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Beauty School Drop-out

Facial Mutilation, Weird Chemicals, and Bad Perms--Is This What Cosmetology School is All About?

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Mom wouldn't let me wear makeup until I was 14.

To subvert her iron-fisted post-feminism, I was forced to create desperate substitutions, such as sidewalk chalk instead of eye shadow, and big brother's tinted Oxy 10 for foundation. Deprived of real makeup, I set my sights on becoming a self-styled aesthetician by the age of eight. In fact, the first time I got busted for sneaking into the liquor cabinet was when I swiped a bottle of Jack Daniels to numb my eyebrows for plucking.

Alas, this elaborate regimen has since been beaten out of me by events occurring during college and the riot grrrl/grunge heyday, leaving me a comparative hag. Sometimes I still read the magazines, and wistfully recall the days when I had time to futz around so much with my face. Was I a happier person? Have I made the right decision? Claimed the right priorities? What if I'd gone the other way?

Therefore, I decided to spend a day stepping into the shoes of a cosmetology student--a sort of career day immersion, just in case this newspaper gig gets old. Trading in my workaday sweats and greasy skin, I curled my lashes, texturized my hair, and marched downtown to beauty school.

It's A Beautiful World

Beau Monde College of Hair Design is one of the Portland metropolitan area's most prominent schools of cosmetology. In addition to hair, their programs also include the study of nail and facial technology. Its central, high-traffic location was attractive and convenient for me, and Beau Monde students have the advantage of getting lots of practice with the huge, downtown client pool.

The financial aid program--a rarity among beauty schools--is another draw for Beau Monde, and the school prides itself on the diversity of the students. As Ms. Jacquie (all instructors are addressed by students as Ms. or Mr.) tells me, "We get people from all types of backgrounds, be it racial, economic, or cultural."

Besides creatively addressing an array of hair types, the academic program also includes instruction in people skills, aiming to help pupils maintain and increase their future client base. Talking to Ms. Jacquie, I started to get excited about my day-in-the-life. Beau Monde promised to be a serious, creative learning environment within the concrete heart of the city. My new beauty school identity was sure to come out skilled, chic, and metropolitan.

New Kid Nerves

The night before class, I tried to pick out clothes that fit two criteria: They couldn't smell too much like crotch, and they had to be in accordance with school dress codes. Said code includes legally required rules against open-toed shoes and hosiery mandates, as well as general requests to "look professional" (no jeans, hats, etc.). Walking to class in the morning, I fretted as I watched a cowlick develop in my damp bangs, its progress reflected in store windows. I felt the uncharacteristic urge to appear fastidious and manicured among the vocationally style-conscious.

I knew I wouldn't be working on any clients. Only students who have completed their classroom training are allowed to practice on real people, and as such, there is no lack of willing guinea pigs ready to save a few bucks in exchange for taking their chances on a student. Friends in the business have related numerous salon horror stories revolving around client interactions. Nelson, a former Beau Monde student currently employed at an upscale salon, claims to have had customers who shot smack in the bathrooms, jacked off under their aprons, and let their salon towels slip, "accidentally" flashing their goodies during body waxing sessions. He once gave a facial massage to a male client who became aroused, erotically murmuring, "Oooooh, that feels sooo gooood." I was surprised it only happened once.

Sarah, another Beau Monde alumnus, experienced something far more horrifying than mere sexual perversion. She once caught scabies from a client, and suffered the embarrassment of passing it on to her boyfriend. She says she had been taught to keep an eye out for communicable problems like head lice. But one of the unfortunate things about scabies is they can be difficult to detect. So, she remained unaware until the day her skin erupted in itchy, little bumps.

As a beginner, I imagined that my potential for catastrophe could earn me a crueler vengeance than hard-ons and pestilence, were it to be inflicted on a human. Luckily, my first "client" was to be a disembodied mannequin head whose neck was c-clamped to a table.

