Cookie banner

This site uses cookies. Select "Block all non-essential cookies" to only allow cookies necessary to display content and enable core site features. Select "Accept all cookies" to also personalize your experience on the site with ads and partner content tailored to your interests, and to allow us to measure the effectiveness of our service.

To learn more, review our Cookie Policy, Privacy Notice and Terms of Use.

or
clock menu more-arrow no yes
Photo: Charles E. Steinheimer/Getty Images

Filed under:

The Beauty Pitfalls of Being a Military Spouse

I feel prepared to handle the big problems. The small ones, like finding a salon wherever I go, are another story.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

You know that feeling when you’re getting a haircut and you realize that you’re not getting the style you asked for? Maybe the stylist is taking liberties, or maybe you specifically said “not too short” and then watched them chop off several additional inches? And then there’s that pit in your stomach when they proudly ask you to look in the mirror, and the immense self-consciousness that follows as you are forced to pay for the atrocity and go out in public? This was me twice in the span of one month after my first military move, following my fiancé as he began his Navy medicine career.

Now, about 10 months into our new life as a military family, I’m generally surprised by how much I’ve absorbed and how well I’ve adjusted. I know, roughly, the USUHS medical school schedule through 2020, where my fiancé, Jake, is studying to be a Navy doctor. I’ve picked up on commonly used acronyms like BAH (basic allowance for housing), PCS (permanent change of station), and CDC (child development center) — though the last one took me a while to stop confusing with Centers for Disease Control. I know how to identify rank and military branch on a uniform. I’ve got a solid grasp on what to expect, or not, in terms of military move frequencies and deployments. (I’m bracing myself to move every 18 months to three years years after 2020, basically until Jake retires). Overall, I feel vaguely prepared for the next 15+ years — the minimum amount of time before Jake can leave the military — especially for the big, important stuff like finding housing, researching childcare, and judging a possible new neighborhood. You know, the Things That Matter.

But, as you might have figured out from the above, one of the most jarring parts of the transition has been losing my beauty routine. I had to find all new specialists and products to reestablish equilibrium on my face and in my hair when I moved from New York City to Bethesda, Maryland (thanks to the dramatic shift in climate between the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic). Those processes, however trivial, are things I’ve always considered part of my identity; having consistency in them is what has helped make some of the other transitions in my life more fluid and less stressful. Losing them feels like adding insult to injury in what is already a massive life change, and the realization there is potential for me to have to uproot and relearn my beauty routine every 18-36 months for at least the next decade and a half of my life is more than a little overwhelming.

It had never occurred to me that because so many military spouses focus on the important things in the future — finding a neighborhood with access to excellent public education for children, a home that they love, a reasonable commute — the things that make us feel like us on a day-to-day basis are going to take a backseat. Your go-to spot for an eyebrow wax, your favorite drugstore for products, the person you trust with your most intimate body parts — all gone. I was unprepared to arrive in Bethesda and have such a hard time both finding what I was looking for and getting myself set up again.

Even after extensive research about the “best” beauty spots in town, I had that horrible experience at one of the top-rated salons. I’m not gonna name any names, because they have already lost my business and sent several apology notes, but I had to spend a couple of weeks walking around with what looked like a shaggy, sloppy mullet that I paid $75+ for even after confirming that they had curly hair experience. (Shoutout to Ashley Taylor at Franz Sebastian Salon who made everything wonderful again.)

Discouraged, frustrated, and looking for validation, I reached out to my military spouse network and heard dozens of horror stories like my own.

Elizabeth, whose family is currently stationed in San Antonio, Texas, tried to save money on a hair coloring after a PCS (Permanent Change of Station) by going through Groupon. “When they were huddled over me and whispering as they removed the foils,” she remembered, “I knew it was bad. Promises of ‘we’ll fix this’ before you've even been rinsed aren't good.”

When Jennifer moved abroad to Okinawa, Japan, her reliable skin care routine of 10 years suddenly evaporated. “My acne went crazy,” she explained. “The weather and the [hard] water is a combo for disaster, [makeup] selections are limited, and you are at the mercy of Amazon and the shipping speeds of USPS. Dear Lord, hope your teeth don't fail you, because it’s hard to get dentist appointments on base.”

Other spouses vented about the language barrier of moving to a new country. When Amy (who’s been a Navy wife for 21 years and counting) was stationed in Japan, she found that while she could speak basic Japanese and the employees at the NEX (Navy Exchange, where the salon was located) could speak basic English, nuanced words were lost in translation. Things like “subtle” and “just a touch of color” were totally useless, and she ended up as a blonde instead of a brunette with highlights.

But in addition to the complaints, I heard practical solutions. Amy shared her secret of waiting until the last possible second before a move to get everything taken care of so that you have time on the new base to get spouse or neighbor recommendations. This will give you time to bump into people with similar hair texture or color to your own. Elizabeth followed up on her hair foil horror story with a very useful tip of looking for chains with strong reputations, like Aveda, because it’s more likely than not that they train employees the same way regardless of location.

Whitney found solace in Birchbox after moving to a base with fewer hair and makeup brands available to her, and Lauren was thrilled to realize that she could indulge in some beauty luxuries — like mani-pedis, fake eyelashes, massages, eyebrow care, and regular trips to the salon — because they were so much cheaper at her duty station abroad than in the US.

But the person with my favorite idea of all was Millie, who prefers to keep her hair short but doesn’t want to shell out repeatedly for maintenance cuts at salons — certainly not new ones after every move. Her alternative? She and her husband, a Captain, cut each other’s hair.

“I have loved being able to count on him for my hair,” she wrote to me. “Sometimes being a part of the military can be intimidating. The thought of moving a lot, getting established in a new community, and finding new friends can sometimes send me into a near panic attack... I know all of this things will always fall into place, but in the meantime, I know I can get love, support, friendship, and a haircut, right in my own home.”

Tell me that is not the sweetest and most reassuring thing you have ever heard in your life.

So it seems that as with most things in the military, I was bracing myself for the worst after a singular worst experience, and the community came to my rescue with creative, simple, and all-too-heartwarming ways to soften the blow (without invalidating my feelings). The next time we move, I’ll be armed with an arsenal of ways to keep up my routine — favorite hairstyle included — and a network that never seems to run out of ideas.

Military spouses — or folks that move often — what do you think I missed? Any experiences you wish I had touched on or PCS tips that you’d recommend? Email me at Julie.Bogen@Vox.com or leave a note in the comments.

Beauty

Why Gyms Should Be Worried

Beauty

Rihanna’s Newly Skinny Eyebrows Spark Mass Panic

Beauty

Stormy Daniels’s Fragrance Just Launched

View all stories in Beauty