation are being fought out. In its generally closed and intimate nature, the beauty salon is not only a feminised space, but also one in which the secret routines of femininity are commodified and exemplified. Such feminised spaces, it has been claimed, have been generally overlooked in the development of social theorising, for example in relation to urban sociology, where Lofland stated in 1976 that:

“As far as I know, for example, there is not a single published study of a beauty parlour, a setting in which many women may undoubtedly develop close and meaningful, if limited, relationships.” (Lofland, 1976; 154)

This absence has to a limited extent been addressed since this date (see for example, Furman, 1997; Gimlin, 1996; Jacobs-Huey, 1998; Thompson, 1998).


At this stage of our research, and reflected in this article, our discussion is preliminary and wide-ranging. Our aims include the investigation of the commodified nature of bodily maintenance and the extension of the leisure industry into this bodily arena; the relationships and micro-activities of the everyday world of the salon; the professional claims and rhetoric of the beauty therapist and her (and it is usually her) investment in the emotional labour of her trade; and finally, the main focus of this article, the relationship between feminism and its investigation of beauty and femininity. This study originally grew out of related research on non-biomedical healers and their sense of professional identity (Cant and Sharma; 1999). Our first interviews therefore, were concerned to examine the claims to professional status within beauty therapy. We intended to investigate beauty therapy as work rather than as a cultural institution. This emphasis was not maintained however, as our interest in the multi-faceted nature of the industry grew. It soon became clear that there were many ways of investigating this phenomenon.


Writers such as Wolf (1990) and Chapkiss (1986) have been unambiguously negative about the effects of the 'beauty system' or the 'fashion-beauty complex'. Wolf, for example, describes how eating disorders, the appearance of women in the work place and reproduction amongst other arenas have become subject to the 'beauty myth'. This system of beauty has arisen as a part of a wider backlash to the social, economic and political advances made by women.


Other work has, however, emphasised the complex nature of discourses and practices which regulate the body and produce femininity (Bordo, 1993; Butler, 1993; Skeggs, 1997). It needs to be acknowledged that there is room for tension and ambiguity within femininity, not least in the sense that class, age and ethnicity will fundamentally alter the ways in which femininity is experienced and defined (Gimlin, 1991; hooks 1992). In our research we have discovered that the beauty industry, its role and the experiences of the women who come into active contact with it is indeed a complex matter ?


In approaching this complex area then we broadly agree with Davis' statement that:

“Feminist theory on beauty needs to be grounded; that is, it must take the ambiguous, contradictory, everyday social practices of women as its starting point.” (Davis, 1991: 33).


Methodological issues


Our research has consisted of interviews, observation in a college where beauty therapy was taught, and we have also received beauty treatments in salons. The interviewees were made up of eight women who taught beauty therapy, and seven salon owners or managers. All interviewees were based either in one large Midlands town or a Northern city. The beauty therapy teachers were all drawn from one college within the Northern city. In addition, we observed teaching sessions and staff meetings in this college, and offered a short course in research methodology to the beauty therapy students here. Finally, we received treatments in various salons unconnected with the college. In addition to this fieldwork we studied literature and journals disseminated by professional organisations associated with beauty therapy and interviewed some of their officials. It should be noted that the evidence upon which this article is based comes not from clients but from those closely involved in providing services within the beauty therapy industry.(3) Although some observation has been carried out in salons, the majority of the following arguments are based on the testimony of those occupying a specific position in the beauty therapy world. Those teaching the subject, and with years of experience in the industry will provide a different view to that based upon the experiences of clients.


Throughout our analysis and discussion we are referring to the beauty industry and beauty therapy more specifically in terms of its social and historical location. We are not concerned to chart the arguments around beauty and aestheticism per se, rather to investigate the role of the beauty industry and culturally specific beauty ideals which are implicated in our investigation of beauty therapy.


