When the country-wide lockdown was announced on March 23rd, the beauty industry was one of many that were victims of our inability to do anything that wasn’t “absolutely necessary”. Libraries, gyms, theatres, and even schools and offices were shut. Restrictions began easing in May and business owners began making plans for a new way of working, adapting to new rules, and made plans to reopen. In late June, it was announced that hairdressers and barbers could reopen on July 4th, with many rushing to open at midnight to fulfil the backlog of eager customers.
Many patrons saw this as a much-needed morale boost. An opportunity to get out of the house and be pampered for an hour or two. However, for many, beauty treatments are much more than a quick pick-me-up. To a lot of people, caring for their appearance is fundamental; it’s an intrinsic part of their self-esteem. In a time where jobs are being lost, people are anxious, stressed, and worried. It’s easy to say we have more important things to be concerned with right now, but for some, who have seen their hours cut or are uncertain they will ever return to their old jobs, devoid of a social life, unable to participate in hobbies, other avenues to feeling good about yourself have also been denied. For transgender women in particular, hair, make up and beauty services are intrinsic to their personhood. It can be paramount that they access these services to present in the way they need to present.
On July 2nd, Boris Johnson was caught on video, laughing with other male politicians. “I am sure that one day I will go with my honourable friend to Lush Beauty, but it is a sad reality for many of those excellent businesses that they cannot yet open in the way they want, “ he said. Not only does this show that the men in the houses of parliament think that the beauty industry is not worth their consideration, but it also signals to the public that cosmetic treatments are unimportant. The people to whom these mean something feels ridiculed, the people who rely on this as their source of income, who have built businesses, who spent years training, feel insulted.
The UK’s cosmetic industry reached a value of 9.8 billion pounds in 2017. Yes, you read that right. Billion. That’s £9,8,000,000,000,000. That’s almost three times what Manchester United is worth. It’s about the same as the Duke of Westminster has in his bank account and he owns half of London. In spas, salons, and wellness venues across the country, some 250,000 people are employed, of which a staggering 94% are women. This is a problem that almost exclusively affects women, both as providers and users of beauty and wellness services. That’s a lot of women who are not making their full wages. That’s women on furlough. That’s women who are having to take out loans to keep their premises open. It’s certainly a lot of women who are going to be jobless if they cannot afford to stay closed. Spas, salons, and even mobile nail technicians require heavy investment to establish. They need a lot of equipment and products. With everything sitting idle, that money isn’t be recouped. Many people will have taken out loans or be financing the tools they need, and that still needs to be paid back even if they’re not in use. They still need to pay the rent.
The government has defended its decision to keep salons closed, classing them as “close contact services”. They’re claim is that this is an industry that involves long periods of face-to-face contact, which puts both parties at greater risk of transmission. However, men can still get a beard trim at the newly opened barbers, which is really no different from eyebrow threading or upper lip wax, so this argument doesn’t hold. Additionally, most, if not all, salons have conducted risk assessments. They have gathered the necessary track and trace forms; they’ve invested in sanitizers and PPE. The irony is much of the safety measures were already taking place. Beauty professionals were already wearing PPE and thoroughly sanitising. They already used booking systems, gave customers time slots, and managed how many people came through their buildings, making them far safer than a pub or a gym. Do we really believe anyone is going to be socially distancing when they’re knocking back a couple of Jaegerbombs?
To some, the failure to address the future of salons is merely an oversight. But that in itself speaks volumes. It shows that there are not enough female politicians in seats of power to speak up on behalf of women. In 2020, women are still shut out of the decision-making process, and not consulted in matters of state. It also shows us that the men in charge are not the people affected by the prolonged closures and so they just didn’t care. Despite an urgency to prevent further financial damage, they failed to consider the true value of a multi-billion-pound industry. How can anyone who claims to be putting the economy first, taking unprecedented steps to repair leisure and hospitality industries, ignore such a significant portion? Another reason might lie in the strength of the industry. Over two-thirds of these businesses have fewer than five employees, with over half having an annual turnover of less than £99k. These are not big business. Despite their collective size, the beauty industry lacks the clout of the pub industry, which has an estimated £22 billion annual turnover. The owners of beauty businesses just don’t seem to have the same influence as £488 million-man Tim Martin, who founded the Wetherspoons chain.
Most of us have been willing to do our part, follow the rules, and give up things that we love to keep others and ourselves safe. But the continued lockdown of predominately female services (we haven’t got time to even touch on the female health provisions being restricted), feels like yet another example of “one rule for us and one rule for them”. The men in charge are driving to Barnard Castle and having a pint in the pub, but women cannot get back to work or access treatments that are vital to their mental health and that’s not okay. Women are tired of being locked out of power and even more tired of being ignored by the men who have it.
In writing this article, I have felt the need to defend the beauty industry. I have tried to justify what it means to those who participate in it. I have tried to demonstrate how much economic value it is. But the truth is if people are entitled to a pint then they should also be entitled to a lash tint.
This article first appeared in The Everyday Magazine