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Keeping Beauty Salons Closed is a Feminist Issue
As thousands in the UK go back to work, the female-led beauty industry is being left behind
Last week, MPs laughed in Parliament at the prospect of re-opening beauty salons after four months of closure. In doing so, they laughed at the expense of thousands of womxn across the country.
With their sneers and derision, they reduced an almost entirely female-led industry to frivolity – perpetuating the belief that ‘beauty’ is a trade for the unintelligent, the unimportant and the underskilled, serving society’s most trivial needs. With their cackles and jibes, they threw a metaphorical slap in the faces of all the women struggling to maintain their households, families and businesses during this time.
It’s quite clear the government still views this female-led workforce as a joke.
But, the beauty industry isn’t laughing.
“I’ve always been working-class and I feel like I’m not someone the government recognises,” says Amber Vermeulen, a beauty professional from Edinburgh. “It’s obvious that these decisions have been based on the preferences of middle-aged white men. I’ve had to put business costs on my credit card, but I can only survive another month on credit. I’m relying on a man to feed me for the first time in my life. I’m treading water, but only just.”
I’m relying on a man to feed me for the first time in my life.
As someone who has worked in the beauty space for the past five years, I’ve seen first-hand how vital the beauty service industry is to the economic empowerment of women. I’ve seen women escaping abusive relationships and using their skills in beauty to earn their own money for the first time; I’ve seen young beauty pros move into their first homes with money they’ve earnt from doing nails; and I’ve seen new mothers support their families and work flexibly thanks to their talents in beauty therapy. To see these women on their knees, their hard work continually deemed ‘unworthy’, is disheartening to say the least.
As MP Caroline Noakes pointed out, this feels like a COVID recovery “designed by men, for men” in which female-led businesses have been “left to the back of the pile” – still unsure of when they will return to work. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the beauty industry is one of the few sectors almost entirely dominated by women, many of whom are working-class or women of color. Countless beauty businesswomen have reported the loss of thousands of pounds worth of income over the past few months – as salons let go of staff, shut up shop, and the self-employed are forced out of the industry. Many are mothers and many aren’t eligible for government support.
Nail technician and mum of two, Lanula Alicia, describes the past few months as “mental torture”. She has lost upwards of £15,000 since lockdown began.
“This whole situation has been a test on my mental strength,” she says. “When we were told to prepare for reopening on July 4th I felt like I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. Then when we were told we couldn’t open, it made me feel so deflated. For two weeks we have been left dangling, with no hope by the government. They’ve made it clear they have a complete lack of respect for our industry.”
Contributing almost £30bn per year to the UK economy (more than motor vehicle manufacturing and publishing), the beauty industry employs just over 370,000 people a year – just a few thousand less than construction. The beauty service industry makes up £8bn of that and employs over 150,000 people – those people are still unable to get back to work.
When nationwide lockdown began in March, beauty salons were some of the first to close in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Many prepped eagerly for their ‘independence day’ on July 4th – only to find out that hair salons would be the only services allowed to open.
“It’s very obvious that men with hair need barbers and hairdressers, they perhaps find less need for pedicures and leg waxes,” says MP Caroline Noakes as she addressed Parliament this week. “We’re preventing our female entrepreneurs from getting back to work, and it seems to me to make little sense that a haircut is okay but a pedicure is not.”
Many in the industry have pointed out that health and safety is a common practice in beauty salons and clinics, with routine disinfecting, sterilisation and PPE.
“They don’t understand how safe we are as an industry,” says Metta Francis, founder of Nails by Mets. “We’re doing everything we can to show that we’re ‘COVID-secure’ so we can get back to work. I’m importing a mask from Holland and it’s cost me £70, but it’s the best of the best. We already sanitise and disinfect everything before use. Yes, we’re in close contact with clients, but I’ve seen that people in pubs are not socially distancing. It’s clear that within government there’s no female representation to really fight our case.”
Amber agrees: “There’s no way that these decisions are being made from a health point of view,” she says. “I have over seven different health and safety certificates from over the years. I work from home and I only see a small number of clients – I’m able to give them their own equipment and clean everything down in between appointments. Drunk people in pubs are not going to listen to social distancing restrictions. For men, the social club may be the pub – but for many women, it’s the salon.”
For men, the social club may be the pub – but for many women, it’s the salon.
Watching the videos of packed pubs across the country left myself and many others feeling frustrated. While some followed guidelines to a T, others were chaotic. Sticky surfaces, packed spaces, socialising shoulder to shoulder, and a total lack of consideration for COVID. How have beauty salons or clinics, prepped with PPE and routinely sanitised, been forced to stay shut whilst pubs and bars are freely open?
Sharmadean Reid MBE, founder of WAH Nails and CEO of Beautystack, is among the high profile industry leaders campaigning to #BringBeautyBack. Beautystack represents many of the UK’s beauty professionals, and almost 40 per cent of those using the platform are Black women.
“We’re calling for the government to offer up a financial package that supports this female (and working-class) dominated workforce. Especially when they’re refusing to provide a return-to-work date for these salons and practitioners,” says Sharmadean. “I’ve spoken to beauty professionals who have had to take jobs at the supermarket just to pay their bills. If you’re reading this as a consumer and want to help your lash girl, your nail artist, your braider – book a video consultation and #supportyourlocalbeautypro while their business remains in lockdown.”
Beautystack are currently calling on Beauty Pros to submit their lockdown stories via video, to help create a film to shine a light on the community and show their readiness to get back to work.
The persistent derision of beauty as a sector means a constant need for beauty professionals to prove their competence and value to society and the economy. I’ve seen first-hand how important some of these treatments can be – the salon provides a safe space as well as an economic boost . Beauty treatments act as a form of therapy, self-care, community, social connection and especially for the LGBTQ+ population, an instrument of identity and a means of survival. Lack of access to beauty services and regular routines over the past few months has resulted in gender dysphoria for many trans women, triggering feelings of depression and anxiety.
This is about so much more than getting your nails done to feel cute (although we can all relate) – this is about the persistent belittling of female-led industries by the old boys’ club. And attitudes need to change.
“We’ve faced a massive loss of income,” say Anouska Anastasia and Kadimah Aaliyah, founders of Nuka Nails. “We feel stressed, depressed and worried about money. If the nail industry was male-dominated, it would be a different story right now. We just want a date, we just want to know when things will go back to normal.”
As they wait for guidance from the government, beauty professionals across the UK remain in a state of flux as they head into a continuously uncertain future.
Although one thing is certain: this is misogyny in plain sight, and as the boys’ club enjoy a pint in their beloved pub, these women continue to wonder how they’ll fund their next meal.
It is no laughing matter.
Beauty Pros! Submit your videos for Beautystack’s #BringBeautyBack film by 10pm here.
Beauty lovers! You can download a template to write to your MP about bringing beauty back here.
You can also sign the petition to reopen beauty salons here.