I was at the salon last week getting my bi-monthly wax (one big benefit of having fine blonde hair — the stuff on your body kind of disappears when it’s growing out, so those waxes last longer). This time I saw a new esthetician: a 5-foot, compact little Russian with short reddish hair, in her 50s with a wide-set face and jowls, eyeglasses perched over wary brown eyes (she reminded me of Red from Orange is the New Black):
Unlike the other woman I usually see at this salon, who mercifully chatters my ear off about the cloudy fall weather or her one-year-old son’s first birthday party, “Red”, I’ll call her too, was silent, with an icy stare, barking orders: where to place my legs, how to contort my body. I, meanwhile, squirmed, flinching and pulling farther up the table as she ripped strips of hot wax from my lady parts. I felt a bit uncomfortable and unwelcome, to say the least.
Then, with a one of my legs tossed carelessly over her shoulder, Red remarked, “you have very thin skin. I have to be careful.”
What did she mean, I asked.
“There’s not much to it. It’s thin, it gets irritated and red really easily. So it takes me a bit longer to wax, because I have to do it in very small parts,” Red replied, blowing on the wax to cool it before spreading it on my skin. And then as if we were new best friends she opened up about her life — from Russia, lived in the UK and Belgium for a few years, been in New York for a dozen years. She finished up with a cloud of baby powder (“better than oil, that will hurt your skin”), patted me on the back and smiled as I left the salon.
It wasn’t until I was walking back to work that I got to thinking about what she said. Thin skin. Huh. The definition of the idiom: easily upset or hurt; sensitive. Like most cliches, we usually skim the surface, say them without thinking about why they exist — but they hold more wisdom than we often recognize. And more than just my literal thin skin, the definition holds true for me figuratively. I tend to get upset or hurt easily. I take things personally more than I like to admit, internalize my mistakes, judge the way that I talk and the work that I do with a critical eye. Hell, I even initially think that the little lady who’s waxing me had for some reason decided on first glance that she didn’t like me, or at least like her job. It made me step back and think about my sometimes cruel thoughts, and the compassion with which this stranger treated me.
There must be something to learn from this intimate ordeal. How can I deal with being “thin skinned” in everyday life? When you’re on the table getting covered in burning, sticky wax you have two options: squirm and flinch and grit your teeth, or close your eyes and try to think about anywhere but where you actually are…and breathe. And if you take the adversity of getting your thin skin attacked in smaller bites, instead of hurting yourself, overwhelming your thin skin by dealing with the entire problem area at once, you fix bits and pieces, little by little, with patience and compassion, until the problem is solved. It’s what the best yoga instructors tell you when you’re in chair pose: focus on breathing into the pain. This kind of focus and breath that you learn from yoga is actually even more useful in your life, and it’s been proven by numerous studies to reduce stress and anxiety and even your blood pressure. Life lesson learned after 10 minutes with my legs in the air and a little Russian lady with the evil eye: deal with problems bit by bit, and never stop breathing.