The nature and scale of the beauty industry


A beauty salon has its own ambience. The uniforms of the staff, the decor, the layout reflect the aspirations of the owner. Some salons give the immediate impression of a clinic where staff dress in white, and where formality is emphasised. In other salons, the staff are required to dress in more flamboyant colours, often matched by the decor and the welcome received by the client. Walls are decorated with the qualification certificates of staff and membership certificates of professional associations. Salons generally contain a waiting area with comfortable seating and assorted magazines; a desk and a till close to the door where the client is taken after their treatment; a private area for staff; screened cubicles where treatments are carried out; and if the salon offers nail treatments, there is also a more communal treatment area where manicures are performed. The salon has its own routines and tracks along which staff walk in greeting clients, guiding them to treatment rooms, offering refreshments, and finally leading to the point where payment is made. Salons too have their own smell which is that of the equipment and chemicals used for treatments intermingled with the pleasant aromas of perfumed creams and lotions, cups of tea and coffee, and sometimes too the strong smell of nail products. In this atmosphere the intimate routines of body maintenance are carried out.


Beauty therapy is part of a vast multi-national industry. The value of the professional beauty industry in the UK in 1998 was £366 million, which represented a growth of almost 6% on the previous year. This figure includes beauty therapy treatments in a variety of sites including mobile, hair and beauty salons, health clubs as well as the conventional beauty salon. The growth in the customer base stood at over 13%. This means that 13% more people, the vast majority women, visited salons in 1998 compared to 1997 (The Beauty Industry Survey, Guild News, 1999).(4) The beauty industry operates through a variety of sites, all sectors of which are supported through media and advertising. Women are the targets of this beauty ideal in women's magazines and in advertising for products which promote health and beauty. The idealised and sexualised feminine image is also used in advertising as a

marketing tool (Featherstone, 1982).


The expansion of the beauty industry has accompanied the expansion of the leisure industry more generally and this was acknowledged by the therapists we spoke to:

“I think years ago there was almost not a sort of business ethic behind beauty therapy. It was a kind of luxurious service. And I think it was a lot of small salons working on quite outmoded and outdated lines and were seen very much as a wealthy woman's option. I think it has changed quite radically Now it is a lot slicker, more business oriented. Salons seem to plan a little better, analyse what they are doing to maximise their market. The bigger companies are a big influence. I think it's the growth of the leisure industry that has dragged us forward because, you know, the hotels are now big business, and gyms in hotels. So now we have a lot of salons in hotels alongside the leisure complex. . . And I think it is far more accessible to people. With the advent of the fitness regime and people going to gyms and being more concerned and that, they are more exposed to beauty therapy and they are thinking well why not? I have worked out in the gym, why not treat myself to a massage? Why not have a facial?”


However, it is important to note that one woman's leisure is another woman's work. The beauty industry itself, whilst providing the site for carefully packaged and segmented parcels of free time, is also the site of work involving physical labour, emotional work, long hours, low pay, and often poor work conditions for those employed within it.(5)


What is beauty and do women want it?


Perhaps it would come as no surprise if women did strive for beauty. Beauty is routinely associated with morality, sociability, kindness and other positive characteristics. The work of Lombroso in the early part of this century sought to theorise the links between facial features and criminality (Lombroso, 1968). Of all of those who are subject to this valuing of beauty though, women are the group most routinely and consistently judged according to aesthetic ideals. Not all women wish to or are able to approximate to an idealise standard of beauty but all women are evaluated against this yard stick. Black women, for example, may reside outside of the idealised notions of the fair skinned beauty. In defining Black as not only a personal but a political identity, other aspects of appearance appear desirable and beautiful. For example, within the British context, Weekes (1997) describes how ambiguity arises from an internalisation of white standards of beauty by both Black men and women. In struggling to challenge this standard, a different Black standard of beauty is established, which is often itself essentialised. White people themselves internalise idealised standards of beauty. As the category of white is both internally differentiated and hierarchical, some groups of people may never feel that they are 'white enough' (Dyer, 1997). In our study all of the interviewees except one were white, and the clientele of the salons visited whilst we were present was overwhelmingly white. Though we have analysed in detail the construction of femininity within beauty therapy, we have as yet paid less conceptual attention to the construction of whiteness, or other 'racialised' categories. This is an avenue we intend to explore in future research.


