Do you find that having someone massage your feet and polish your nails soothes your anxiety? Do you get uneasy when your hair stylist is on vacation or can't fit you in for monthly highlighting or coloring? If you miss your regular waxing appointment -- for your legs, arms, eyebrows or whatever body part you wax these days -- do you feel out of control or even unkempt?
I was first struck by how beauty routines can become addictive when a patient called to explain that her hair appointment would keep her from coming to therapy. She said, "My salon is running late and I have to get my hair blown out." When I asked if she could possibly skip it or reschedule, she said apologetically, "I can't, I'm so sorry, but I just don't feel right unless my hair is done." When I saw her for her next session, I asked her about the missed appointment. She said, half jokingly, "I know it seems silly, but I think I'm addicted to my blowouts. I really can't do without them." While we had other more serious issues to discuss -- her panic attacks and marital problems -- I knew, in fact, this had become one of them.
Psychologists typically reserve the word addiction for more serious pathology and substance abuse, but in today's vernacular, we use the term pretty loosely. Any behavior that becomes physically and psychologically compulsive -- gambling, work, sex, eating, even computer and mobile phone use -- can be described as addictive. In truth, many deeply satisfying activities have the potential to become habitual. Pleasurable experiences naturally lead to the desire for more, so we yearn for repetition. When we're denied pleasure (or the behavior associated with it), we can feel uncomfortable, even anxious. Brain chemistry is involved, specifically the neurotransmitter dopamine, which, when triggered, leads to what we call cravings. When we re-engage in the enjoyable activity, our craving is temporarily satisfied. It relieves the discomfort, alleviates anxiety and a dependency is created.
So, how does this process relate to beauty routines and why are we finding ourselves dependent on them? First, let's remember that an unprecedented emphasis has been placed on maintaining youth and beauty in today's culture. We know that there are advantages to attractiveness -- both personally and professionally -- and that people experience disadvantages if they don't maintain their appearance. Both men and women today report that lookism and ageism are sadly pretty common these days. Consequently, people of all ages and both genders go to great lengths to routinely keep up their appearance just to stay competitive.
Let's also remember that any activity that provides a quick fix can be uniquely appealing and lead to wanting more. The silky feel of hair after its blown dry, the clean sensation from a smooth shave or waxing, the feeling of control following a manicure or pedicure... These experiences offer a reliable way to feel good about oneself and enhance one's sense of attractiveness. These may be indulgences, but relative to the beauty enhancements offered by dermatologists or surgeons -- like Botox, fillers, lasers and other cosmetic procedures -- these routine grooming practices are more affordable and accessible. There's little down time. You walk in and out. You see and feel immediate results. The pleasure runs deeper than we realize. We want that experience again and again.
Add to that the warm relationships that develop between consumers and their providers and you've got a growing dependency. Many manicurists and hair stylists see their clients once or twice a week, sometimes more often than friends and families get together. These providers offer a consistent pleasurable experience; customers share intimate life stories, get the undivided attention of a non-judgemental ear, all while kicking back and being taken care of. Relaxation and pampering without texting, tweeting or cell phones interrupting is a rare occurrence these days. Who wouldn't want more of that?
We may think of beauty routines as superficial, but in a world where looks matter a lot, the satisfaction can run deep when they're enhanced. And anything that contributes toward that end can easily become addictive. While there may be no need for 12-step-programs to curb the habits of beauty-seekers (at least, as of yet), it will take some real willpower to reign it in. With huge industries creating endless beauty products and services, these feel-good solutions are awfully tempting. We don't have to "just say no," but we may have to say "yes" just a little less often.
Are you 'addicted' to a grooming routine? If so, tell us about it.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter @ DrVDiller.
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