“Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” So goes the slogan in a 1960s television ad for Clairol. But natural haircolor is the least of what a hairdresser is likely to know about a client. Of course the ’60s were an era when many women – along with friends and neighbors – visited hairdressers weekly, and the reputation for the salon chair as stand-in for the therapist’s couch was well-established. But while the culture of beauty has changed, the emotional nature of the stylist/client relationship remains every bit as intimate.
But this is an era of voyeurism – enabled or even enforced by social media – and privacy in the public sphere is a concern to some hairdressers who are setting conversational boundaries. “If you don’t want to talk all day long with a lot of people, the belief is that you’re not going to fit in very well,” said Gordon Miller, former executive director of the National Cosmetology Association. But, loose lips can shrink tips when eager eavesdroppers with smartphones sit one chair away. “I share stories about experiences of people I know, but never names, and I keep gossip and negativity out. It's not a good vibe,” comments hairdresser Rebecca Watchel in Saskatchewan, Canada. Hairdresser David Perry in South Carolina tells clients, “My studio is like the church confessional or Vegas – what's said there stays there.”
Hairdresser Jason Banister now sees his clients here at Hairstory Studio and doesn’t view himself as particularly chatty. “My clients tend to go deep or go quiet,” he reports. “I’ve had a lot of people cry in my chair because something happened that they’re processing; I try to establish a safe space and I’m happy that they feel comfortable… I just got a text message from a client both apologizing and thanking me for a conversation about relationship troubles.” But he still has privacy strategies in case: “I have a number of clients who were in a relationship together but no longer are; I make sure they aren’t coming at the same time or even on the same day, and I’m careful not to even mention the ex.”
Some clients see an opportunity not to talk for once, and rather than cram weeks of life updates into a half-hour session prefer to relax instead, and let stylists focus on their hair. One benefit is that voices no longer rise when blow dryers are switched on, and salons sound a lot less like bars at happy hour. But New York hairdresser Thom Elsemiller is concerned with subject matter over volume, and fosters an “educated and professional setting to create both beauty and money,” he writes. “Sex, AIDS, politics, and the Kardashians get me nowhere, and I want respect and a good reputation.” But, he adds, “When clients do over-talk, I just don't re-introduce such topics.”
Wes Sharpton solves the problem at Hairstory Studio with the consultation time he sets aside for every client, new or not. “I get the small talk out of the way early and then bring the conversation back to haircutting,” he says. “So when we get down to it, conversations that do happen tend to be more meaningful.” But this is a two-way street, and Mr. Banister sometimes sets boundaries around curiosity about his life. “Because the relationship can look so friendly, people want to know what’s going on,” he says. “There’s a delicate balance with the information I share before steering the conversation back to them.”
Even those hairdressers who welcome chairside confessions can find themselves in over their heads when clients raise issues better brought to a therapist, and that is precisely why official organizations are tapping into the social currency of salons and training hairdressers to respond appropriately.
In 2000, The New London Rotary Foundation in Connecticut awarded the Women's Center of Southeastern Connecticut – now called Safe Futures – a grant to train hairdressers how to recognize domestic violence and sexual assault. Participating salons post hotline numbers, display brochures and make referrals to social service agencies. The Center hopes to extend its training to bartenders, as well as taxi drivers and veterinarians.
One in three women – and one in seven men – experience violence at the hands of a partner in their lifetime, according to federal figures. Veronica Boyd-Frenkel, domestic violence ombudsman for the attorney general of Nevada, has worked with the state board of cosmetology to develop a training program for teachers and school administrators. But instead of turning stylists into crisis workers, Nevada's program teaches them how to ask the right questions. ''Emotional abuse, intimidation, control, jealousy, over-possessiveness and constant monitoring,'' said Ms. Boyd-Frenkel, “can be as sure signs of domestic violence as physical injuries.”
In San Diego, hairdressers have been taught to advise their clients of the importance of mammography and breast self-examinations. In Los Angeles, city administrators have hosted luncheons with hairdressers to hear what their clients think about city life. In Nashville, a local AIDS organization uses beauty parlors to discuss H.I.V. prevention.
