Well-educated Phaly Nuon was among the only Cambodian refugees at Nong Samet, a border camp near Thailand, who could talk with the aid workers. They gave her a wooden hut for shelter. Thousands of widows with small children (who had survived unspeakable atrocities of war) lived in tents in the camp, and Nuon saw women who weren’t moving—“not talking, not feeding or caring for their own children,” she told Andrew Solomon, the author of the 2001 book “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.” “I saw that though they had survived the war, they were now going to die from their depression."
Nuon decided to try to help. As her number of clients grew, aid groups helped her create the Khmer People’s Depression Relief Center, which expanded to 35 beds. She later founded The Future Light Orphanage near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which now cares for nearly 300 orphans and provides mental health care for families.
Nuon and her staff eventually received training in mental health work from Harvard University and other organizations from around the world, but in the camp, she developed her own way of treating women who had been traumatized: Once a woman began to share her story, Nuon drew her through daily exercises to help her “forget” horrific memories. She distracted them with pleasures like weaving or music and taught work skills such as cleaning houses or raising pigs—a source of sustenance and pride.
And when she felt the time was right, Nuon took them to a steamy lean-to where they could wash and give each other manicures and pedicures. Solomon describes “little bottles of colored enamel, the steam room, the sticks for pushing back cuticles, the emery boards, the towels.”
Nuon explained to Solomon that the care “makes them feel beautiful, and they want so much to feel beautiful. It also puts them in contact with the bodies of other people….While they are together washing and putting on nail polish, they begin to talk together, and bit by bit they learn to trust one another, and by the end of it all, they have learned how to make friends, so that they will never have to be so lonely and so alone again. Their stories, which they have told to no one but me—they begin to tell those stories to one another."
The urge to groom others, such as when you pick a piece of lint from a friend’s sweater or tuck in an exposed label is deeply natural. Animals of all kinds lick, peck and pick at each other to remove dirt and to bond. In primates, being groomed is measurably relaxing—it lowers the heart rate and discourages scratching, a sign of stress. It may also release feel-good chemicals in the brain such as endorphins or oxytocin. Research shows that when monkeys receive doses of morphine (which has a similar effect as endorphins), they request less grooming from others. When endorphins in the brain are chemically blocked, monkeys petition for more grooming.
While social grooming occurs across the animal kingdom, it is especially important among primates, who spend far more time on it than they need merely to be clean. The bigger the social group of a species, the more time it tends to devote to mutual grooming. In fact, British anthropologist Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar argues that social grooming has evolved to help primates, including ourselves, build the kind of protective relationships that make society possible. (Dunbar is best known for formulating Dunbar's number—roughly 150—a measure of how many relationships one person can sustain.)
The traumatized Cambodian women had seen their society collapse and experienced inhumane treatment and horrific cruelty. If Dunbar is right, it makes sense that the way back would include grooming others and being groomed in return.
Grooming, such as manicures, pedicures and massage, not only helps people bond, but it also reduces anxiety and improves mental health. According to a meta-analysis of 37 studies, about three-quarters of the people who received a course of massage therapy had less anxiety or depression than those who didn’t—not far off from the measurable success rate of psychotherapy. Seeing the same body worker for regular visits may be especially healing .
Any bonding has a surprisingly big impact on physical health. In fact, isolation is deadly—about as dangerous as alcoholism or smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, according to research at Brigham Young University.
A beauty salon can be a refuge for women who are monitored by a controlling partner. “A salon is one of the few places some abused women feel safe,” says Linda Falcone, a spokesperson for Empire Beauty Schools, which teaches students how to respond when a client confides stories of abuse and what to say when they see suspicious bruises or hear about constant monitoring calls and texts. The students are trained to offer the name and phone numbers of organizations that can do more to help. In addition, each of the more than a hundred schools has adopted a woman’s shelter. Students and staff raise funds for the shelter and provide free beauty services to the residents.
In one of Vancouver’s grittiest neighborhoods, the 11-year-old nonprofit Beauty Night has given over 11,000 “life-makeovers” to women who live in poverty, offering help with budgets and screening for diabetes, along with makeup, haircuts and nail polish. Many of the visitors have been raped and blame themselves, according to founder Caroline Macgillivray. “I hear them say, ‘I’ve never been touched by someone who doesn’t want anything.’” Beauty treatments are a starting point to help the women open up and learn to trust again. “Women will come in for a haircut,” she says. “After they get to know you, they’ll let you give them a massage.”
As Nuon knows and science suggests, these beauty treatments go far beyond pampering and looking good. They also carry the power to heal.
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