Hairdos 101

Ms. Sandra, the instructor for my first class, seemed pleased when Ms. Jacquie introduced me. She taught me to "palm my shears," tucking them in and out of my hand as I wet, combed, separated, and trimmed the mannequin's hair. I actually wasn't too far behind the students in my class, who were only on their second day at Beau Monde. Ms. Sandra lectured as the class worked, and I found I enjoyed trying to make my cuts as straight as possible. Ms. Sandra's lecture was peppered with enthusiastic encouragements, covering the very basics. I caught myself wanting to giggle when she defined the term "horizontal," but quickly stifled it when no one else so much as blinked, feeling a little guilty for being such a snoot.

Continuing her spiel, she emphasized the importance of using professional terminology as a marketing tool for attracting clients. When we moved on to drying the hair, she made a point of telling the class that what we were wielding were not hair dryers, but hair formers, "because that's what it does, it forms the hair."

Okay, fair enough.

Still, I'm not too sure it's necessary to throw a lot of wacky jargon around nervous, vain people. Plus, a "hair former" is an immediately recognizable object with a common, consensual name: hair dryer. Therefore, to call it anything else seems an affected attempt at pseudo-technical language, making yourself vulnerable to accusations of "putting on airs," which is even worse than making bad jokes.

After praising how quickly I'd caught on in hair class, Ms. Sandra suggested I take night classes and pick up a marketable skill. I'd had a good time, and it was tempting. Besides, it was gratifying to be recognized for my innate talent.

It Hurts To Look This Good

Abruptly, in mid-conversation, Ms. Sandra seized my forearm and gasped, "You need to have your eyebrows shaped! As long as you're here, you should let me do them! Here, let's do them right now!" As if suddenly realizing I needed emergency triple bypass surgery, I immediately agreed. When I asked if she was going to wax or pluck them, she looked at me and said in a mock stern tone, "You can pluck a chicken, but you have to tweeze a brow."

All right, shit. Jeez.

After running off and returning with tweezers, she plucked away with awe-inspiring speed and dexterity, minimizing the pain factor. It was impressive. Then she scampered away again, this time returning with a bottle of unidentified liquid, which she swiped across my eyebrows. It immediately began to burn and tingle, but when I looked in the mirror I was happy with how she'd cleaned up my straggly, neglected brows. Sometimes you have to suffer for fashion.

I visited Nelson at his nearby salon during lunch break, and showed him my eyebrows.

"It kind of hurts," I said.

"Uh, yeah, you're bleeding," he replied skeptically.

Back at school, in the bathroom, I noticed a strip of skin under my right eyebrow had become a puffy, furious red. While washing my hands, another student came in and peered at me, looking concerned.

"Did you just have your eyebrows waxed?"

When I explained about the tweezing followed by stingy liquid, she nodded ruefully.

"Yeah, it was probably some type of alcoholic toner. Some of the products here are just so-so. I'm already licensed as an aesthetician, and I would have just used cold water. It closes the hair follicles just as well."

The skin eventually developed into a scab and fell off four days later.

Perms Are Tacky Anyways

After my successes with hair cutting, I was pumped for the next class: Advanced perms. This time, Ms. Julie presided. She showed me how to part the mannequin's hair into a mohawk, divide it into subsections, and roll it up using thin tissue papers and curling rods. I don't care who you are; it's not as easy as it sounds. As Ms. Julie moved around the classroom, I listened to the chatter of the students working at my table, a tad embarrassed at how clumsy I was with the rods.

The girl across from me asked if I was a night student, and we struck up a conversation. She said she'd always done hair, but was going to school to get professionally and legally licensed. The other girls affirmed they'd also been teaching themselves long before entering the school, figuring out how to create looks on themselves, their siblings, and friends. Then the conversation turned back to boyfriends, apartments, and nipple piercing, competing with the babble on the floor and the hiphop radio station pumping lowly out of the classroom stereo.

After a while, rolling the hair seemed easier, and during Ms. Julie's rounds, she didn't criticize my efforts as much. Feeling I'd managed to master yet another skill, my ego was nonetheless mashed at the end of class. An older instructor came by, actually laughing at how bad my perm sucked!

She accused my rods of being too spaced out and declared that, had I been a real student, she'd have made me start over. Although disappointed by the fact Ms. Julie had been humoring me, and I'd spent the entire class perfecting the lost art of a crappy perm, I still found a little gratification in one of the instructor's comments.

