Beauty Night Heals Mind, Body, and Spirit for Marginalized Women

Beauty Night Society founder, Caroline MacGillivray (L), poses with friends at a recent Beauty Night event in Canada. Photo: Ken Villeneuve

Survival sex-workers, drug addicts, and homeless women rarely have an opportunity to feel that someone truly cares about them or to experience human touch in a healthy way. But the volunteers at Beauty Night Society in Vancouver, British Columbia (BC) are striving to change that.

Why Are You Helping Them?

Caroline MacGillivray is the National Executive Director and Founder of Beauty Night Society. A 1995 graduate of Gastown Actors Studio in Vancouver, her interest in helping marginalized women arose while volunteering at WISH (Women’s Information Safe House) to conduct research for an upcoming role.

Participants and volunteers mingle during check-in at a Beauty Night event. Photo: Ken Villeneuve

She explains, “My best friend from theatre school married a gentleman who was going to school to become a preacher. They were ‘house parents’ at a transition home for sex workers who were trying to get off the street.

“When she would tell what she did, people sometimes seemed judgmental. She’d get questions like, ‘Why are you helping sex workers?’ ‘Why are you helping people with addiction issues? They have no discipline; they have no control,’ and those types of things.

“So she wrote a script about a girl who wakes up on her 19th birthday after overdosing on crack. She called and asked me if I’d play this young lady from the ages of 14 to 19, where she goes from a middle-class suburban girl to a Downtown Eastside sex worker and drug user. And for those people who are not familiar with the Downtown Eastside, according to the media, it’s the poorest neighborhood in North America.

“In British Columbia, the average age of entry into entrenched street life — and the sex trade — is only 12 years old,” adds MacGillivray, referring to the results of a study from the University of Victoria. “When I was 12, I was still playing with my Barbie dolls.”

The Impacts of Touch

Around the same time that MacGillivray started volunteering at WISH, she says, “My acting teacher, Michael David Sims, mentioned that in Romania, orphaned babies who weren’t touched for a long time died.

Volunteer Kerry Parson (R) is a "positive example to vulnerable women that there are some great guys out there," says MacGillivray of the relaxation massages he offers participants. Photo: Ken Villeneuve

“And if you look on the other end of the spectrum, when seniors have contact with another human, it makes a huge difference in their life; it can actually lower their blood pressure and provide other health benefits.

“Then you look at women who have dealt with violence at an early age; I believe it’s 1 in 5 women, internationally, that have dealt with sexual violence before the age of 18. I mean, what does that do to our society?

“According to the Elizabeth Fry Society, which helps women who are released from prison, 90 percent of women who end up in correctional facilities have dealt with sexual violence before the age of 18. And then you look at the girls on the streets and you wonder, How did they get there? Negative touch has a profound effect on self esteem. I didn’t learn that right away, I just wanted to make the girls feel good.”

Volunteering at WISH

During a volunteer shift at WISH, MacGillivray noticed one of the clients was having a bad day. She saw the girl struggling with a curling iron, almost in tears.

Beauty Night makes a huge impact on women who rarely have an opportunity to smile. Photo: Ken Villeneuve

“I said, ‘You know, I’m not a hairdresser, but I’d be more than willing to try.’ And she said to me ‘Really?’ She just looked at me a little suspiciously at the beginning, then finally said, ‘OK.’

“So the next thing I knew, this poor young lady and I ended up curling her hair one way, then the other, because I’m really not that good at hair. [She laughs.] Then I ended up doing her makeup and her nails.

“Afterwards, she gave me this huge hug, which got me thinking, If I can do this, what happens when you actually get people who know what they are doing? It could be something really sensational.”

At the women’s request, MacGillivray began doing several other clients’ hair and makeup.

Soon, she decided to speak with Mary Wreglesworth, the volunteer coordinator at WISH, about the value of these personal interactions for clients.

She told Wreglesworth, “I’m not doing what I’m here to do,” because I was supposed to be helping out in the soup kitchen. But I felt that what I was doing would really have some value as well.

Teaching skin care techniques helps women relax as they learn important skills. Photo: Ken Villeneuve

“And even though I knew that the women needed food and shelter and all that stuff, which is very important, I just wanted to make them smile.”

