My mother never had a facial until I began working in the spa industry 19 years ago. She would reluctantly submit to having a service once a year for Mother's Day and only then if my sister would pick her up in the car and they could come to the spa together.
Even when she was on my treatment bed she would talk incessantly, more a sign of nervousness about being in an unfamiliar situation than a lack of confidence in my skills. In her mind spas were the domain of the glamorous movie stars she read about: Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Gloria Swanson at the Carita Spa in Paris during a tryst with Joe Kennedy. Black women just didn't go to spas.
In 2014 not much has changed. Most women of color over 55 come to me because their family has given them a gift certificate or they are celebrating a birthday or fulfilling a dare they made with themselves. Many ventured into a spa before and the experience was hurtful, if not physically then emotionally -- sometimes both.
I remember the first time I went to a spa. It was on Rittenhouse Square, the most upscale area in Philadelphia. I was 20-something, making big money (I thought) in a corporate position. I was feeling myself. I walked in and got "the look". Most African-Americans have experienced "the look" at least once in their life. Even Oprah has gotten it after she became Oprah. You know the one: the "aren't you in the wrong place" look.
When I finally got to the treatment room all I can recall was a litany of comments about how "dirty" my skin was. The esthetician kept showing me the pad she was using to cleanse my face. I was wearing foundation and I happen to be a Black person. What color did she expect for the pad to be? Even though I knew how grossly inappropriate her behavior was I didn't know what to do as she was the spa owner. There was no Yelp, Twitter or Huffington Post for me to share my experience.
Today I cringe at the thought that anyone in my industry would act in such a way. But though the people are different, the stories are the same. Far too often a new client comes into my room breathing a sigh of relief that they found me. One showed me the results of a microdermabrasion session so aggressive that color was removed from her skin. Another gentleman informed me that even though he regularly purchased pricey gift certificates for his girlfriend, the desk staff at his old spa recommended the cheapest products for his own home care. His voice revealed how shocked and hurt he was by their presumption of his economic status. A young client last week who had gone for her first facial, shared that she was subjected to painful extractions which left her scarred and hyper-pigmented for months. Maybe you've had a similar experience.
For ethnic spa goers, many times the preliminary conversation to determine what we use on our skin, why we use it and what we expect to achieve from our facial is omitted. Were you aware that such a conversation should even take place or have you just been plopped on a treatment table?
I think that some of the mindsets we encounter come from the media or a lack of real interaction with people of color. I think that some of the curtness and defensiveness results from a lack of specialized training. Many spa professionals take great pride in their work and don't want us to know their shortcomings. However, I also believe that the spa industry is beginning to listen to our experiences. Perhaps with more feedback we'll see the much needed technical and customer service training necessary to make the industry better for all.