I had meningitis and I lived to tell the tale. At the time in my life when I felt my most un-pretty, little did I know that beauty would help me get better.Before I got sick, I was your average New York City working girl. My closet was bigger than my kitchen and it took me over an hour to get ready in the morning, from picking out the perfect accessories for my outfit, to coiffing my pompadour, to applying my favorite shade of red lipstick. I took a lot of pride in my appearance. I mean, how could you not wear high heels when you’re strutting next to skyscrapers?In one headache, I went from being girlie by nature to bedridden for nearly 2 years.During that time, I was stuck lying flat out on my back all day. I’ll spare you the gory details, but to me, nothing seemed uglier than my appearance, which had gone from something I constantly worked at to something I could no longer control.I felt hopelessly trapped in my broken down body.When you’re in constant pain, there is no escape from it; it’s like an intense alarm constantly racketing through your brain. I would have given anything to make it stop for just ten minutes. The pills weren’t doing the trick.Luckily, I discovered relief could come in another kind of bottle: nail polish.After watching one of my favorite movies for the millionth time, “Earth Girls Are Easy”— the story of a colorful Los Angeles manicurist played by Geena Davis who falls for a hairy Jeff Goldblum (haven’t we all!)—it occurred to me that rad nail art was something I could even do in my situation.So I started painting—and didn’t stop.

Ashley MacknicaWhen life hands you lemons, make lemonade in glitter on your nails!
Lemonade Nails

Free to create whatever design I wanted—pink poodles, polka dots, Poké Balls, bows, pizza, plaid, palm trees, you name it, nail polish gave me back my sense of self. It turned my life around.Insomnia became the perfect free time to absorb nail art how-to videos on YouTube. The promise of a new shade of polish motivated me to struggle to walk to my corner drug store. I gave myself a nail art alter ego and started to blog my designs at MissPopNails.tumblr.com. Nail art even made me feel more comfortable allowing friends to visit and so they could also play with my beauty goodies.Crafting detailed mural manicures made me feel like I wasn’t a worthless lump.Now, I was a nail artist. I was painting just like Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel— on his back! Maybe my images were, uh, quainter, but soon, my sick bed had turned into a salon.

Ashley MacknicaCribbed my nail design from a modern masterpiece of street art, Dima Drjuchin’s mural in New York City.
Drjuchin Nails

The discovery that beauty could help me recover from an illness was a realization for me, but from a scientific and psychological standpoint, it’s no surprise.The same year I discovered my love for bedazzled manicures, a chronic illness textbook claimed that, “Whether engaging in personal grooming activities, such as applying cosmetics, jewelry, or hair accessories, caring for one’s self can be an effective intervention.”MORE: Guide to Non-Toxic Nail Polish Louanne Roark couldn’t agree more. Like me, she has seen firsthand how a little bit of cosmetics can go a long way. As the executive director of the Personal Care Products Council Foundation, she oversees the aptly titled program, Look Good…Feel Better. Her organization works with the American Cancer Society to empower women experiencing physical changes from treatment with beauty workshops on everything from hair care to make-up to the perfect mani. Since their inception in 1989, they’ve helped 1.1 million ladies across the globe get even better looking!On the surface, the program might seem like a stint in a top-notch cosmetology school, but Roark confided it’s really inner beauty that’s achieved. “For two hours during our workshop,” she described, her students are, “putting aside that you have cancer, forgetting all about it and just focusing on yourself as a woman. And having fun!”This beauty break is a welcome relief according to a 1994 scientific evaluation of her program. Women who attended the Look Good… Feel Better class “reported significantly greater improvements in their mood and perceptions of their attractiveness.” All that from a tube of lipstick, a blush of bronzer and some hairspray skills?!While spending precious time on grooming might seem frivolously superficial in the face of a serious health condition, studies and personal stories, like my own, have shown the benefits of a simple beauty ritual don’t just stop skin deep when the stakes are as high as a woman’s confidence and femininity.Dr. Mary Jane Massie, an attending psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, said about the program, “We have seen over decades how useful [Look Good…Feel Better] has been to people.” She was quick to point out that they are now not only servicing women, but have added programs for men and teens too.Let’s face it, even when we aren’t suffering from illness, there are plenty of external factors in the media that can make even woman (and men) with the most bullet-proof self confidence worry about their appearance. Beauty regimens don’t just improve the outlook of those who need relief from health issues—taking pride in your appearance improves everyone’s overall self-satisfaction.A 1982 study asked women to envision themselves in a variety of situations with and without their usual cosmetics. They found that women felt more “self-confident and sociable,” or you might say more large and in charge, when they had make-up on. Taking just a few minutes in the morning for a beauty ritual translates into a boost women can see, inside and out, all day!That’s good news for everybody, sick or not.Even in this recession, beauty products, like my $1.99-a-pop nail polish habit, are something we can all use to feel as good as we want to look.MORE: Nail Art Trends for The Real World