The Beauty Industry: it’s time we value women’s economic power

Image description: woman receives face massage with a towel around her head as her skin is moisturised

In amongst the controversies of the past few weeks, there has been growing fury over the re-opening of beauty salons and clinics. The guidance for the beauty industry in the pandemic has not been received well by those involved in it, to put it mildly. Whilst the go-ahead to re-open (or, for the thousands of freelancers, to re-start their businesses) was given, key restrictions have been put in place. The government have been slow to announce their plans for the industry.

Currently, beard trimming in barbers is allowed, despite involving the removal of masks and face-to-face positioning. Eyebrow shaping is not allowed, even though masks can be worn throughout and the professional stands behind the customer. Although facial treatments were expected to start on 1 August, this has been postponed for at least two weeks. The Telegraph has coined this the ‘Beards vs. Brows row’. But it is so much more.

Beauty salons and clinics provide a wide range of services: pedicures, eyebrow shaping, eyelash extensions, waxing, massages; the list goes on. Treatments range from those we talk about a lot, such as manicures, to those that still largely remain taboo, such as upper-lip treatments for women or eyebrow tattoos for those with alopecia. Of course, some things can be done at home yourself – a bit of nail polish, make-up and self-pampering for example.

But whilst I remain impressed that my grandmother has taught herself to thread her own eyebrows during lockdown, it seems a slightly risky move – eyebrows are, after all, quite noticeable when wearing a mask, and there is a reason beauticians spend years training.

The language around the beauty industry as ‘not COVID-secure’ is bizarre – especially in comparison to those that supposedly are: construction sites, pubs, and restaurants.

Clinics are highly sterile and employ trained professionals with numerous qualifications. Indeed, the National Federation of Hair and Beauty have their own recommendations and policies on protection. These spaces are hoped to be a place of confidence, self-care, and wellbeing. But they are also held to very high hygiene standards at all times, let alone in pandemics.

The language around the beauty industry as ‘not COVID-secure’ is thus bizarre – especially in comparison to those that supposedly are: construction sites, pubs, and restaurants.

Caroline Noakes, the MP for Romsey and Southampton North, has been particularly vocal on this issue. She delivered a letter asking for more support and better guidelines signed by over 80 MPs from across parties. Speaking in the Commons, she paid tribute to the ‘brave ballsy women’ of the beauty industry. She noted that these were ‘people who need to be taken seriously’.

So why aren’t they? As Noakes said, ‘if I was talking about construction we would revere the contribution it makes to the economy, but because it is beauty, it is okay to trivialise that massive contribution.’ An industry that employs 370,000 people is not dispensable. It is no coincidence that 94% of those are women, many of whom are young. Moreover, the industry’s flexibility is a life-line for those who are also caring for children, the elderly, and other vulnerable people.

Of course, the beauty industry is not exclusively the realm of women, in its employees, its bosses or its users. But its reality and image as female-dominated, means that the industry is dismissed as facile and mindless – the domain of chattering women with nothing better to do. Policymakers do not see a £28 billion, unionised, specialist industry. They picture a Love Island contestant rather than a diverse range of women spending an average of £200 a year.

Noakes’ article in Conservative Home was entitled ‘spare a thought for women’. You would hope a little thought could be spared for 50% of the population. This is one of thousands of examples of women’s contributions to the economy being viewed as an additive, rather than an essential – women are spared a thought, rather than being viewed as integral from the beginning. It is not a coincidence that the beauty industry has been given piecemeal information and has not been a priority. Men and men’s issues are the default for our governance.

With this stereotypical maleness as the centre of their thoughts, flocking into barbers has been championed as a key return to normality. In the press it has been celebrated, in meetings, it makes for a pleasant chuckle. But itching to get back in the salon chair is treated very differently. This speaks to the critical underestimation of women, of the still strong belief that it is vain and vacuous to spend time on your appearance.

Dishevelment is something which benefits the Prime Minister, as he has openly admitted. It is arguably central to his political persona. But for many women, to succeed and be taken seriously is predicated on immaculate appearance. To be too hairy or too wild is to be a mess. Standards for women’s appearance are incredibly high; their political uniform cannot be a simple suit and tie. Their hair is rarely a low-maintenance short back and sides.

Women in all walks of life are required to conform to such a specific standard of beauty which is supposed to seem natural when we all know it isn’t. If women have realised in lockdown that they rather like their unwaxed legs, or that spending £20 on a manicure wasn’t entirely worth it, their bank balances will be pleased. But the sheer power of the pressure to look groomed has not gone away. And the desire and right of people to carry out self-care certainly hasn’t.

The government’s response to the crisis is leaving women behind.

A recent Guardian article termed Johnson’s Conservative government ‘blokey.’ Many committees have limited or no female representation, and if they do, it is far from intersectional. When the government’s working body on the economy is 100% cisgender and male it is little wonder that the voices of these women are being lost. It is perhaps not a stretch to think that when ministers announce extra funding for apprenticeships, they believe they are talking about 16-year-old boys training as mechanics rather than young women building up a plethora of skills in high-demand.

On a wider scale, the government’s response to the crisis is leaving women behind. Beauty is not the only area this has been the case; this article could just as easily be written about maternity care provision, childcare, playground re-openings, bra-fittings, period-poverty. Studies have already found that with a lack of childcare, it is women who are being burdened. The government may talk of ‘levelling up’ but their actions speak to something very different.

Viewing the matter with a wider lens, the question over the beauty industry is no longer ‘Beards vs. Brows’. The question is about the value given to women’s economic power. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: are we happy for our leaders to deem the contribution of a young woman having a spray tan silly and unworthy, but a pint with the lads the foundational keystone of our economy? It should be clear that the answer is no.

Image Credit: Piklist