"You weren't even folding the papers correctly! It's really amazing you were able to make the rods to stay in, because you're doing it completely wrong!"

If you're going to be bad at something, you may as well be amazingly bad.

Irritating My Skin

I went upstairs for facial class. The students were supposed to be working on coursework and taking turns practicing their facial techniques on each other. It was pandemonium. The class was on the jazz, talking and laughing raucously. Accusations screeched around the room.

"This stuff is making my skin kinda itchy!" complained one girl.

"Quit touching your face!" the guy working on her snapped, slathering copious amount of cream on her cheeks.

"He's irritating my skin!!!!" cried another.

Having once let Nelson give me a facial, I was amused at the lack of any attempt to recreate the dim, soothing atmosphere of a facial room. Squawky chaos ruled supreme in the class, where students unceremoniously kneaded each other's faces.

You're supposed to cleanse your hands with a liquid sanitizer before beginning the facial. I cracked up when one excited girl dutifully did so, then started rearranging her styling product-laden hairdo, thereby nullifying the effort. After observing a few turns, I left. The rowdiness and disorganization of the class was giving me a headache, and I certainly wasn't learning anything by watching a bunch of kids goof off.

I ditched out early on my last class at beauty school, exhausted, with an inflamed eyebrow. I felt I had learned something in my hair classes, even if I only theoretically know how to insert perm rods. It was an enjoyable immersion, although I could tell that the frantic, rowdy atmosphere would be annoying if I had to face it every day. Although beat, I looked forward to the office, where people were somewhat quieter and worked on computers.

School Is For Suckers

After my visit, I had the opportunity to get drunk with several former Beau Monde students, including Nelson and Sarah, as well as another young woman named Amy. Like most recent graduates, they had numerous gripes about their alma mater, and were more than eager to bitch about it.

All three were unanimous in the opinion that the skills--both technical and interpersonal--that they use in their current salon employment, were either self-taught or acquired post-graduation. It seems that, as the girls in perm class also indicated, most students entering the school already have a wealth of prior experience born out of a lifetime fascination. If I actually did sign up, with a rather stunted skill level, I would probably feel like I was on the beauty school short bus.

Sarah, who passed every class she took, but was at one point terminated for her attendance record, harbors an alarming degree of resentment towards the school, railing against its disorganization. However, her complaints are, for the most part, typical student gripes; difficulties attaining her transcript, settling outstanding balances, and clarifying her financial aid package.

Once a student has completed a cosmetology program, they then have to go to the capital and take a written exam before getting a state license. Rumor has it that Oregon's exam is a piece of cake, though, so wipe that look of shock off your face the next time a stylist makes you look like a gomer.

The Beau Monde alumni I spoke with seemed relieved their education was over, and the prevailing attitude is that the semesters spent there were a formality. Nelson describes it as "a waste of time." Amy says it was "a traumatizing experience." Sarah looks anguished as she describes how unhappy she was as a student. "When you go there every day, it just numbs you. But you just go and you end up eating Cup O'Noodles alone in the lunchroom."

Though these former students don't credit the school with much of the responsibility, all were able to find jobs at salons that are either hip, expensive, or both. It is also true they all stand out as put together and stylish; more so than most of the people I encountered at the school.

There doesn't seem to be much standing between a layman like me and a full course in cosmetology--other than a tuition cost of over $13,000 (which includes books, fees, and kits). And if I so desired, there's obviously a lot I could learn from the experience.

My experience at Beau Monde actually de-glamorized the field of cosmetology. It flirts with science, using geometry, chemistry, and biology. It's creative too, but as a professional your freedom is more often than not curbed by the whim of the client.

So unless there's a serious change in plans, I don't think I'll be registering for classes. I'm still excited about personal aesthetics, but I realize the only person I want to mess with is me. The hassles of clients and textbooks and administrative hurdles seem to outweigh the self-education motives that led me to consider it in the first place.

Perhaps I'll encounter a quarter-life crisis and get the uncontrollable urge to change my career, pretending the English degree never happened. Until then, I'll content myself with the occasional flip through Lucky, and making friends with glamorous looking people who don't mind too much if I hang out in their bathrooms while they're getting ready to go out.

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