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Meaning in Work: The Spirit of Esthetics

Anne Martin March 2011 issue of Skin Inc. magazine
spa client with spa professional

Editor’s note: This article is based on the author’s presentation “Meaning in Work: The Spirit of Esthetics,” which was presented in the Advanced Education Conference Program at Face & Body Midwest Conference and Expo in Chicago March 12–14, 2011.

All spa professionals reading this—whether you’ve practiced 22 days, 22 months, 22 years, or what may feel like 222 years—are colleagues. You are a group of like-minded individuals; in Buddhism, this is called a sangha. No matter how differently you may practice, each from the other, medical, ayurvedic, American, European and the like; no matter age differences, political beliefs, spiritual practices, thoughts on the economy ... you are bound by the thread, the sutra, of the practice of esthetics.

With that in mind, what if you stop thinking potentially divisive thoughts, such as wholistic is better than medical or machines better than herbs? What if you let go of the fear that others know more than you or the thought that, “I’ve been doing this for so long, the younger ones will pass me by,” or “The economy is failing; how will I survive?” or “The client will know I’m new, and that I don’t know enough”? Just for now, ease down those burdens and instead pick up the sutra that binds you together in the practice of esthetics. There are no strangers in this esthetic sangha; each are recognized through the connected work of skin care.

Embrace your calling

The theologian William Barclay said, “There are two great days in our lives: the day we are born, and the day we discover why.” There is a profound sense that you are here for a purpose, and that sense resonates deeply within you: You are alive for a reason, and figuring out that reason is part of discovering your true vocation. According to author James Hillman, “Where our talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies our calling.” You may have asked yourself whether there is a job that you’re somehow meant to do? A work that is your calling?

Calling has been tied to four ideas: core values, beliefs, environment and character. Core values themselves contain elements of how you go about your work; they are observable, discernible and unchanged. An example of one company’s core values is: “Integrity first; Service before self; Excellence in all we do.” The company? The United States Air Force. When you wonder, “Why am I working in esthetics?” and “Why does it matter?” exploring your core values helps get you closer to the answers.

For some, maybe there wasn’t anything else you could figure out. You had to do something, and you liked applying masks and creams. For others, the journey to esthetics may have started after your first facial. I used to say I fell into esthetics because I didn’t know what the universe wanted me to be or do. While on a leave of absence from graduate school, working in a bakery and at loose ends, a friend suggested esthetics. Not having a better idea, I applied to esthetics school, was accepted, and then thought that, by golly, I’d better get a facial, because I’d never had one. Luck held: The spa professional who gave me my first facial, Jane Aransky, was, and is, a marvel; only I didn’t fully realize that until years later. What I did think was that this facial stuff was wonderful and good and I could do it.

Why does your work matter?

Think about your day; how clients are eased by your labors, refreshed and calmed. Think of clients who arrive saying that they’ve been looking forward to this for days, as they sink gratefully into the peace you create for them. Why does it matter? Because what you accomplish in service to others steadies the heartbeat of their world. However you became a spa professional, the choice to do the work well is one that you make every day, with each client, although you may like one more than the other, although one is sweet and the other short-tempered. Integrity shines in this choice.

It’s more usual that the physical environment influences the directions you head. For example, there are more air conditioner specialists in Florida than Siberia, more fishermen in Louisiana than Arizona, more skiing instructors in Switzerland than England. Were you encouraged to seek until you find, and told you can do anything to which you set your intention? Do you have people who applaud your imagination, as it dreams its way into reality, substance and purpose? Then your environment supported your distinct choice of becoming a spa professional. Or perhaps you, like me, fell into it. Or maybe the choice was made in the quiet environment of your own thoughts: This I want to do, this I will do. And so you have.

What about what you do as a spa professional makes your work meaningful? Meaning is whatever we say it is ... whatever each of us determines it is for ourselves, according to American writer Joseph Campbell. There is such kindness disguised in the gift of bits of time, and seemingly toss-away conversations. There is poignant meaning to be derived from small moments of piercing normalcy; they are balm to tired spirits; they are the cool harbingers of the changes to come.

