Back in July, I met an older Vietnamese acupuncturist whose face was luminous. Her skin radiated pink health and firmness, a truly glowing, porcelain specimen lit from within. She made my face look positively dried out, tired, and blotchy. I stood next to her, feeling as if my pores were craters. Hers was not the type of face you easily forget, and it’s most certainly not a face that occurs commonly in London, a city of tired, run-down and burdened visages. Rather than feel envious, I was in awe, her skin tone heightening a feminine desire to look after my skin. I came away from the meeting reflecting upon my history of face care, and determined to do something about it.

Growing up, Australia in the 1970s was not rife with media attention about the effects of the sun on the skin, let alone its effects on children’s skin. Skin protection consisted of spraying on more baby oil and if you applied sun block, you were treated with derision. My friends and I tanned and burned routinely, blissfully exposing ourselves to blistering Australian rays. Much to my mother’s dismay, I adopted the machismo, unheeding Australian attitude to become as darkly tanned as possible. My mother, on the other hand, had legs whiter than a fish belly, with veins that ran blue. She kept herself very much covered, with long-sleeved cotton shirts, wide-brimmed hats, and an occasional parasol. She set her chair under the eaves or branches of eucalyptus trees for every family barbeque and outing. So pearly white was she that I remember feeling shocked when I did manage a glimpse of her ankle. Meanwhile, I ran about in my T-shirts, trainers, and shorts, the sun marking up my body in a farmer’s tan. Being tanned carried negative connotations. Being dark-skinned in traditional Chinese culture denoted the lower class, of having laboured in the fields. Did it pain my mother to see her child’s body demarcated into brown and white, while she maintained an all-over creaminess? Surely this was strong visual reminder of the cultural gap between her and I, my body showing her lack of control over her offspring growing up in a foreign land.

I grew up with a mother who looked nothing like the slim glamorous black and white photographs of herself in Jackie O shades and A-lined dresses. Instead, the woman I was raised by was apple shaped with a staunch refusal to wear bras, bleach or shave. She wore lipstick only to formal occasions or job interviews, and prided herself on owning cosmetics for decades. “See how frugal I am! The products last so long,” she’d exclaim, as I examined the strange contents of her make-up bag. What did one do with these curious instruments, I wondered, as I excavated the petite purse, holding up individual tubes, bottles, powder cakes, and brushes to the light.

The one feminine routine my mother did maintain was the permanent for her hair. Her desire for permed hair confused me, as she stroked and commented on my sleek blue-black straight hair. Every other month, she used home treatments, coercing me into rolling the difficult-to-reach, back-of-the-head hair into tight, pinned curlers. As I ventured into puberty, my mother sternly told me “Natural beauty is best,” frowning upon razors, and giving me her old bras to try and wear. The bra was so itchy and foreign on my skin, I didn’t use it until gym locker rooms and social pressure pushed me to don them.

Things learned at an early age tend to set a programmed path until challenged with good reason. My lack of concern for my skin continued through adolescence, and into my adulthood. Moving from Sydney to Los Angeles forced upon me a cultural shift, however, my blasé attitude, and dedication to sun worshipping remained the same. All I needed to do was slap a bit of Oil of Olay on my face in the morning, right?

Last week, I walked through spitting London rain to find a basement flat that promised a free Dr. Hauschka facial in exchange for my Thai Yoga massage. Despite having worked at a luxury spa and been the occasional guinea pig for its aesthetician trainees, given my tomboy childhood, I did not fully comprehend the reasoning behind regular facials. Why did women make a fuss out of their face, applying this and that ointment? What difference did facials really make? I was greeted by Susie Lung, a woman well-known for her Dr. Hauschka facials, but sadly, it was the price tag of this session that seduced me.

As I reminisced, the aesthetician smoothed warm moist muslin cloths rhythmically over my face, from forehead down to chin and neck. The smell of lavender infiltrated my nose, stimulating the skin. “With Dr. Hauschka, we do not espouse scrubs, but rather the daily use of clean, textured muslin to gently exfoliate, and aid the skin into its own natural balance,” I was told. Technically, my face was cleanse, masked, toned, masked again, toned, then moisturized, but as with all facials I don’t know what went on. I just sunk into the couch, lost in sensation and comfort.

After having experienced micro-derm abrasion Bliss Spa treatments, this one felt different. Bliss’s facials felt very much about scraping away the fear of growing old, fueled by demanding clientele neuroses. As I lay in this Dr. Hauschka treatment, the vibe was completely nurturing, with Susie right by me. With each soft, moist wipe of the muslin, a layer within me was revealed. The aesthetician’s open-palmed hands gently cupped the cleanser, rhythmically suctioning away impurities, following the lymph around my face.

Something about that soft, slow pressure effectively rocked old memories up. Suspicion floated on the surface of my emotions and it dawned on me that I’d ascribed this feeling to notions of femininity and “girly” things. What would I look like if I dare allow myself such soft female attention? Her hands gentle, Susie informed me of a nurturing and effective daily face care regimen. It seemed straight-forward, easy to do, and treated the skin without irritability; it was a routine I could do for myself: cleanse and toner at night, toner and face cream for each day. My skin wasn’t a disaster area; it just needed a bit of TLC. “Don’t rub cream into the skin, pat it in. Treat your skin well,” Susie advised.

When the facial was over, Susie asked me, “What do you do to pamper yourself?” I was stumped by this straight forward question, because really, I don’t. But with the old memories of my mother and childhood surfacing, I could better understand why it was that I didn’t pamper myself. In a lot of ways, my mother’s downplaying of girly things helped me excel in my studies, and that she probably didn’t wish for me to grow up vain. But it had also created a void of misunderstanding. I realised I now could stop treating femininity with suspicion, or as an unknown. Being a woman could be fun and enjoyable, and in that instant, I released bitter emotions associated with my mother – as her daughter, I had felt let down by her abstentious ways, but now I realised she’d done the best she could raising me into womanhood. I had now found elsewhere, on a stranger’s couch, what I’d sought for a lifetime – a filling of a void. It felt good and wholesome to stop blaming, learn something new, and take responsibility.

My face looked great. It glowed. The surface looked calm and moisturised, not irritated. I decided to adopt Susie’s simple yet effective face care routine, and give myself that extra bit of pampering self-care I been missing. Profound change can happen in small instances.

Erica, 34, London UK