A Writer Goes Undercover...To Beauty School

Spas are luxurious places where a woman goes to feel pampered and beautiful. And usually drop a good chunk of coin--Americans spent over $200 billion on spa products and services in 2009. But are the results worth it? That's a question, among others, that Virginia was hoping to answer. Virginia (I’m withholding her last name so as not to blow her cover yet), a writer in upstate New York, recently enrolled in an aesthetics program to take a peek at the beauty industry from the inside out. She has a keen interest in the industry, the safety of its products, and the treatment of its workers. Virginia enrolled in the program part-time, which took about ten months to complete. She attended school four nights a week from 6pm until 10pm.Tuition for programs like this average around $8,000 to $12,000. She just finished and is currently waiting for paperwork to sit for the licensing exam.
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Spas are luxurious places where a woman goes to feel pampered and beautiful. And usually drop a good chunk of coin--Americans spent over $200 billion on spa products and services in 2009. But are the results worth it? That's a question, among others, that Virginia was hoping to answer. Virginia (I’m withholding her last name so as not to blow her cover yet), a writer in upstate New York, recently enrolled in an aesthetics program to take a peek at the beauty industry from the inside out. She has a keen interest in the industry, the safety of its products, and the treatment of its workers. Virginia enrolled in the program part-time, which took about ten months to complete. She attended school four nights a week from 6pm until 10pm.Tuition for programs like this average around $8,000 to $12,000. She just finished and is currently waiting for paperwork to sit for the licensing exam.
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Spas are luxurious places where a woman goes to feel pampered and beautiful. And usually drop a good chunk of coin--Americans spent over $200 billion on spa products and services in 2009. But are the results worth it?

That's a question, among others, that Virginia was hoping to answer. Virginia (I’m withholding her last name so as not to blow her cover yet), a writer in upstate New York, recently enrolled in an aesthetics program to take a peek at the beauty industry from the inside out. She has a keen interest in the industry, the safety of its products, and the treatment of its workers.

Virginia enrolled in the program part-time, which took about ten months to complete. She attended school four nights a week from 6pm until 10pm.Tuition for programs like this average around $8,000 to $12,000. She just finished and is currently waiting for paperwork to sit for the licensing exam. What is she qualified to do? In school, Virginia did 75 facials, waxed 20 pairs of eyebrows and ten bikini lines, did 25 makeup applications, and performed over 100 other services--peels, body wraps, microdermabrasion, etc.

She kept a blog, called Beauty Schooled, to chronicle her experiences. In it, she explores many issues: Racial conflict, tipping, the paternalism of the school, bad reactions she had to products. It’s all done with humor and she is never on a soap box. She often admits her own conflicted feelings, like when she was required to grow out her leg hair to practice waxing but, ewww, who wants hairy legs?

I spoke to Virginia about her experiences as a beauty school student.

Do you get REALLY get enough experience to perform these skills competently? “It varied,” Virginia told me. “I'm not sure I feel ready to go out there and start doing the more advanced stuff like glycolic peels and micro[dermabrasion], because you only need five or so signatures on each of those things to graduate--and they can be pretty aggressive treatments.”

Her bigger concern was, do these treatments even work? She really felt that a lot of the results a treatment promises are overhyped. “We all want a $50 facial to work, so we start seeing things--rosy cheeks! that post-facial glow! smoother skin!—that are pretty subjective,” she explained.

What weird or disturbing things did she see? Well, Brazilian bikini waxes topped the list. But she had other issues. Remember last year when those pictures of Lola Leon popped up in the tabloids and captions made subtle snarky remarks about her unibrow? Virginia had a 13-year-old client come for a brow wax, which was not her first and which was obviously initiated by the parents. The father even suggested that perhaps she needed a lip wax, too (which according to Virginia’s great post on this, the girl really didn’t.)

She was also quite tickled about how the beauty industry is marketing to men. Some gems from the text book Milady’s Standard Fundamentals for Estheticians include:

--“Male clients can be better clients than women in some ways because they are willing to follow suggestions and want a basic, consistent routine.”

--“Using the term skin treatment rather than facial is perhaps a better way to promote men’s services.”

What about products and chemicals in the workplace? “I'm sure I came into contact with between 5,000 and 10,000 chemicals between all of the products we used. The standard European facial involves nine products alone,” she told me. "It would be pretty impossible to quantify how my ten months in beauty school and the exposures there may have contributed to my overall risk for say, cancer. But I don't like knowing that a lot of these products do contain questionable ingredients like formaldehyde, phthalates, etc and there are almost 400,000 American women working with these chemicals in salons and spas day in, day out."

So what kind of salary can you expect after beauty school? "Income potential varies a lot because like most service jobs, salon workers are dependent on tips for around 20 percent of their take-home pay. The Bureau of Labor puts the median hourly income at $9 to $15 before tips, so an esthetician at the high end of that, earning $15 an hour, 35 hours per week, is still only clearing around $27,000. If every client tips 20 percent or better, you might get up to about $33,000 before taxes,” she told me. Shocking.

All I know is, my manicurist just got a raise.