Beauty may also be experienced in other contextually specific ways, for example, the symbols of beauty vary according to age and also class (Gimlin, 1991). It should also be noted that beauty is never a pure category, and femininity itself is always related to from a variety of subject positions. For example, Skeggs has shown in her study of white working class women that femininity was not an identity which the women unambiguously identified with (Skeggs, 1997). This ambivalence towards the trappings of femininity has been highlighted in our study by the refusal of therapists to acknowledge that their work is about beauty or the production of a highly feminised appearance.


The salon is also an explicitly heterosexual world. This does not mean that the clients and the therapists are all heterosexual, but rather that the body work performed there is set against the backdrop of an overt (female) heterosexuality. Lesbianism was not mentioned, and in the view of the therapists, the male visitors to beauty salons were likely to be gay, or 'stressed' executives.


It seems then that discussion of beauty per se is inadequate. This inadequacy in terms of theorising is matched by the therapists' own mistrust of the term. There was a noted absence of any discourse of beauty in their interviews or wider discussions with us. Only in one sense did beauty arise and this was in the criticisms of the term in the title of their profession. This addition to 'therapy' was seen to devalue the therapy and treatment side of their work, and to somehow trivialise their role. Beauty in this way contributed to the image of the beauty therapist a& 'bimbo' and was a much resented term. The following interviewee summarises the view she believes the general public holds of the profession:

“Beauty therapy is for the girls who could not hack it at school, they failed, they're stupid, all they do is paint finger nails and file and chew gum and that's it.”

This kind of belief reflects the common-sense understanding of the 'beauty/brains' split against which women are evaluated. In being associated with the beauty side of this dichotomy, beauty therapists felt that they were constantly battling to prove their intellectual and professional capabilities.


The treatments offered to clients in our study were carried out on a highly individualised basis, and the assessment of the best treatment as well as the most appropriate method of administering that treatment depended on the skills of the therapist. In fact this formed an important part of their training, and professional rhetoric. Apart from a generalised sense of helping the client to look and feel good there was little evidence of a standardised form of beauty drawn upon in the work of the beauty salon. In fact, as the quote below illustrates, treatments provided without reference to the particular characteristics of the client were seen as inappropriate:

“Make-up is so subjective and what you think would look good on somebody , is not their perception of what looks good on themselves. Students start out by putting their own make-up on everybody, which a sixty year old lady will not always suit! They won't say '1 hate it', but you know that they go into the toilet before they go home and take off all that the student has put on, because its a young person's make-up that has gone on to someone who really shouldn't be wearing so much make-up.”


The professional standards of the industry and the working practices of each were viewed as highly important but the ends towards which these practised means were progressing were less carefully reflected upon. This does not mean that there are not generalised beliefs about the culturally acceptable forms of femininity, but rather that within this ideal there is no one way to be 'beautiful', or even a desire to become so. In fact ideals of beauty were sometimes mentioned as specifically what the client was not aiming for:

“Not everyone wants to walk into a salon and see a blonde 'bimbo', you know, with legs up to their armpits to make them feel intimidated. I mean people are ordinary. Ordinary people come through here. Elderly people come through here and they're pleased to see me because I'm past it (laughs).”

Beauty therapists do not simply offer cosmetic services but see themselves as having some overlap with the medical profession. Their work on the body certainly strays in to the territory of both the medical profession and complementary therapies. Salons are not simply about nails and make-up!

“I would say that it does offer a very high therapeutic angle to it, it boosts people's confidence and self esteem. Some people, I think, misinterpret what vanity is. If somebody said years ago 'I am going to a beauty therapist's', you instantly thought beauty and vanity, the two go together. But these days there's more to salons, there's more emphasis on stress related problems and that, massage is good to release stress and these other therapies have come forward, reflexology, aromatherapy, shiatsu.”


