J, a middle-aged woman staying at a shelter in Boston, did not begin wearing makeup until she became homeless. She says when she had housing, there were many things in her life that gave her value and a sense of worth. However, once she lost housing, she started to feel ashamed. MGH physicians say J’s situation is similar to many women living in shelters who experience a great amount of embarrassment and guilt about their housing situation.
In response, a team of dermatologists, residents and medical students – led by Jennifer Tan, MD, of the Department of Dermatology – has been conducting a Women’s Skin Wellness initiative at the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP). The program includes skin cancer screenings for women and a shelter-based family clinic.
The group also provides support for the newly created Skin care and emPowerment for All (SPA) Days sessions, created by Diana Webster Bartenstein, a Tufts medical student and future resident in the Harvard Combined Dermatology Residency Program. SPA Days were designed to unite skin health with self-care. SPA Days currently run monthly in conjunction with the BHCHP Health, Empowerment, Resources Saturday program. The sessions have been so popular they will expand to several additional women’s shelters during the upcoming year. At each SPA Day, women receive a face mask, hand massage, foot soak or other beauty treatments while students engage them in education about proper skin health.
“We found that women experiencing homelessness were sharing makeup leading to infections, and discovered that by taking the time to help women gain confidence, they were more likely to talk about other health issues, such as substance use disorders,” says Tan. “Skin wellness and education seem to be effective ways to engage with this vulnerable population.”
After hearing many of their stories, the Department of Dermatology launched a Share Your Beauty Drive, donating unused and unopened samples of eye makeup, lipsticks, moisturizers, skin cleansers, deodorants and laundry detergent. These are part of SOS beauty packets delivered to the women.
“Though makeup is a small gesture, it helps many women experiencing homelessness put their best face forward and assume enough confidence to get through their day,” says Bartenstein. “I think when women experiencing homelessness acknowledge their own dignity and beauty, they are more likely to fight for their health, their rights and their future.”
This article was originally published in the 03/23/18 Hotline issue.