From a 1918 ad for Radior, a face cream containing radium.
If I hate anything that smacks of “self-care”—and I do—I come by this antipathy honestly. I don’t just mean my mother’s disdain, bordering on pathological, for any sort of pampering. I’ve come to see this trait of hers as equal parts puritanism, ingrained frugality, and self-loathing, and as such have attempted to curb any similar tendencies in myself. When I am not being honest, I tell myself to be like the French: regarding beauty maintenance as a regular, unselfconscious part of a routine, like going to the dentist. Of course, I’m not French, and in any case it’s hard to tell yourself you’re undergoing anything medically essential when you’re listening to a woodwind version of “Bringing in the Sheaves.”
I have gotten online coupons for services with relaxing names and cheeky names and traveled by subway to far-away banyas. I have navigated palatial Mitteleuropean bathhouses and stripped in hammam. I’ve been coaxed into taking shuttles to all-day Korean day spas and tromped around in smocks. I hated every moment of it—actively hated it. It’s not a guilty pleasure. It’s just guilty.
The town where I lived as a teenager had one small spa called Beautiful Image, located between a particularly dreary florist who seemed to deal exclusively in funerals and a mysteriously long-lived magic shop. I never patronized the neighboring businesses, but I’d made a trip down the side-street specifically to gaze at the blow-up pictures that bedecked the windows: faded photos of women with terry turbans on their heads, green paste on their faces, and smooth stones over their eyes. As a small child, I’d been horrified. And when I asked my mother about them, she said it was something silly, self-indulgent women did to spend money.
Naturally, I was intrigued. I don’t think I really cared about the results. I didn’t think anything I did would transform me into someone beautiful, or adult. I did not wear makeup; I hardly cared about clothes. But the project combined two things dear to the teen heart: rebellion and self-criticism. In this case, I’d have the added whammy of ingrained contempt for my extravagant behavior, as well as my physical flaws! And so, one day, I grabbed a wad of babysitting money and took myself to Beautiful Image. The woman who greeted me—her name turned out to be Sue—asked me what I wanted done. I realized I had no idea.
“A facial?” she suggested. I said yes, a facial.
“Your eyebrows are very thick, and short,” she said critically. I was duly shamed. We would do my eyebrows, too.
Not far into the facial, Sue announced that she had diarrhea and abruptly left the room. The bathroom was right next door. This happened several times in the course of the procedure.
The lights were so bright that she had to place sun-bed goggles over my eyes so I’d stop twitching and flinching. When she put the mask on me, she left the room for such a long time that I began to worry she’d forgotten me—but maybe she was just in the bathroom again.
The price seemed astronomical. In fact, I had to jump on my bike and get more money out of the desk drawer where I kept my cash. In the course of which, my mother saw my angry red brow crowned with infinitesimal wisps of hair, like a poorly painted china doll, and the jig was well and truly up.
After that, I visited Beautiful Image regularly. But now, I made sure to go when I’d have time to let my skin calm down, and even bought a drugstore powder to cover any redness, which gave me the air of a mummified corpse. There was never anyone else there. I didn’t mention these visits to any of my friends, as I wished them to believe I was above such superficialities. I got manicures and pedicures and waxes; on one occasion, I had a very painful and expensive peel. I knew that Sue—unlike the proprietor of the local lingerie store, which specialized in bras for women who’d had mastectomies—wouldn’t say anything to my mom.
Each visit was worse than the last. I hated everything about it but the clandestine thrill; the dingy room, the painful treatments, the magic shop, the memory of the diarrhea incident. I observed no change in my skin; certainly at that age no one was privy to anything that happened below the neck. After reading an article in a women’s magazine, I had mustered all my will to ask her to “just clean up” my brows.
I continued to visit Sue into college, whenever I came home on vacation. I never made an appointment. I’d make up some errand—the library, the stationery store—and walk in off the street. It was always unpleasant. Somehow, it did not occur to me to visit any such establishments while I was away from home, although I went to college in a big city presumably filled with affordable and competent aestheticians. Maybe I would have liked one of them.
But don’t you see? That wasn’t the point; that isn’t the point. Sue’s shop has closed. Nothing has ever touched the initial exhilaration of those strange, early visits, although in the grand tradition I keep trying. For some of us the real self-indulgence is something very different to what my mother imagined.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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