The beauty ideal then must be widened and refined if it is to make any sense in the context of the beauty salon. The therapists themselves openly rejected the idea that they were producing a look for women as if on some sort of formalised conveyor belt. However, there is a problem here with why and how these individually experienced desires arise. An individual is never simply an individual. Selling individuality is a very different matter to demanding a product on the basis of purely individual desires.


If not 'beauty' then what do beauty therapists do?


The beauty therapists then did not discuss beauty directly, instead their work was divided into 'pampering', 'treating', and 'grooming'. Pampering treatments are not seen as a necessity, but rather an indulgence for which the recipient often feels guilty. Pampering is associated with relaxation and implies that the need to relax arises from some stressful situation that the woman is escaping. Stress most often relates to work or family commitments. The cost of the beauty treatment, especially if seen as pampering rather than a necessity adds to the guilt associated with it, particularly if this is taken from family funds. One of the salon owners in our study had learnt to deal with this issue in her work:

“I mean we still get ladies in who say 'oh I can't afford that'. My answer is well, I ask them a question, 'has he [husband] got a football season ticket'? and if she says yes, 'well spend an equal money on your face', and then they see it in a different light because the man is a bit old fashioned, you know, 'spending all that money on your face, you can't see what's happened',”

The economic implications of 'pampering' here are put in to perspective in terms of comparing the woman's time to herself and the use of household money to facilitate this, with the man's involvement in leisure activities. This struggle for women to create a space and a legitimacy for their own leisure activities has been well documented (Deem, 1986).


We were constantly told in the interviews that clients desire to look 'normal', particularly in the case of treatments such as those for the removal of facial hair or acne, or that they simply want to 'make the best of themselves'. It is here that the work of the therapist becomes 'treatment'. The removal of facial hair is one area where therapies received are seen as being essential treatments for a legitimate, almost medicalised, problem:

“When you do a consultation there's two things a woman will always say. She will always say - jokingly -'1 thought I was turning into a man'. But it is a fundamental worry that they're losing their femininity . . . So they are convinced that they are on their own and they are convinced that they are no longer feminine. It's a awful thing for a woman to feel like that, very, very damaging. And they feel isolated because its not anything you can talk to somebody else about. You can't say 'oh, how do you deal with your beard'? I knew one woman who used to get up, religiously, half an hour before her husband, go to the bathroom, tweeze out all the hair on her chin, put on full make-up before her husband was up. He didn't know she had a problem.”

This is clearly an area where the facial characteristic of hair is seen as a signifier of masculinity, and in turn is a 'terrible thing' to happen to a woman. These tiny hairs can question her social identity to such an extent that her appearance is kept under surveillance and regulated, sometimes with help from the beauty therapist, but always as a shameful secret from everyone else. This struggle for femininity questions essentialised notions of being born a woman, with a biologically female body. The artfulness of such an achievement illustrates the highly constructed nature of this supposed 'natural' state.


Particularly where clients were busy working women, then the need to look adequately groomed was a further justificatory strategy for visiting the salon:


Beauty therapist 1: A lot of women work more now so they feel they can take time for themselves, whereas before a lot of women just used to be housewives.

Beauty therapist (2): Yeah, they hadn't got their own money.

Interviewer: So a lot of clients you get here actually do work then?

Beauty therapist 2: Yeah, yeah, this is why we've got a bit of a gap and then all of a sudden they're haring in for a quick half leg [wax] and an eye brow trim and dash back to work.


