Working in the beauty trade requires unexpected practical and theoretical skills, far removed from the general clichés, together with a good dose of psychology. An interview with a beautician.

Although I’m just about to leave the hairdressing and beauty salon, I hand her a copy of the book Le corps des autres. Written by French author Ivan Jablonka, it’s all about the work of beauticians. Immediately recognising the book’s pale pink cover, Sandy interrupted me: "I’ve already read it, one of my customers gave it to me." This anecdote tells us a lot about relationships between beauticians and their customers. Via this present, the customer probably wanted to thank the beautician for the good feeling she got from being treated by her, while also expressing her respect for her and her work.

"Though not dermatologists, nurses, social workers, personal coaches or psycho-analysts, that’s all part of their work (...) A beautician is a socialising ‘body professional’", writes Jablonka, whose investigation demolished the stereotype of a young superficial bimbo.

In her thirties, Sandy Masy is a million miles away from such a stereotype ... Wearing hardly any make-up, she seemed a bit tired on welcoming me in the late afternoon in her beauty salon on the Avenue Louise, Brussels’ luxury magnet. Her salon belongs to a well-known Parisian chain of hairdressing and beauty salons.

Sandy has spent her whole working life in the beauty trade. In her teens, she decided to take up hairdressing. She spent eighteen years working for various salons, before deciding to retrain as a beautician seven years ago. For the uninitiated, the nuance is subtle: what is the basic difference between hairdressing and beautician work?

The young woman told me that she spent three years training to become a beautician: "When I talk to people not from my trade, I can see that they are surprised when I tell them which technical skills and theoretical knowledge are needed. You have to know all the muscles, all the bones, the skin, the whole lymphatic and circulatory system. When massaging someone, you need to know which muscle you are just massaging, what you are just draining", she explained. When doing the work, she insists on the protocols imposed by the French chain with which she works as a franchisee.

Over and above the opportunity to acquire new skills in the vast beauty domain, she was above all guided by human reasons.

"I switched jobs to have more contact with people, she told me. When they come to have their hair done, they’re generally in a hurry, stressed by lack of time. Things are a lot more relaxed when they come for beauty treatment. While they obviously come for me to make them look better, it’s not just that. They come to me to talk about their ups and downs, their intimate problems."

Comfortable leather seats, white furniture, the parquet floor, the small room in the basement of the hairdressing salon all invite customers to reveal their deepest secrets.

"There are just the two of us, they take off their clothes, they lie there naked, we transcend their privacy. During hair removal, we touch their legs, their arms. This makes my customers want to talk, to tell me about very personal problems, to get things off their minds. But you always need to end up with a positive touch so that they can go home feeling much more at peace. I love it when people tell me about their lives."

But isn’t it exhausting listening to other people’s worries the whole day long? "You have to be able to put up a barrier between you and them, just like a nurse caring for her patients. You’ve got to be able to separate things. When you give someone a massage, you massage away all the bad energy. I’ve learned ways of dropping everything, leaving everything behind you. You mustn’t become a sponge, soaking everything up", she explained to me.

On asking her about the picture she gets back from her salon’s clientele, in this fashionable district of the European capital, Sandy thought about it a bit, but wasn’t able to give me an example of anyone wanting to belittle her. As in every job working with customers, she obviously has to cope with bad-tempered customers in a hurry or disappointed because the result is not up to their expectations or what they dreamed they would look like. "Applying make-up is one of the most difficult things. Women come here with photos from glossy magazines, wanting to look the same. And I have to disappoint them. We apply everyday make-up, the make-up women wear in the street. But what they see in the glossies is studio make-up. They want to look natural, but at the same time they want the make-up to be perfect. The two just don’t match. They contradict each other."

To placate her customers, Sandy uses her communication skills: "I explain to them what I’m going to do, how I’m going to do it and why. I do the same with the few men I get here, but I’m firmer with them to avoid any misunderstanding: I need to tell them very clearly that they’re going to get a massage aimed at relaxing the muscles, activating the blood and lymphatic circulation, that it lasts one hour and how much it costs."

Though it might not seem that way for a customer, comfortably seated in a soft chair or lying on a massage table, beauty trades are physically very demanding. Hairdressing involves standing up all day, manicures mean that employees spend hours sitting with their backs arched, massages mean bending over all the time, straining all kinds of muscles.

"I’ve got a lot of back problems, admitted Sandy. At the end of the day, I feel like a machine when looking at the hours I put in. But I just love my work. I wouldn’t want to do anything else."•

Special report - All that glitters is not gold: the dark side of the beauty industry ETUI

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“I love it when people tell me about their lives”