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18 Oct 2014

Hairstylists receive high customer marks for their roles as “therapists”

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October 18, 2014 Category: Beauty Posted by:

By Leah Fletcher

The scene of two small children at play pretending to be hairstylists is pretty common. The client conversation, whether with friends or dolls, usually begins with the question, “And how was your day?” and is a major part of the role-playing experience. 

For some, it was the exposure to the movie Beauty Shop, where Gina’s Salon was the place, known for its nurturing and emotionally interactive environment, that welcomed clients to an oasis where they could forget their cares and worries.

The idea of hairstylists or hairdressers as substitute therapists is so engrained in the African American cultural experience that it would be safe to say that for many who get their hair, nails or waxing “done” it is often about the therapeutic benefits more than the hairdo itself. 

style_10-19-14a_SM01PHOTO:  Tonya Ladipo

“This is not a new concept in the African American community,” says psychologist Tonya Ladipo. “Women for decades have looked forward to a visit to their favorite salon because the services provided are good, but also because they can converse with their stylists about life, family issues, current affairs and politics,” added Ladipo, Director of The Ladipo Group, a Center City Philadelphia counseling practice with a staff of ten professional psychologists.

Ladipo believes casting the hairstylist in this role is possible 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 is far less threatening than the dynamic in psychotherapy where the therapist sits across from the client looking 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 information,” explained Ladipo. 

But no matter how much better the client feels with a hairstyle or manicure, Ladipo begs the question; how is the experience for the stylist themselves? “Are we expecting too much for our hairdressers or nail artist to discuss our emotional woes, or it is an expected part of the industry?” Ladipo asked.     

Recognizing the trend some years ago, Dr. Lew Losoncy wrote a book, ‘Salon Psychology,’ in the 1990s, that 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 ridged superegos who can’t stand to be kept waiting, and clients with a lot of anxiety about change needed to help feel comfortable trying a new style.”

With this in mind, several beauty industry professionals were queried for their opinions and most expressed the opinion of Kim Williams-Hunter of WillHunt Business Solutions, who believes some clients view their hair appointments as a chance to get things off their chests. “Having clients come to see you on a routine basis gives you the opportunity to develop a relationship which does make the client comfortable opening up to you,” explained Williams-Hunter, who has worked in the beauty industry for over 30 years and offers technical consulting services to salon owners and stylist. 

“Because this relationship usually does not extend outside of the salon, the opportunity to talk with relative anonymity is an attractive component of the relationship,” relates Ladipo. However, she acknowledged that in this line of work it is also important to have boundaries. “If a client begins to get a bit too personal with the stylist, or to talk about issues the stylist doesn’t feel comfortable with, the stylist needs to be able to steer the conversation back to safe ground or even suggest the client speak to a mental health professional.”  

Stylists should always be quite open about the fact that seeing a psychologist for mental health purposes may be a good thing. That seems to be the actual mental health professionals’ perspective too, although as Ladipo noted, “the truth is that many of the people we listen to the most have not had any mental health training at all, but their experiences have taught them a lot about human behavior.”

Similarly Ladipo recognized the stigma attached to mental health counseling in the African American community. In her practice, she and her partners focus on multi-cultural counseling and have undertaken an array of activities to connect directly with the community. 

How do we find balance? “Recognize that it’s nice to talk deeply with your hairstylist, but they are not required to provide that service,” says Ladipo. “Sometimes we just don’t want to talk or we talk about general things like the weather.” 

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