The work of beauty therapists then only obliquely, if at all, refers to the concept of beauty. The therapist contributes to the leisure time of the client; to the maintenance of an acceptable, feminine, but not overtly sexualised, appearance for the world of employment; and to the achievement of a narrowly defined standard of 'normality'. What this fragmentation of discourses around the work of the salon suggests is that femininity is produced in relation to several different external social institutions; or perhaps that different women in the salon invest in their femininity in different arenas. This multiplicity of roles has also created space for men to visit salons. We have anecdotal evidence of an increase in men's use of beauty salons in the UK. The type of treatments they were receiving appeared to fall in to the category of stress relief (e.g., body treatments, massages etc.), or the area of grooming.


'Ordinary people come through here'


The expansion of the leisure industry and the seemingly unhindered spread of rampant consumerism are not in themselves enough to explain the growth in the beauty industry. In order to do this we must look more widely at the role of the body in this consumer society, and more fundamentally at the role of women's bodies. In addition, by listening to beauty therapists themselves we can begin to evaluate some of the claims made in academic work.


Turner (1996) argues that patriarchy relied upon a comprehensive system of institutionalised discrimination against women in law, religion, employment, politics and so on. In Western democratic societies this systematic set of structures no longer explicitly discriminates against women and instead these societies may be characterised by what he terms 'patrism'. As a result of the shrinkage in institutionalised power of patriarchy, reaction shifts to other systems whereby male power is maintained. Could it be the case then that the 'beauty myth' is a newly evolved system of oppression which has taken over where discrimination these other left off (Wolf, 1990)? Despite seeing the beauty system as all pervasive and damaging for women, Wolf does acknowledge the fact that often women desire to conform to this ideal. In this view then the role of the beauty industry is negative, even to the point of convincing women to become complicit in their own 'torture'. One of the therapists in our study commented on this pressure and her role within it:

“I wouldn't go out of the house without make-up. Which has got to be wrong. Image is very nice but it's not the be all and end all. It's just a vanity business isn't it?”

The external pressures to conform to a certain ideal image have also been linked to the development of advertising and women's magazines which target women as consumers. Women are encouraged to create an individual look through consumption of mass produced products. The paradox in this situation is overcome through the woman's own labour to create her body or her home. Beauty is a tool which is used in the service of this push to consume (Lury, 1997; Winship, 1987). These pressures were to some extent acknowledged by the therapists themselves:

“Yes, there are always these magazines with gorgeous women staring back at you. You think that's the way men perceive you as, and that's the way you should look yourself.”

The picture from the interviews, however, is not so straightforward. We would argue that the roots of this complicity, and the desire for a particular body image can be more usefully understood by linking the issues arising from our interviews to wider sociological themes.


One of the tensions within beauty therapy is that between the individualised treatment experience and the existence of a generalised feminine or beauty ideal. Individualisation and consumption go hand in hand. It has been claimed that the radical individualisation of late modernism has weakened communal ties and identifications, and that primary relationships now exist between individuals and the market. This has been documented in the case of leisure activities and lifestyle and even to the extent of intimate and love relations being restructured according to the demands of the market (Featherstone, 1982; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995). Whereas the focus for women in the past has been to achieve a certain look in order to gain love and win a husband, from the 1980s onwards love disappeared from the beauty books to be replaced by the goal of self-discovery and an individualised search for fulfilment (MacCannell and MacCannell, 1987). In the beauty salon, the woman can perhaps convince herself that the product she is consuming actually is unique and tailored to her own very specific needs. At the same time beauty therapy as a social activity is important.


Studies of hairdressing salons and beauty parlours in the USA have found that a shared experience is central to the visit. Furman (1997) describes how for older Jewish women the visit to the salon is very much an opportunity to share details of everyday life events with friends and peers. Jacobs-Huey (1998) describes a similar process in a hairdressing salon with predominantly African-American clients. In both of these cases the layout of the salons and the type of treatments delivered facilitated a sharing of experiences between the women in a general open space. In the British context, at least in the salons we have visited, this is not the case. The client is led in to a private cubicle and interaction is facilitated only between the client and the therapist on a one to one basis. Privacy and individual attention to the client are part of the professional ethics of the beauty therapist. The role of therapist here is as unofficial counsellor rather than participant in a general conversation. Beauty therapists must carry out both body and emotion work:


