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Beauty businesses are struggling without us

Beauty providers and their customers are anxious to get back to business as usual, while staying safe.

interior nail salon, technician giving woman manicure
Beauty providers say they’re struggling in the pandemic.
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Melinda Fakuade is an associate editor for Vox, working mainly with The Goods and the Culture team. She is from New York and her writing has focused on culture, entertainment, and consumerism.

When the world shut down, many were faced with a difficult choice: risk their health or take beauty matters into their own hands.

Box dye flew off the shelves, at-home dip powder nail kits grew in popularity, and many people put their faith in DIY YouTube and TikTok tutorials. Besides that, there was not much else we could do. Roots grew in gray, body hair took over, and filler began to melt away with time. It felt vulnerable but almost peaceful to exist without the pressure of seeing a soul. The world was in disarray anyway — who had time to care about beauty when everything was so ugly? But between the boredom of the everyday and the horror of the news cycle, some people, myself included, missed the familiarity of having someone else make you look and feel better.

The concern, of course, is whether it’s safe to receive beauty services — all of which involve physical contact and happen largely indoors. While many restaurants have transitioned to outdoor dining, beauty services generally cannot operate that way. The Environmental Protection Agency urges that ventilation is a key safety precaution, although that alone cannot protect people from the coronavirus and improved ventilation systems are a huge cost for facilities that previously did not have to be concerned about them. Forced closures and slowed business have threatened the livelihoods of many beauty business owners.

Reopening regulations for personal care services have varied from state to state and county to county. As of October 23 in Los Angeles County, personal care services have opened indoors at limited capacity and with some modifications. In New York, hair salons and barbershops opened in June with modifications as the city entered phase 2. Masks are key in these environments — a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study determined that in the case of two Missouri hairstylists who were positive for Covid-19, 67 of their clients tested negative because they all wore masks. Some salons lack a track record of safety, and all the people I talked to have weighed health concerns against their desire to go back to their typical upkeep routine.

It can be difficult to shake the feeling that beauty is necessary. The nagging feeling persists, even and maybe even especially on Zoom. It’s nice to work from home in pajama pants, but the trade-off is that it puts the emphasis on people’s faces. The fear is that someone might catch flaws that they wouldn’t have even noticed in person.

Many clients rely on beauty services, even in quarantine

At first, Danielle Spencer, a small-business owner who works from home in Toronto, gave up on her usual manicures. She and her fiancé have been very cautious throughout the pandemic, ordering in groceries and even skipping out on festivities for their child’s first birthday. But, she said, “I’ve always had this notion my nails always had to be done, or I wasn’t professional,” adding, “Maybe it’s a weird internalized sexism thing.”

Searches for how to do your own nails shot up this past March in the height of the virus, like many other beauty-related DIY tasks, but Spencer typically gets gel manicures. She decided to try having a nail technician come to her house. “But as soon as I got them done, I went back to that same mentality of ‘I need to upkeep them,’” she says. Eventually her fiancé grew uncomfortable with the arrangement, and Spencer went back to the salon.

In an attempt to increase the life span of her manicures and limit her salon visits, Spencer opts for neutral colors and French manicures. “It is the make and break in our careers and relationships,” she said, explaining that the pressure remains despite the restrictions and fears of the virus. “The guilt is definitely there, because a lot of people don’t see it as essential. But when you feel like what you have comes down to the way you look, it does feel essential. You never want to feel like you missed an opportunity because you didn’t look the part.”

While not all those who wear makeup are women, and not all women wear makeup, professionalism can come into question for women who choose not to wear it. In a study cited by Inc., one-third of women said they were treated at work in relation to their appearance. It seems that this belief has survived, even as workplaces go remote. “During quarantine, it became more acceptable for men to grow out facial hair, but you can’t show up to a Zoom call with a messy bun because you haven’t had a hair appointment, or without a little bit of blush and bronzer,” Spencer said. If a woman feels that the market demands she look a certain way, that doesn’t change overnight, even in a pandemic.

Appearance comes even further into play when you’re a Black woman. Racial discrimination is an unfortunate reality in many American workplaces, and Black women are judged even more harshly on their appearances at work — particularly on their hairstyle choices. While haircuts have become a flashpoint across the country during the pandemic, with arguably the most vocal protesters of restrictions being middle-class white people — Black hair care can demand more labor is generally more socially fraught. Studies show that common hairstyles like braids, twists, and Afros can affect job prospects. Across the United States, plenty of people have filed workplace and school-related discrimination lawsuits after being told that their natural hair was “unprofessional.”

Alyssa Bourne-Peters, a 23-year-old account executive in New York, took a classic quarantine plunge in March and cut her hair short. She gelled it back and played with headbands, but by August, she wanted out. She looked for a stylist on Instagram who was taking one-on-one appointments, and went in for shoulder-length passion twists. Several weeks later, she got knotless braids done.

