She ran her hands over my cheekbones, her fingerpads expert after years of experience, and ever so soft.
And it was already outrageous, already almost unbearable, because it felt so fine.
The bubbly, fluffy notion of self-indulgence, which fuels the spa industry, literally terrifies many of us who struggle with low self-esteem. Some of us dislike being touched by almost everyone. We so fear and disdain our bodies—how they look, what they do, what they don't do, the million ways in which we think they've failed—that we maintain a highly fractious relationship with them, despite their confounding proximity.
Over the years, some of us have been handled inappropriately or deceptively: fingers squeezing a hip or cheek, say, then the accusations: Gaining weight? Touch became known not as tenderness but a test, or worse.
I dislike being touched on the head most of all. Note my use of the neutral "the" rather than the possessive "my," as if even grammatically I could distance myself from this paramount body part. But hey: However far we are along the healing path, we still hear echoes of every horrible thing we've ever said to and about our faces, those poor uncloakable billboards of the soul.
At Tenaya Lodge, just outside Yosemite, a kind colleague had offered to treat me to a facial. It would have been rude to decline. Handing me a regally plush robe, the check-in clerk showed me showers, a steam room, sauna, relaxation room (with fruit bowl and herbal-tea urn) and locker room "for extra privacy."
How could she know how anxious each new revelation made me, how sure I was that, the moment I stepped nude into the sauna, spikes would emerge from its floor as horns blared: UNWORTHY! GO HOME!
The esthetician introduced herself and led me into a a softly lit room, a virtual sea of serenity, where gentle music played. I lay on a comfortably angled bed as in a warm, sage way she explained the protocols, then began them. Cleansing. Steaming. Exfoliation. Organic serums and elixirs smelling of meadows and heaven, forcing me to face the fact that—well, I have a face.
At one point, the esthetician praised my pores.
When interviewers ask me how to help low self-esteem sufferers feel better about themselves, I always say: Start with the smallest compliments, because (at first, at least) we won't believe big ones. Pores, now. Good pores. I'm into that.
Her words as soothing as her hands, having been doing this for over sixteen years, the esthetician worked masterfully well. This was a lesson: Committing oneself to a career, becoming expert at it, is an act of love.
My flesh accepted each elixir, each steamy waft, each gentle stroke. It accepted these things and wanted me to know:
I was being handled with care.
So for those moments I could not pretend, as I usually do, that my face is not mine but that of an annoying stranger who rears up in mirrors. Revelation: Might the fact that someone was standing there smoothing precious liquids into it, massaging it, imply that my much-maligned flesh (fat! sallow! acned!) might merit at least basic respect, perhaps also patience and tenderness?
Spa treatments teach us this: We have skin. Muscles. Bones. Blood. Neurons. These, by virtue of existing and functioning, are miraculous. And what is "beauty" but accepting that these miracles exist, that thus we carry miracles upon us everywhere we go?