“I could tell that by the way their eyes were lighting up, it was like seeing little kids when they get to see Santa Claus, it was that feeling. And I knew there was value to it, I just didn’t know what it was at the time.

“I told her I wanted to do a beauty night because that’s what my girlfriends and I called it when we did each other’s hair and makeup before going out for a night on the town. It took them a little bit to say yes, just because sometimes space is a really valued commodity there. We decided to do the first one December 15, 2000.”

Dignity Is Beautiful

She began emailing and phoning all of her friends. “I needed them to talk to their hairdressers, makeup artists, massage therapist, aestheticians. And we needed donations, contributions of money, baked goods, all of the supplies to provide these makeovers.

The first Beauty Nights focused mainly on caring for hair, skin, and nails. Photo: Ken Villeneuve

“The community came through; people put the announcement in their church bulletins. People would talk to their offices. The next thing I knew I had strangers calling me. Thank God for my dad, because my dad let me store everything in my old room and had people constantly dropping stuff off on the back porch.

“We did our very first Beauty Night at WISH, for survival sex workers, even though our demographic has evolved over time to women who have experienced violence and who deal with poverty as well.

“At our very first event, we ended up with over 73 women. “It was pretty crazy,” MacGillivray adds. “We had 14 volunteers. People were being run off their feet.

"Dignity is beautiful," says MacGillivray. Photo: Ken Villeneuve

“We had stations set up for hair, for makeup, for nails — and it was really lovely for massage. It was interesting, because the women didn’t really want to be touched.

“But when I thought about it, it made sense. With some of the violence that happens, they’re grabbed from behind and dragged into the bushes.

“So the concept of somebody touching your neck and shoulders from behind, that’s kind of scary if you look at it from that perspective.

“Afterwards, when we asked the women, ‘What did you like?’ I had people telling me things like ‘They’re touching me, but they’re not afraid to touch me.’ Or, ‘They’re touching me, and they don’t want anything from me.’ For a lot of these women, this was a really, really, really big step.”

Providing Health and Wellness

The word spread about Beauty Night after the first event, inspiring a growing number of people to get involved. “It kept growing, and within a year and a half, we had evolved where we are doing Beauty Night once a week.

Beauty Nights also offer wellness activities for the participants' children. Photo: Ken Villeneuve

“Of course, if you’re doing it for the same demographic of women every week, you don’t always need hairdressers every time because there’s only so often you can cut hair. So we started adding things like foot care.

“Nursing students give the women pedicures, while they’re actually checking for abscesses at the bottoms of their feet. That’s usually a symptom of Diabetes 2. In Vancouver, aboriginal women are more at risk of developing that. For women who do have Diabetes 2, it’s good as well in terms of doing the manicures, because we’re actually cleaning their nails.

“So not only is it a way to reintroduce touch to victims of violence, it’s also a very healthy way of taking care of them. And, it’s an opportunity for them to come out and forget about their lives sometimes.”

Since Beauty Night began, MacGillivray and her countrywide team of volunteers have given over 11,000 makeovers. They continue to offer new programs to fit the needs of the women they serve, such as a one-on-one personal training program, a nutritional education program for mothers, and “Kid Care.” The latter involves children in physical activity to boost self-esteem, while offering mothers the free time to enjoy Beauty Night’s services.

Healing and Empowering

In Beauty Night’s nine and a half years of operation, the participant base has broadened from solely serving survival sex workers, to mothers, and seniors. Between the three cities that currently host Beauty Night — Vancouver, Toronto, and Prince George — an average of 150–200 women are served per week.

Women who feel good about themselves make healthier choices. Photo: Ken Villeneuve

There’s also cause for optimism. “Twenty percent of our volunteers are actually previous participants,” MacGillivray says. Beauty Night provides training programs for participants who want to get involved and “become part of the solution.”

“I believe there is a lot of research about the positive results when people embrace healthy lifestyle choices,” MacGillivray says.

“But beauty itself is body, mind, and spirit. And so we are touching on all those things by empowering people. We provide the tools to make positive lifestyle changes — and we help these women feel beautiful.”

Beauty Night Society is a registered charity in Canada, though MacGillivray says, “I like the word social-profit, as opposed to non-profit, because non-profit means there’s no value, in my mind. But, in social-profit, people are actually investing in society.”

For more information, or to contribute to Beauty Night, please email Caroline MacGillivray.

Lindsay Render

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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