In 2007, a program was launched by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services in beauty salons in the Washington Heights area, where many cases of domestic abuse and neglect include violence that is not necessarily aimed at children. The point of the training is to teach them how to identify victims and let them know their options.
The initiative joins similar efforts across the nation; Cut It Out based in Chicago, has trained over 40,000 salon workers in all 50 states to recognize signs of domestic abuse. The program was also adopted by the Empire Education Group, which has 87 cosmetology schools, and endorsed by the American Association of Cosmetology Schools, the trade organization representing another 800 schools.
In Illinois, a new amendment to a law that governs the cosmetology industry took effect this year that will require salon workers to take one hour of training every two years to recognize the signs of abuse and assault and provide a list of resources to which they can refer clients for help. Without the course, cosmetologists will not be able to renew their licenses.
The final version of the law, which was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in August, does not require salon workers to act on their suspicions, but helps them to recognize warning signs and provides them with resources to pass on — such as safe houses or hotlines — and how to get restraining orders or access to legal professionals. But Mr. Elsemiller, who was living in Florida where promoting safe sex education was a condition of license renewal says, “When I see injustice it's my nature to react. However I don’t think it’s appropriate for such things to be mandated.”
The police have tried reaching out to victims by, among other things, setting up domestic violence-education tables at community events, only to find that no one wants to be seen near them. But the atmosphere is different in a salon. “It may be one of the few places women might be without their abuser around,” said Laurie Magid, Assistant United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Ms. Watchel recalls a woman whose hair color she took from blonde to brunette. “Her boyfriend came in fuming mad because he liked her blonde hair. He demanded I "fix" it and give him his money back because he had given it to her. I asked her if she liked it and she did. She was obviously embarrassed by her boyfriend, and my manager told him that we do not cater to the wants of controlling boyfriends and never to step foot in her business again. We felt bad for the girl but powerless.”
A number of articles on the subject were published in the 1970s. In ''Hairdressers as Caregivers'' (American Journal of Community Psychology, 1979), the psychologist Emory L. Cowen and colleagues wrote that the jobs of ''informal agents'' like bartenders, barbers, beauticians and cab drivers ''bring them into contact with interpersonally distressed people.'' The authors described the phenomena as the ''beauty parlor surround'' with hairdressers enjoying dealing with clients' personal problems, gratified by the trust placed in them. Mr. Perry reminds us, “There was a time when the duties of hairdressers and barbers mixed with medical and dental – and I think there is a need to re-emphasize that because the canvas that we work on is the body, and hair usually reflects the health of a client. I think we should be supporting figures in a client's life.”
Psychotherapists, however, tend toward skepticism. ''Hairdressers are being placed in a role that they have little training for,'' said John Reid, a clinical psychologist practicing in San Antonio. ''They may get in over their heads in terms of the therapeutic relationship and issues like transference and countertransference. Plus, taking on this role could get them smack dab into the family dynamics if the abuser finds out.'' Other skeptics note that confidentiality – a legal duty for physicians and therapists – is merely professional etiquette for hairdressers. Mr. Elsemiller comments, “People want great hair, not therapists. 8 to 10 clients a day? Great. Patients? I'm not so sure.”
One victim of her husband’s violence says, "During the years I was abused, [the salon] was the only place I could go that he didn't mind me going. He didn't put two and two together… that it was a safe place for me to discuss what was happening at home. Sometimes I'd break a nail to find a reason to go."
Start the conversation below:
Hairdressers: Is silence golden? How much information is too much?
Clients: Is the salon chair your place to share?
Jeff Stryker, Those Who Stand and Coif Might Also Protect, March 26, 2000, The New York Times
Kayleen Schaeffer, Your Hairdressers Know, but They’re Not Talking, Dec. 6, 2007, The New York Times
Leslie Kaufman, Enlisting the Aid of Hairstylists as Sentinels for Domestic Abuse, Nov. 19, 2008, The New York Times
Christine Hauser, A New Front Against Domestic Abuse: The Hairstylist’s Chair, Dec. 16, 2016, The New York Times