KRISTIN DAVIS: Beauty Behind Bars and Prison's Underground Beauty Culture

I have been in prison for almost 6 months. Most days, I look in the mirror and I don't like what I see.
Publish date:
June 24, 2015
social justice, prison, jail, Kristin Davis, Jail Culture

My face is pale and sallow from lack of sunlight. I have dark circles under my eyes because I rarely sleep since I bunk with 2 women who snore. My skin is broken out from the dirt and grime in this place. My hair is brittle and breaking due to lack of hair care products and vitamins. I get strange rashes on my arms and chest from who knows what other fungus is in here.

Overall, I look awful and it makes me feel awful about myself.

I'd like to be able to look in the mirror and feel normal. I'd like to be able to look in the mirror and not feel broken by this place.

As a woman, and for most woman, our beauty rituals are an important part of daily life. From my skincare routine to the hair salon to the nail parlour-- my beauty rituals make me feel good about myself.

I'm sure even most men can relate. If you put yourself in a nice suit with clean shiny shoes and a haircut you feel ready to conquer the world.

And it's very difficult to feel ready to conquer anything in a place designed to defeat you.

Here in prison we have a very limited amount of beauty products. We have an extremely small selection of hair care products, a tiny amount of makeup, one face soap and lotion and pretty much nothing else.

This alone would not be that bad if I didn't feel constantly defeated by the litany of humiliating, degrading and inhumane treatment I have to endure.

On a daily basis I have to pee and poop in front of 2 other people. I shower with a sheer curtain in an open room. The amount of toilet paper I get is regulated, so I often run out. I've been put down by officers and told very negative comments. I've been strip searched dozens of times including searches for "contraband" that require taking out my tampon and bleeding on myself.

Yes, I know that is a disgusting statement. But it's true.

And after going thru some of these dehumanizing events, I'd like to look in the mirror and see some sort of semblance of my old self to remind me that this is only temporary, that soon I will be back in society where I won't be abused and treated like a dog.

I'd also like to feel like I have a fighting chance of getting back to my normal self because isn't that the point of this place, to prepare us to re-enter society rehabilitated?

But you know what's amazing?

You can take everything away from someone....and they will make something out of nothing.

The women here don't just survive; they manage to find ways to flourish. They are extraordinarily resourceful, creative and enterprising. Women are amazingly resilient.

There is an underground beauty culture here in prison. Almost anything that goes on on the outside, also goes on in here.

My first prison beauty experience was a pedicure.

For $6 (normally paid for through purchasing items from the commissary), I received a wonderful relaxing pedicure complete with callous removal, foot massage and polish.

The woman doing my toes glued together 5 small nail files to create a bigger file and then glued that to a plastic utensil handle to create a buffer to use on my feet (these files and nail clippers are all they sell us).

She blended acrylic paints (purchased for hobby craft use) to create my desired color to use as polish, and as a top coat used the floor wax we use to buff our floors.

Since they do not sell any of the items needed to perform this service, it's remarkable that my feet look and feel as good as they would if I went to my local nail shop.

And in the colorless prison world of khaki uniforms and regulation grey sweats, it's so nice to look down at my pink polka dot toes.

For a moment I am reminded of what life is like outside these walls.

When I have undergone an awful strip search by a rude cruel officer, I look down at my toes and remember that this is just a moment of darkness and I smile because I know I will be OK.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for the beauty services offered here. Enterprising women abound.

For $2, I can my eyebrows threaded. We, of course, don't have access to thread but an inmate who works in the laundry will bring scraps of thread to the women who perform this service so they can take care of their customers.

For $5, I can get a haircut. However, we don't have real scissors so I have refrained from getting this service. Haircuts are done with the hobby craft scissors, which look like blunt kindergarten scissors, but for many inmates it's better then nothing. Especially when you are doing a 10-year sentence.

For $3-5 there is a woman who makes face masks and creams from commissary or kitchen items, for $8 you can get a Shiatzu massage, you can find someone to blend and create makeup for you, etc. -- the list goes on and on.

The most indulgent splurge I have come across is an acupressure back alignment performed by a very knowledgeable Chinese woman who practices acupressure massage and acupuncture on the outside. For $10, she will re-align your back/neck/shoulder and also work on knees and other ailments.

Before coming to prison, I had undergone 6 months of physical therapy and was seen by 4 different doctors and made no progress in fixing a shoulder injury. After 2 months, and with the help of this amazing woman, I am almost pain-free and re-aligned.

It strikes me as ironic that I am in place where they are supposed to help us re-integrate into society but they have no idea what it takes to be able to make it in society as a woman.

The Bureau of Prisons gets $30k a year for each inmates incarcerated. They release you after 5, 10 or 20 years in prison and you don't even have a decent haircut. They don't even sell or offer you the hygiene items needed to actually allow you to look like a normal person. We are released from prison looking like we just got out of prison.

We look awful. And even worse, we know it and we feel awful about ourselves because of it.

You are released, after years of being treated like an animal, and are expected to be assertive and know how to lobby, for yourself, to put your life back together. But the truth is, we are provided limited training and education on the basic tools to do so.

In most men's prisons there are barbers that give haircuts. It's one of the official jobs that inmates can have -- in men's facilities. It is obviously not considered important in women's facilities.

It's the women in prison that empower each other. They are the ones who recognize what it takes to feel good about yourself and what you need to be able to face the world. They are the ones helping each other, by offering beauty treatments, because they know that looking good equates to feeling good about yourself. They are making products out of what they can acquire and offering services because they have no other choice or options.

Beauty behind bars isn't really about looking beautiful because there is not much luck of actually looking beautiful in here. It's more about looking less awful. But looking less awful means feeling decent and that gives us hope. Hope is what keeps us going.