“I would say 80% of my clients, maybe higher, have problems that they tell me about every time they come in . . . They come back because they feel cared for. They come back because you will listen to them whereas at home you know the husband will say 'God if you talk about that once more I will scream', but they pay you to listen as well you see, as well as having the treatment. I have clients here, they'll pay forty pounds for a facial and they're lying there the whole time with their eyes open instead of relaxing and going right in to it, they're lying there the whole time and telling me about their latest trauma, and I'm thinking 'what are you getting from this facial'? But what they're getting from the facial is unburdening of their problems.”


This counselling role was an ambiguous experience for the therapists. Though they were aware of the benefits to the client, and of the fact that this was one of the key motivating reasons for women to return for treatment, in terms of their own mental and emotional health, this role was a difficult and sometimes exhausting experience. At the same time they also derived immense personal satisfaction from having helped and listened to clients (Sharma and Black, 1999). However, in receiving manicures, and in the waiting areas, women do meet and spend some time sharing the social rituals mentioned in the studies from the USA. We would suggest that this may be one of the reasons for the growth in the popularity of nail treatments as women may attend salons partly in order to partake in this more social activity.


In another sense too, the woman enters the salon aiming to partake of thoroughly social activities. Not only the therapists but the clients themselves are fully aware that treatments must be appropriate to the category of woman that is being dealt with. This appropriateness is expressed implicitly in the therapists' discussion of age, or of tailoring treatments to clients' own desires. Women's knowledge of femininity and their own position in it is a collective achievement which is constructed not only through sources such as the media and the advertising industry, but also experienced through the milieu of friends, family, employment, partners and so on. Skeggs (1997) argues that women make differing levels of investment in femininity. In terms of the working class women in her study, relationship to femininity was ambiguous. Investment in its traditional trappings was higher when young, and decreased with age as time and money were invested elsewhere. The rituals of 'dressing up' or shopping were social occasions, and the final appearance of the woman a combination of many factors, including her own social positioning, and those surrounding her. This is a regulated femininity, not wholly embraced by women themselves. The women here are working class and white. Class, 'race' other than whiteness and sexuality will produce different relationships to femininity, and the women involved will be judged very differently. The individual does not enter the salon simply as an individual. Her decision to be there, her request for treatments, the desired outcome, the amount of money available to spend and a host of other factors enter the salon door with her .


Another recurring theme in our study has been the way in which therapists divide treatments into a series of dichotomies which we have described as, for example; aesthetics/treatment; looking/feeling; and holism/bits. Although there is an overlap in the sense that treatments have effects for both appearance and feeling, generally this distinction holds:


“You're a bit like Jeckyll and Hyde when you're in the salon. You know, when you do somebody a make-up, talk about completely different things and you act in a completely different way to when you're giving them a massage or a facial. When you're doing their nails it's different again When you go out into industry you learn how to change conversation, how to change, erm, your persona.”


One of the consequences of this distinction is the fact that one area lends more legitimacy to the work of beauty therapists than the other. It is the focus upon beauty, appearance and the face which has reinforced the image of therapists as 'bimbos'. Many of the therapists were keen to stress the level of treatment carried out in their salons, and the overlap with the medical profession.


This split also means that perhaps beauty can be separated out from treatment in any analysis of the role of beauty therapy in the lives of women. Both looking treatments (e.g., facials, manicures, leg waxing) and feeling treatments (e.g., reflexology, massage) can be evaluated in terms of their function in the production of a feminine body ideal. Body treatments which aim to relax the client and are focused upon dealing with stress could perhaps be compared to the executive game of squash which receives little negative comment from either work-mates, professionals or academics. Leaving aside the question of whether the reduction of stress simply perpetuates the stressful situation which the woman originally finds herself in, and the issue of whether beauty therapists are qualified to deal with 'stress' in their pseudo-medical way, there has been less focus upon this area of the beauty industry in feminist critiques. In contrast, it is the beauty side of the work of salons which has attracted most negative comment.


