Having beauty treatments when seriously ill might sound flippant — but for our writer and thousands of other women, their healing power is not to be underestimated
It was one thing, then another: a pain, then an ambulance, a drip, then an x-ray, a blood test, an MRI scan, and then finally an operation. All in all, I was in hospital for more than a month with an illness. When I came home, my body wasn’t my own.
Bruises sprinkled my arms, climbing in blue splodges from my hands into the crook of my elbows, the trace of IV drips fed in and blood tests roughly done. My stomach was bruised black from injections. Across it, covered by fabric dressings, were new red scars from recently stitched skin. But I was home, and I was alive! One of the first things I did was book a pedicure and wax.
It surprised even me. Usually, I’m so hopeless around beauty, I rarely wear make-up. I’m a fan of a blow-dry and never turn down a manicure, but day to day it’s a success if I even brush my hair before going out. But this time felt different; it felt important. It was about reclaiming my body somehow.
The therapist came to my house. She helped me into an armchair, carefully, because it hurt when I moved, and soaked my feet, clipped my nails, then painted them glittery pink. I joked afterwards that it must have been the effects of the morphine, but it felt euphoric. Even the rip of strip wax felt good. And after, when I looked down at my unhairy legs and sparkling toes, for the first time in weeks I felt like myself.
It’s so easy to write off beauty, and fashion, as frivolous; a cliché to deride them as shallow, done for other people, not yourself. But I think that underestimates the impact that feeling you look good has. It is fun to doll up, but also it lifts your self-esteem, puts you in control of your body and lets you feel loved.
After I left hospital, booking beauty treatments felt like reclaiming a body I had lost control of; a two-fingered salute to the scars that, at first, I was too upset about to even look at. It felt defiant: I’ll choose how I look. It felt — for want of a less overused word — empowering, to take back control, to refuse to be a patient any more and let doctors discuss my body. Most of all, it felt like an act of love. Looking nice was something I gave myself.
Other people used it to show how they cared, too. Rushed into hospital, I hadn’t even had time to pack anything, so friends bought nightdresses in for me. They reflected our relationships. Rob arrived at midnight, quick on a sartorial emergency, with a nightie from a posh friend who had bought it to have plastic surgery in. Helen came at a sensible hour with a long cotton nightdress that made me look like a Victorian child. Tanya brought a towelling dress, soft as a hug. Martin turned up with a black negligée, far too revealing to wear on the ward. When he got out a can of hairspray, he was tackled by a doctor, complaining: “There are people on ventilators!”
It reminded me how, as a teenager, I’d visited my mum in hospital. Afraid of seeing how ill she was, and depressed at how little I could do, at the last moment I packed nail varnish. On the ward, we sat in silence, everything too difficult to say, as I painted her nails — all I could do to show how much I cared.
Lucy Patterson, who runs Milk, a mobile beauty service, has seen the way people use beauty to show others they care and what a difference it makes. She tells me about one client: an elderly lady, always glamorous, who is dying of cancer and has a weekly manicure booked for her by her daughter. It makes her feel like the woman she always was. Another man books a regular nail appointment for his mother in a care home. She has dementia, but the colours of the varnishes bring back memories. Patterson recalls another woman, pregnant with twins when she broke both her ankles, who booked a pedicure while she was housebound to cheer herself up. There are other wonderful services like this: blow-dries done in hospital and wigs and extensions created for cancer patients.