Therapist, confidant and friend: Why society’s perception of salon workers needs a makeover


Hair and beauty salons dominate our high streets, but this booming industry still has an image problem.

Salon workers are often viewed as low-skilled, superficial and pre-occupied by appearances.

But as a society, are we undervaluing the role salon workers play within our communities?

More than a haircut

For many, a visit to the hair salon is seen as a luxury — a way of treating ourselves.

The experience can give us precious time to ourselves and a good haircut can boost our confidence — but for some people, could it also provide a safe haven?

Dr Hannah McCann, a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Melbourne, is researching the role salon workers play in the emotional lives of their clients. She believes that, culturally, we underestimate the important social work undertaken by salon workers.

“A lot of cultural reflections on the industry are about looking good when you leave the salon — you feel better because you’re looking better. But what’s really missed in those narratives is the social, intimate dynamic between client and worker,” McCann says.

She believes salons can offer a safe space where people can talk about problems and concerns that they might not be able to share with other people.

And, she thinks that this is due, in part, to the intimate nature of hairdressing.

Unlike most other social settings, salon workers are in close physical contact with their clients, often for prolonged periods of time. And McCann says it is the combination of touch, intimacy and conversation that helps create a unique relationship between salon worker and client.

“It’s a very unique relationship where you have someone touching parts of your body that people don’t usually touch, usually for extended periods of time and you also have a process of transformation.”

Personal disclosures

As part of her research, McCann interviewed salon workers about the social aspect of their work, and what emerged was pretty remarkable.

Each of the salon workers she spoke with had experience with clients talking about difficult or distressing experiences, she says.

“Everyone had heard disclosures of family violence, mental health issues, suicidal ideation, marriage breakdown, sexual violence and terminal illness. So many things are heard in the salon space,’’ McCann says.

The problem with this is that there’s little support for the workers who are coming into contact with these disclosures. In fact, there is little recognition these difficult conversations are even taking place within salons.

The social aspect of salon work is not currently included within training, and salon workers are often left unprepared for this element of the job.

By not fully recognising and preparing salon workers for the types of conversations they will encounter, we’re potentially missing vital opportunities to intervene in crisis situations.

But even more worryingly, by not training salon workers to safely manage these disclosures it is potentially harming both worker and client.

Without the appropriate support to deal with difficult disclosures, salon workers can end up carrying a huge emotional burden. And for the client, McCann says, disclosing issues such as family violence to an untrained salon worker could have disastrous consequences.

“If the salon worker says the wrong thing it can be really dangerous. For example, if someone discloses that their partner is violent and the salon worker encourages them to leave them that’s actually a really dangerous thing for someone to do without any kind of support.”

By failing to train salon workers in the social aspect of the role we could potentially be putting people in harm’s way. But if salon workers were properly trained it’s clear there is also huge potential to effect change.

Providing professional support

Hair and beauty salons are dotted throughout our communities. They are embedded within our high streets and have a diverse range of clients.

So, imagine what could be achieved if salon workers were equipped with the skills to safely manage disclosures and refer their clients on for professional support.

There have been some small-scale projects that have worked with salon workers to train them to manage difficult conversations, but McCann believes a huge opportunity is being missed to upskill workers so they are equipped to deal with disclosures.

“If we can plug the community services into the beauty industry, then you have this dynamic potential to skill up these industry workers with the referral and support mechanisms they need.”

With the additional strain COVID-19 has placed on our lives, now more than ever we need new ways of reaching and engaging with the most vulnerable members of our communities.

By providing salon workers with the skills to recognise, respond and refer clients on to professional services there is a huge potential to take community engagement directly into the high street.

This article was first published by Pursuit.

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