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We’ve all had those moments of despair when trying to reach beauty nirvana. That terrible haircut, bleach job or wax/burn-your-skin-off moment when attempting to become the paragons we see in Vogue. For aid workers living in the field, the compulsion to feel more aesthetically pleasing, even for just 20 minutes, is a strong one. Somehow, despite the hundreds of bad experiences, horror stories from our fellow humanitarians and nightmares of our own of trying to beautify ourselves, we continue to trail the wax-strip, popped zit, gloopy mascara filled road, hopeful that this time will be different and a veritable Cara Delevigne will come strolling out of the tent each morning.
Once, in Nepal, I attempted to get what I thought was a basic leg wax. I dared to ask if they did bikini line waxing and received a cold, ‘no’, a clear look of disgust and a disapproving look up and down. After being shown to the delightful ‘treatment room’ (a bed in the basement of a hotel) I settled back, but was soon confused by the feeling that the woman was working both legs at the same time. Propping up, I saw two women down there. One for each leg? No. Rather, I had one waxing the leg and the other following the wax with threading, her teeth working the thin string to get those strays from my kneecaps. The worst thing was I wasn’t even that shocked by it, considering the other beauty nightmares I’ve had on my travels…
I clearly hadn’t learned from that time in India when they promised me that they do ‘white girl hair’ and I sat in a salon in tears pulling out over-bleached chunks of fluff as they fell from my scalp. Nor the time a year later when I taught a young Indian immigrant who didn’t speak a word of English what a Brazilian was in the back of a pedicure shop in Kampala. That delightful experience ended in a delicate scissor operation to try to cut out globs of wax that had clumped together and hardened in an area you really don’t want to be using blades. Even these two experiences didn’t stop me from inviting a friend for a pedicure in Ouagadogou, where her little toenail was completely clipped off, and the foot soak baths smelt clearly of rot. A few years later, having forgotten the Indian hair salon and desperately wanting to feel fresh for an attempt at a romantic R&R, I yet again left a hair salon in tears sporting tiger stripes of bright blonde in my hair. My attempt at romance ended with him escorting me to various hairdressers whilst I tried to blend the yellow patches. Not the start that either of us had in mind.
I had hoped that my previous experiences would stand me in good stead for my current predicament of travelling with my partner. When you’re single in the field, it’s easier to let body hairs run riot – the likelihood is anyone who sees them is only going to see them once (ok, a couple of times… ok, four times a week until one of you leaves the deployment), and is quite likely also so sex-starved that they also won’t care. But when you have a longer term partner, especially in the first few months, you start to care whether your legs are silky smooth. When we arrived to our new homestead, I opened my bag in the 46 degree heat only to find all my wax strips had melted together. With no razor in sight and seven long weeks of cohabitation on the cards, I pulled out my tweezers and got at my armpits holding a flashlight between my teeth. Desperate times.
I keep telling myself I’m getting better at keeping to a beauty routine; half my luggage weight is skin creams and conditioner to try to reduce the sun’s traumatising impact on my ageing skin and greying, brittle hair. However, I still spend more time checking that the chocolate I buy is sealed inside the paper so if/when it melts in transit it can be refrozen and rescued, than I do making sure I have essentials like nail clippers, or oil to remove wax when I accidentally stick the strip facing the wrong way up on my inner thigh. Maybe this is because I opt for those locations far away from any swimming pools, romantic encounters or skin-baring (although, wearing a hijab in Yemen was a good opportunity to sneak extra oil in my unwashed hair without notice, hoping to provide some respite to my South-Sudan split ends). Or maybe I like to keep things a little risky with local, ‘natural’ approaches to beauty, such as that time in Mauritania someone convinced me that a paste made from flour and water was the best solution to stop in-growing hairs….
Lying back in that basement ‘beauty parlour’ watching two women both wax and thread my leg hairs, I realise that, much like any NGO applying for UNICEF funding, I have placed disastrous past experiences outside of the realm of decision-making consciousness, and choose instead to steadfastly repeat the same activity over and over hoping for a different outcome. That, my friends, is surely the definition of insanity.