Though tentative at this stage there is also some evidence in our interviews for clients to prefer different types of treatments according to factors such as social class. It appears that different salons and therapists will cater to different customer groups, guided by an implicit view of class:


“Maybe the smaller unregistered salons that really couldn't give a damn, maybe it fulfils a place in the market place for those that don't want to pay more for better qualified, well turned out therapists who know what they're talking about. Maybe some people just want like the hairdressers that are on the corner of the street 'oh I go there because it's handy', you know. OK your perm looks a total pig's ear and you didn't come out with the right colour on your hair, but it hasn't cost them much and it'll soon grow out. Perhaps it's the same sort of thing in beauty.”


In general, salons which focus upon beauty treatments service a less middle class clientele. These salons do not strive to give the feel of a clinic and find difficulty in recruiting clients to holistic treatments. In contrast, those salons and therapists which cater to a more affluent and middle class market emphasise their therapeutic competencies and will emphasise body treatments at the expense of the more 'bread and butter' techniques such as waxing and eyebrow shaping. This differing relationship to the body seems to confirm Bourdieu’s claim that the working class have an instrumental relationship to their bodies, and that the middle class approach is characterised  by seeing the body as an end in itself (Bourdieu, 1984). This differentiation in the types of treatments selected then does not appear to show that only a particular class of women visit salons, but that once in the salon the 'habitus' of the woman leads to different activities.


Discussion and concluding comments: (Just because it feels good, doesn't make it right?)


One of the key issues we have had to face during this research has been the extent to which our natural sympathy with the subjects of research has had to be tempered with our reservations concerning the role of beauty in the oppression of women. As qualitative researchers we are aware of the professional discourse drawn upon by the beauty professionals in their conversations with us. The therapists were happy to talk to us and in many interviews we were the audience for their personal gripes and opinions concerning the industry .However critical of developments within the industry some of the interviewees were, none actually questioned the need for beauty therapy per se. They explained themselves and their role in terms of an occupational rhetoric (Fine, 1996). Part of the information we have gained during this research is undoubtedly a product of ,a professional discourse of beauty therapy. Though the testimonies undoubtedly carried an element of this rehearsed and professionalised rhetoric, the interviews and other conversations with therapists was clearly not simply limited to this level.


Despite this reservation, whilst conducting our research, we have been at times seduced by the professional rhetoric of the therapists, and also by the physically pleasurable sensations of beauty and body treatments. It would seem heavy handed and hypocritical to deny these sensations to other women, or to claim that they are suffering from some kind of false consciousness. At the same time, however, we have had to question whether the subjective experience of empowerment (rejuvenation, relaxation, time for oneself) is in fact what we could comfortably accept as empowerment (Holland et al., 1998; 9).


A similar point is made by Davis in her exploration of cosmetic surgery (Davis, 1995; 1991). In her aim of moving away from women as 'cultural dopes' at the mercy of the medical profession and commercialised discourses on beauty, she takes into account the narratives and experiences of women themselves. This presents her with a similar problem to ours; how to take the testimony of women seriously whilst remaining critical of the system into which they are buying. What she eventually concludes is that women are often aware of the contradictions between the oppressive nature of the beauty system, whilst at the same time trying to operate within that system to gain some advantage for themselves. This means that women are not ignorant cultural dopes, but rather knowledgeable and adept cultural actors.


Whilst we would agree that this is the case, it is important to continually bear in mind the commercial motivation of the beauty industry. As much as individual therapists are concerned with offering their clients the most effective and pleasurable treatments possible, underpinning all relationships between the (usually) women involved is the drive for profit. This is where beauty therapy as an industry differs from the social rituals surrounding the giving and receiving of what could be described as beauty treatments between friends or family.


