Beauticians as therapists


If you’ve ever watched little kids pretend to be hairdressers - and I’m pretty certain it wasn’t something that only went on in my sandpit - chances are that the “And how was your day?” dialogue is a big part of the roleplaying experience.

(Although perhaps in my case that was more due to extensive early exposure to Steel Magnolias, where Truvy’s Beauty Spot was the place where everybody seemed to go to sort out their troubles. “Smile! It increases your face value!”)

The idea of a hairdresser or beautician as substitute therapist is so enmeshed in our culture that it would be safe to say that for many people, a visit to get one’s hair, nails or underarms “done” is often about the therapeutic benefits more than the hairdo itself.

And the notion is not new - back in the early ‘90s, psychologist Dr Lew Losoncy wrote a book, Salon Psychology, that rather hysterically set out to “take hairdressers on a quick tour of personality theory -- Freud, Jung, Adler, Maslow, May, Maltz, Skinner, Ellis -- and apply it to the world of the beauty salon, e.g.: Clients with rigid superegos can't stand to be kept waiting, clients with a lot of anxiety about change need help to feel comfortable trying a new style”.

When I am back home, I look forward to a visit to Sue at Changing Faces, yes, because she's very good at waxing off the winter coat, but also because we always have such a good chat about life. It was the same when Lucy at Tropical Sun used to do my bikini wax and we would talk about family issues and politics.

I no longer see a therapist - as in, a psychotherapist - but I was struck recently, coming home from an appointment with Natalie my nail artist extraordinaire, by a similar - if not greater - sense of relief to that which I used to feel after a therapy session.

Clinical psychologist Seth Myers thinks it’s because the salon context removes the “hard work” of the therapeutic setting. “The client looks into the mirror and can see the reflection of the stylist standing behind, but it’s far less threatening than the dynamic in psychotherapy in which the therapist sits across from the client and looks directly into the client’s eyes. In other words, the mirror creates the illusion of distance which makes the client feel more comfortable as he or she shares deeply personal details.”

Sociologist Miliann Kang extensively explored the notion of “body labour” (and the intersection of race and gender) as it relates to nail salons in her 2010 book The Managed Hand, itself a riff on sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s seminal 1983 study of “emotional labour”, The Managed Heart. Hochschild describes emotional labour as “management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labor is sold for a wage".

(A less academic explanation of the two comes courtesy of feminist blogger rgr-pop: “Body Labor is the act of using one’s body to work on another person’s body as a service (and ultimately a product), such as massage and manicure. Emotional Labors are the performative aspects of this work, which includes not only conversation but understanding when a client prefers silence, etc”.)

See, no matter how much better I feel when I breeze out of the salon with hairless thighburns or a rad new set of gels, more and more these days I wonder how the experience is for the beauty therapist themselves. Are we expecting too much of our hairdressers and nail artists to discuss our emotional woes, or is it an expected part of the industry?

With that in mind, I asked some beauty industry professionals for their side of the exchange.

“I definitely think clients see their hair appointments as a chance to get things off their chest,” says Melbourne hairdresser Rachelle. “Having clients come to see you regularly really gives you both the chance to develop a relationship which does make the client comfortable opening up to you. Not having a relationship outside of the salons presents the opportunity to talk to you with relative anonymity.”

Kelly, a freelance hairdresser and colourist, thinks the literal intimacy of the appointment itself can lead people to become more open. “Because you're so close physically while doing haircuts and people often feel vulnerable during big changes, [which] sometimes take a long time, you just end up talking about heavy subjects unintentionally,” she says. “I think that it's more of a release than a ‘looking for advice’ thing.”

(That certainly explains why Sue or Lucy and I had such deep and meaningfuls while I had my leg hoisted up to my face!)

All the beauty professionals I spoke to agreed that a major tool of the trade is recognising when a client would rather not chat, but what about when the tables are turned? “There are rare days when I'd rather not chat about anything, but if I'm in a bad mood, I find chatting with clients perks me up,” says nail artist Erin Margrethe of Melbourne’s Blonde Tiger. “Everyone's always happy when they're getting their nails done, and I'll pick up their energy in that instance. And occasionally a regular client and I will have a little sook and a laugh together if we've both had a bad day.”

“I have to admit that I usually prefer minimal conversation, it can slow you down at times!” says hair and makeup artist Shannon McGlinchey, “So I don't mind if a client isn't in the mood. We all have bad days!”

Given the ease with which my various beauty therapists take to talking about life/love with me, I was surprised to find that everyone I spoke to had been given only basic training in “bedside manner”, as it were.

“I went to beauty school in California,” says Erin, “and the focus there was always on techniques and health and safety. You're so busy learning how to pass your State Board of Cosmetology exams [in order to get your working license] that you don't really get into the interpersonal part of it. Also, I imagine it would have been lost on me at the time as a 17 year old!”

Indeed, the relative youth of most hair and beauty apprentices likely has a lot to do with any in-depth training (despite what Dr Losoncy’s book would like us to believe).

“I do think it would be great if they were to introduce a unit or two on basic counselling at trade school,” Rachelle offers, “because there have been times where I've thought, ‘wow, I really have no idea what to say or how to deal with what you've just told me!’”

Erin agrees. “In this line of work its important to have boundaries. If a client begins to get a bit too personal with you, or talk about issues you don’t feel comfortable with, you need to be able to steer the conversation back to safe ground or even gently suggest that they speak to a mental health professional. I'm always quite open about the fact that I see a psychologist for my own mental health. I mean, a good manicure can only do so much for you!”

That seems to be the actual mental health professionals’ perspective too, although as Meyers notes, “The truth is that many of the people we listen to the most haven’t had any mental health training at all (Oprah, anyone?), but their experiences have taught them an awful lot about human behavior. Similarly, hairstylists spend hours listening to clients and often have helpful feedback to share.”

So how do we find the balance? I think acknowledging the nature of body and emotional labour is a good place to begin; recognise that it’s nice to talk deeply with your hairdresser or beauty therapist, but that they aren’t required to provide that service.

At my last appointment with Natalie, she told me she was stressed out ahead of a work trip she had to take early the next day. I decided to take the conversation back a notch from our usual gabfest, and the ensuing silence we shared was golden. And you know what? I still felt just as good when I left as I do when we’ve yakked non-stop for three hours.

After all, as Kelly tells me of low-conversation appointments, “I mean, sometimes we do just talk about the weather, and sometimes that's even worse!”