June 4, 2023

unic power

health life

My Beauty Regimen Is a Part of My RA Self-Care

6 min read

I stopped thinking about how my hands might look in 20 years and made a conscious decision to feel good about them now.

There’s a particular shade of yellow that I absolutely adore. It’s easier on the eye than the fluorescent markings you’d find in tattered old college textbooks. It’s warm toned and a little mustard-y, reminiscent of the squiggly lines drawn on hot dogs at the fair.

The color reminds me of sunflowers in summer and the wildflowers that return every spring. It’s somewhere between that of the midday sun and the golden spillage from the windowsill on a toasty August evening. I like to call it “happy face yellow.” It makes me smile.

One evening, I scrolled across the hue while perusing the web. At the tips of a young woman’s fingers were varying colors of nail polish. She wore a playful and bright manicure whereby shades of pink, blue, purple, and the yellow graced her fingernails. Just like that, I knew I needed to get my nails done.

I stopped scrolling to inspect my own hands. I hadn’t been to the nail salon in ages. My cuticles were overgrown and hangnails crept out from my nail beds.

There was some mild swelling in the joints of my hands. I recalled my last trip to the rheumatologist, when the doctor examined my knuckles and wrists for damage secondary to rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a common manifestation for those diagnosed with RA.

I caught myself going down the rabbit hole of RA symptoms and complications.

How long before my X-rays show permanent, irreversible damage? How long do I have before I experience reduced functionality of my hands?

My mood shifted somewhat dramatically. Luckily, I had the self-awareness to stop and adjust my focus.

I stopped thinking about how my hands might look in 20 years and made a conscious decision to feel good about them now.

As a woman in today’s world, I feel a nagging pressure to balance my love for all things pink and frilly with the notion of the strong and independent woman.

In some scenarios, girls and women are told to focus less on our appearance and more on being intelligent and hardworking. In contrast, we also receive messages that we need to soften our hard edges to be acceptable and proper women.

It’s a sensitive subject and a Catch-22. Women have fought for centuries to be regarded for more than their appearance, so it can read as vain to want to focus on the appearance of nails and hair.

With the diagnosis of a chronic illness, the topics of body image and appearance become even more nuanced. A lot happens when an autoimmune disease flares, and keeping up appearances can be the last thing on one’s mind.

When I feel my worst, I crave comfort. Loose-fitting clothing, supportive shoes, and a low maintenance hairstyle complete my ensemble. Certainly anyone who experienced COVID-19 quarantine can relate.

However, this is the long-term reality for some individuals experiencing disabling conditions. So sometimes — when the sweatpants, orthotics, and fuzzy socks get old — you just want your nails done.

Research has shown trips to the salon are for more than just looking pretty.

Cosmetology services can be beneficial for your health, especially if you have a condition that can make self-care difficult. Having your hair tended to or your skin cleansed can remove build up of oil and products that dry out and irritate the skin.

Care-centered environments also allow for healthful discussions, stress relief, psychosocial support, and improved self-image.

For me, salon visits translate to a boost in mood, which benefits my overall well-being.

Barbershops and salons can play an important role in community care. These businesses are accessible in nearly all communities and have the potential to be convenient and local hubs for health promotion.

Physical aspects aside, tending to the outer allows me to reconnect with the inner.

When I catch myself worrying about RA’s effect on my body, I’m confronted with my own thoughts and fears of deformity and side effects.

Escapism becomes a rather attractive way of dealing with my anxieties. Doing my makeup, caring for my hair, or receiving a special beauty treatment makes me feel good. I get to enjoy how I look and feel now. I get to celebrate and enjoy my body instead of ruminating on physiological changes that may occur in the future.

I eventually took another look at my own hands, resisted the inclination to catastrophize, and went to the nail salon. This would be my first manicure I’d have during a flare. Nevertheless, I picked out the perfect yellow polish color and was ready to marvel endlessly at my manicure afterward.

I soon realized how greatly this would differ from visits of the past. All that’s involved in a manicure — sitting in one position for long periods, allowing the technician to tug at your hands, the massage given after the cuticle cleaning and nail trimming — is not bothersome when disease activity is low.

But during a flare, sitting still while the nail technician adjusted my fingers to properly paint my nails was challenging. I tried my best to suppress any wincing, writhing, and groaning. I believe I succeeded, although at the expense of my nervous system.

I remember leaving the salon defeated and ready to submerge my hands in a bucket of ice water. One of the simpler pleasures in life was yet another thing that posed an obstacle for me to overcome. But I recognized there were measures I could take so I could still find joy in the simple pleasures of sunshine-yellow fingertips.

I was presented with an opportunity to practice assertiveness and self-advocacy. I often prepare to voice my concerns surrounding my symptoms and more at the doctor’s office or at the workplace.

Admittedly, I don’t believe I had ever paused to consider that self-advocacy extends beyond medical settings or at work.

It was awkward letting the nail tech know that the rolling and holding onto my fingers was causing me pain. I wondered if I was going to insult or confuse her, but she was kind, mindful, and careful when I explained that adjusting my fingers when applying nail polish was painful because of the inflammation in my joints.

Speaking up goes a long way. Explaining possible modifications beforehand can be an effective way to advocate for yourself and can aid your technician in creating a comfortable experience.

Most beauty treatments involve sitting in one position for an extended period of time. Some days, the stiffness in my ankles, hips, and neck make stretch breaks essential.

Leaning back over a wash basin at the hair salon, sitting in a stylist’s chair, or even laying on a massage table for too long can present problems once stiffness has settled in.

If you’re planning a trip to the salon, bring comfortable, supportive items (such as your own pillows and blanket) and let your stylist or technician know that it may be necessary to take a break and shift positions after a certain amount of time. Adjust when necessary.

Living with RA can be challenging, but I’m making a more conscious effort to practice active coping skills. Each day I strive to appreciate the charming little details in my surroundings, and to surround myself with uplifting and eye-catching things that bring me joy.

Sometimes it’s in my fashion. Other times it’s by sitting among the wildflowers. Every so often, it’s by glancing down at my hands to enjoy my favorite colors.

Shuntel Hines is a Los Angeles-based writer with special interests in health equity, accessibility, and mindfulness practices for improving one’s well-being. She has worked in the healthcare field for close to a decade in various capacities, including healthcare advocacy for the unhoused and emergency medical services in the field and hospital settings. In addition, she’s a certified 200-hour yoga instructor who appreciates an invigorating yoga practice. She enjoys spontaneous adventures throughout the city, seaside strolls, and an intense game of Scrabble.


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