As with the tension between generalised standards and individualised practices mentioned above, the question of the individual must be returned to here. The therapists argued that the service they were providing offered a chance for women to enjoy a female space and to take time for themselves away from the masculine world, as well as from the demands of work and family life:


“I think it offers a female retreat, even though we are getting into that male market, but I still think the female client wants to get away from those men. And it is a very female orientated place. I do think that it offers them a feeling of well-being, of relaxation, the chance to relax, the chance to get away from everything, as well as the actual treatments, the facial or leg wax or whatever. It's time for them.”


This type of experience no doubt allows the woman to relax and to rejuvenate herself. The opportunity to relax in a female space and the chance to share problems with a sympathetic female listener are vital benefits of beauty treatments for the clients. These benefits are over and above the confidence drawn from the visual effects of treatments, the satisfaction gained from obtaining the desired 'look', or from the pleasurable sensations derived from body treatments. For many of the women in the salons it was their own disposable income that they were choosing to spend in a way that gave them and on treatments that focused upon their individual looks, bodies and emotional requirements. In this way beauty therapy can be seen as of positive benefit to women.


However, the discussion cannot stop here. It seems logical that if the female body is something which must be worked on in order to produce a culturally recognisable product, then an industry will exist which serves this purpose, and in turn commodifies at least some of these necessary processes. However, this does not explain how this system works, or throw much light upon the different desires of the women involved in it. The tension between the individual desire for a specific look and a generalised view of what is acceptable is explained through the different positioning of the women who are clients. The generalised ideal is that of a normative femininity, which, as in the case of hegemonic masculinity, acts as an Ideal Type rather than an achievable way of being in the world. However, not all women have a similar relationship to this normative definition. In relation to body practices social class, 'race', sexuality and age are vital factors which position women in very different relationships to any concept of 'beauty' or 'femininity'. By choosing to spend leisure time and disposable income in the beauty salon, can we see women as asserting a right to their own space and independence, or as simply investing in femininity, in some cases to 'put a floor under' the likely devaluation of their skills in other areas as Skeggs suggests (Skeggs, 1997)?


What remains interesting for us is this investigation of the delivery of a hegemonic or normative concept in a 'real’ situation to 'real' people. How is 'beauty' or 'femininity' actually taken up (or not) by the women involved in its construction and maintenance? The issues we have raised here illustrate that beauty therapy provides an arena where conflicting discourses and practices concerning the body and femininity intersect. We have highlighted the fact that beauty therapy is an ambiguous industry providing as it does both positive and negative effects for individual women and the regulation of femininity more generally. It seems that in general women are not striving for beauty but rather desire to regulate their bodies in order to appear within the bounds of 'normality'. They also desire pleasure and relaxation through pampering and time for themselves in a predominantly female space. These are issues which undoubtedly require more work to be disentangled fully, and we are looking forward to examining such questions in future research.

University of Manchester

Received 5 November 1999

Finally accepted 24 July 2000.



1, This phrase is taken from MacCannell and MacCannell, 1987: 212.

2, In this paper we refer to beauty therapy as a specific aspect of the wider beauty industry. We have studied beauty therapy as a profession and as a cultural practice. The beauty industry includes other arenas which we have paid less attention to, including fashion, cosmetics, advertising, dieting, etc. In a  similar way we refer to beauty as a specific aspect of the wider term of ‘femininity’. Beauty is a culturally constructed ideal. Femininity relates to the practices, identities and representations of what it means to be a ‘woman’ in any given society.

3, The next stage of our research will focus on interviews with clients.

4, On an international level it becomes clear that this interest in beauty and its corollary of health and fitness, has grown in the past 20 years. From 1981 to 1990 there was a 70% increase in the number of cosmetic surgery operations performed in the USA, with around one and a quarter million reconstructive procedures being carried out in 1990 (Synott, 1993, p. 75). At the same time measured levels of satisfaction that individuals feel with their bodies and looks have decreased (Synott, 1993)



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