“I needed a protective style. She required a mask, and used gloves and had hand sanitizer,” Bourne-Peters said. Both styles last around a month, give or take, and don’t require much home upkeep besides moisturizing. “If I had to have a defined wash-and-go [hairstyle] every day of the week, just to be on Zoom? No thank you!” she said.

For some, taking this risk is quite literally a job requirement. Lola Chél, a 25-year-old full-time model in South Florida, knows all too well how important professionally done makeup can be. During the pandemic, she kept working, which meant she had to continue her usual beauty services. She’s had facials, manicures, pedicures, and massages. For her, they’re a necessary business expense. “There’s only so much I can do at home,” she said. “I can’t show up to a shoot looking any kind of way, and I can’t be too tense.” Chél gets tested at least twice a week, and tries to get services done in one-on-one environments.

“My family was concerned, as I’m helping out with my grandmother,” Chel said. “It’s essential if I go to the grocery store, but explaining that as far as my nails? It took them a while. But once they understood that everyone I’m around is wearing a mask and has all the necessary safety measures in place, they felt reassured.”

For beauty service providers, the pandemic means lost opportunity and new innovation

The culture of guilt and shame around these services weighs most heavily on providers, who want to provide a safe atmosphere as well as stay in business. Nidah Barber-Raymond, a peel expert and owner of the Peel Connection in Beverly Hills, says she has recognizable celebrity clientele who have been coming in undercover, for fear of being judged. “They don’t want people to know they’re getting things done during a pandemic. They don’t want the backlash of people thinking they’re doing things they’re not supposed to,” she said. “It’s become so political. A lot of my celebrity clients are not posting and promoting me like they did in the past.” Her safety protocol has been similar to that of many other beauty business owners: ventilated rooms, frequent hand sanitation, temperature-taking, PPE with shields, and contactless payment.

When businesses started to lock down, Barber-Raymond started bottling her chemical peels as a way to keep her salon afloat. Quarantine is actually a good time to do a chemical peel, she said, because it requires limited sun exposure. And even though her business has reopened lawfully (due to the fact that her location has an on-site medical director), demand for the at-home peels has stayed strong. “It brought an opportunity to me I never saw coming. It completely changed my business plan,” she said. “I was literally scared to go to work. I have a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, and I definitely don’t want to bring this [virus] into my house.” She says that in the future, she plans to do in-person chemical peels less and less, even when the threat of the coronavirus diminishes.

Unfortunately, other beauty businesses have fared much worse than Barber-Raymond’s. You can do a chemical peel at home if you have access to the right supplies, or, say, touch up your own roots, but it’s impossible to do something as technical as apply eyelash extensions if you are not already trained in it.

In Los Angeles County, lash extensions are considered an esthetician service, meaning that they have been locked down since July, reopening just recently in late October. However, lockdown didn’t stop some lash artists from doing their jobs. When I spoke to Britni Bionca, the owner of BB Lash Boutique in Santa Monica, lockdown was still in place, and she told me that many lash businesses had gone underground as a means of survival. In fact, she says some lash artists were actually doing better than ever before.

“I know people who are doing two knocks at the back door. I still get calls and tell people yes, we’re still closed. But they’ll say, ‘Oh, really? Because so-and-so are still open.’” Yet she believes these customers are still taking precautions where they can. Bionca says she’s heard that some higher-end clientele even use “coronavirus concierge” services like ModMD at their homes. The company uses registered nurses to test workers coming into private homes.

Bionca says many lash artists feel they have been unfairly hung out to dry and forced to make these kinds of tough decisions — after all, storefront rent and expenses didn’t just stop when the pandemic began.“A lot of people in the industry are frustrated with the government, because why are they singling us out?” Bionca said. She compares the rigorous training and safety measures her industry requires to other businesses. “In order for us to operate, we have always had to take those precautions. We are constantly cleaning doorknobs and windows and things like that. You don’t see that at restaurants or shopping at a boutique.”

In anticipation of reopening, Bionca had purchased plastic table covers and practiced doing lashes with gloves on. She wasn’t too worried — she said she’s heard from many women of color that they can’t wait to come and support her, which she credits to the solidarity coming out of a summer full of racial protests. But in the meantime, some of her clients have grown restless. “It’s almost like brushing your teeth, a way of feeling like you’re ready to take on the world. It’s a self-care identity for them,” she told me.

And so aesthetic upkeep remains a matter of serious strategy. The pandemic has just exposed the extremes of it all: We protect ourselves, and businesses die in our absence. We give in to a desire that’s been ingrained into us, and we put ourselves at risk and subject ourselves to shame. It’s a losing game, but even the country’s biggest timeout didn’t stop the play.