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On the Emotional Work done by Workers in Beauty Salons with Dr. Hannah McCann

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

Dr. Hannah McCann is a senior lecturer in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne. With her focus on femininity studies, McCann spearheads the 'Beyond Skin-Deep Project', which highlights the role workers at beauty and hair salons play in initiating conversations about mental health, family violence, and a myriad of other struggles their clients face.

We sent Dr. Hannah McCann a series of questions about the nature of emotional work done in these environments, and how the intricacies of privacy and stigma must be considered to potentially create formalized and transformative programs to tackle family violence via the avenue of beauty salons.

What is the nature of salon work that makes clients likely to seek emotional conversations with their hairdressers, especially regarding topics that are personal, distressing, and often controversial to talk about?

  • I wouldn’t say that clients necessarily “seek” emotional conversations with hairdressers, but rather that it is the nature of the work that means emotional conversations arise. Salon work is quite intimate – the salon workers is in close proximity with you, sometimes for long periods of time (if you are getting a cut and colour). Chatter usually naturally happens because for customers there is not much else to do. It makes sense that given that space of touch and talk that sometimes people would disclose private facts about their life, especially if they build up a repeat relationship and trust with the same hairdresser.

Are there factors that make some clients more likely to realize the emotional work put into hairdressing, and seek such conversations? For example, are queer clients more likely to have personal conversations with their hairdressers?

  • I don’t think that there are any specific factors about clients that make emotional conversations more likely. Not everyone discloses deep and meaningful things to their hairdressers and certainly not everyone treats it like a counselling session! However, because of the intimacy, chatter, and trust involved in the hairdresser-client relationship, it is pretty much inevitable that people disclose a lot of things about their life to workers. When major life events happen, like deaths in the family, illnesses, job losses, relationship breakdowns and so on, people often mention these to their hairdressers, just simply because they are giving an update on their life when they are in the chair.

How do hairdressers feel about being approached for such conversations?

  • Most hairdressers I’ve spoken with over the years enjoy the social aspect of work. Those that don’t usually drop out of the industry. Sometimes certain topics can be hard for workers to manage, such as disclosures about physical illness or mental health, simply because they are distressing and workers don’t necessarily know how to manage these conversations or how, or if, to help their clients. Having more foundational training about the social aspects of salon work in hairdresser qualifications would be a good start to address this.

Are they regularly trained in being able to handle such situations? Is this an aspect of salon work that is recognized in beauty schools, both in Australia and other parts of the world?

  • Hairdressers receive no formal training in Australia about the social aspects of salon work. This is sorely needed.

Without training, how do hairdressers otherwise tend to navigate such conversations?

  • Hairdressers tend to develop these social skills over time, simply through being in the salon and having so many conversations. A lot of people enter the industry very young – as teenagers – and are not equipped to handle a lot of things that are disclosed or that happen in salons, so it’s a shame that there isn’t initial training on this to scaffold people’s abilities and emotional intelligence required to navigate this workplace.

Currently, we see some shifts in the way salon work is conducted. For example, in India, there has been a rise in aggregator platforms like Urban Clap that allow you to book an appointment with a hairdresser at your house, instead of going to a salon. Are there other significant shifts in the traditional ways in which salon work used to happen, and how does that impact the emotional aspect of it?

  • Yes increasingly people seem to be doing salon work at home or in mobile/gig work ways, which can be good for flexibility but risky in terms of safety. Going to someone’s house to do their hair can intensify the intimacy of the experience, but also changes the power dynamic and puts hairdressers in a more precarious position.

What backgrounds (gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.) do most hairdressers tend to come from? Does this impact the way they approach these conversations?

  • The workforce is highly feminized and also given the low wage ceiling is predominately women from working class backgrounds. Negative cultural stereotypes about salon workers as low-skilled “bimbos” persist, and as a result people don’t necessarily appreciate how complicated this kind of work is in terms of both aesthetic technical skills AND emotional people management skills.

What potential exists for utilizing salons as a place for community programs ranging from those on family violence or mental health?

  • In the USA there are quite a few public health efforts that utilize the unique relationship that hairdressers and barbers have with their clients, and the unique access that these workers have to communities (because you can find a salon in every kind of neighborhood, on every street corner). For example, there have been programs training workers to address family violence, spot melanomas, talk to clients about diabetes, and even to provide vaccinations during the early stages of the pandemic! Over recent years we have seen a lot of places around the world emulating the domestic violence training for hairdressers. This is great but is being done in a completely ad-hoc fashion, and also only attends to one issue that comes up in salons – not the myriad of other social and emotional issues that get disclosed. It would be great to see more systematic training embedded across the board.

In such programs, what tends to be the recommended method of striking a balance between respecting the client’s privacy and concern for the client by approaching authorities on their behalf?

  • None of these programs are aimed at reporting clients to authorities, but rather giving clients the necessary information so that they can seek out the right help. This is so that salon workers can act as helpful conduits for information, and not have to take on the burdens of client disclosures without a sense that there is help elsewhere in the community.

Are families aware of the emotional aspect of hair salons? Do you think that creating formalized community programmes (to deal with issues like family violence) may decrease the willingness of families to send victims to salons? Are there ways in which victims themselves may be disincentivized to seek such emotional conversations?

  • I think that as awareness rises about the role that salon workers can and do play as emotional confidants this can also put them at risk, and of course intimate partners who are violent might also further isolate their partners by preventing them from seeing hairdressers. This is really another reason why this training should be embedded in early qualifications – there shouldn’t be “special” salons who have done such training who can then be singled out or avoided, everyone should be trained!

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