The character of a spa professional

Character distinguishes one from the other. It declares, like Popeye, “I yam what I yam!” and refers to what is intrinsic in people’s natures. It also reveals this: The way you do things when no one is looking tells more about you than any degree or impressive bank account or national prominence. Yes, character manifests itself in choice of profession, but it surfaces again in how well you work each day, although that is not so often realized. Giving a facial at 6 pm is different than one at 10 am if you’ve been working all day; doing your best each time reflects a personal standard of excellence and shows character. And it is true that things you perhaps didn’t know existed in yourself can be realized during facials, such as when you silently listen to the grief of the client whose partner has died. To quietly stand next to this sorrow is to bear witness to it, and that in itself is a courageous thing, a selfless thing, for her pain may remind you of your own. Loss speaks every language. Loss is timeless. You may have no words, but in their stead is something strong and fully human: compassion.

Your gifts

Your gifts to clients are those of listening and time, attention and service. You offer that which begins any conversation: generous listening. To the client with acne who suffers emotionally and physically, and whose glaringly distressed skin stands out in a crowd that favors similarities; to the aging client who fearfully looks into her mirror and glimpses a visibly tired, worn-looking face, and, just out of sight, waiting, the anonymity of age that folds over the time still left to her, like deep snow covering a field, hushing her voice. Spa professionals listen and then set to work, for your talents intersect with their needs, and you choose to help. You purify infected skin, calm reddened faces, empty what’s full and smooth what is bumpy. You ease fine lines, soften deeper ones, give clarity to what’s dull and lift to what’s slipped. Embedded in your helping is this understanding: The particulars of any suffering are less important than the fact that the suffering itself exists, and that the impact on the client’s spirit must be countered, must be turned aside. You tell clients that in the back alleys of the mind may lurk treacherous images and dark thoughts; that staring into a mirror can actually distort vision; that it’s a bit of a walk, this healing of skin, this easing of thoughts, but that you will go with them, and here, that’s it, drop those heavier ones for it will lighten your way.

About 2,500 years ago, in the year 6 B.C., the philosopher Heraclitus wrote: “The eye, the ear, the mind in action. These I value.” In each and every facial, spa professionals use these senses Heraclitus prized. Your work is predicated on them. You see the skin and analyze it; you listen to the histories and stories told to you; you ponder which services and products to recommend, and you think of treatment plans and programs. But a sense beyond that which Heraclitus identified is used: touch. You use your hands. Your touch comes without demands, without conditions and without judgments. It’s an offering of acceptance, because you know, no matter what it looks like on the outside, that many clients are not touched kindly, or at all. A client now in her early 80s, and whose husband passed about 10 years ago, told me that of all the things she missed, the one that came to mind most regularly was his nightly ritual of massaging her feet. No one guides her to sleep with that gentle touch any more.

You are hardwired

Spa professionals are hardwired to help through service. This help takes the form of educated and knowledgeable work, with intuition and understanding coursing throughout. Pity those who see esthetics as merely pampering, dismissing it as fluff. The effort to balance the brain’s splendid expression of logic and science with the radiant apprehension of the mind can still be a teeter-totter affair, but here is one such lovely success. In her book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes: “There exists in human beings a literal anatomy and a poetic anatomy; one you can see, one you cannot. One is made of bones and teeth and flesh; the other is made of energy and memory and faith. But they are both equally true.”

Esthetics holds all to be true and usable in understanding and treating the skin: logic and intuition, science and emotion. Your work encompasses both anatomies by putting into service your eyes, ears, mind and hands, and through the meaning found in practicing over and again spiritual values of generosity, beauty and craft as you gently wash a face, tuck in a client and listen to her story. Your talents are meeting her world’s needs, and so it is that your beloved profession calls you to work.

Anne Martin is a licensed esthetician and esthetic instructor, and is also a CIDESCO diplomate. She is a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Massachusetts,Boston, and studied at the Harvard Divinity School.Martin graduated from the Elizabeth Grady School of Esthetics. She is the founder and chairperson of the NW Aestheticians’ Guild and chairperson of the Washington State Advisory Board for Cosmetology, Manicuring, Barbering and Esthetics. Along with Mark Lees, PhD, she co-founded the Institute of Advanced Clinical Esthetics, offering advanced seminars for estheticians. Martin currently has a private practice in Seattle where she specializes in the treatment of acne.