A New Front Against Domestic Abuse: The Hairstylist’s Chair

Written by Christine Hauser of the New York Times. Read the article in its entirety here.

In the two decades that Angela Smith has been a hairstylist in Chicago, she has heard countless intimate stories from the women who have sat in her chair. Most times the banter is carefree. But sometimes, there are whispers of mistreatment by spouses or partners, of being choked, chased or emotionally abused.

“They say that the hairdresser gets all the secrets,” Ms. Smith said. “They let go here. Everybody doesn’t talk, but once you build a relationship with someone, that’s when it happens. It’s just like when you have a best girlfriend.”

A new state rule taking effect on Jan. 1 recognizes that the unique relationship between hairdressers and their customers may help curb domestic abuse and sexual assault. The amendment to a law that governs the cosmetology industry will require salon workers to take one hour of training every two years to recognize the signs of abuse and assault and will provide them with a list of resources to which they can refer clients for help.

Without the training, cosmetologists in Illinois will not be able to renew their licenses. The professionals covered by the rule — believed to be the first in the nation — include hairstylists, nail technicians and aestheticians.

One in three women and one in seven men experience violence at the hands of a partner in their lifetime, said Kristie Paskvan, the founder of Chicago Says No More, citing federal figures. The Illinois law is believed to be the nation’s first such legislation for salon workers, Ms. Paskvan said, although other organizations offer training, like Cut It Out, a program connected with the Professional Beauty Association that raises awareness about domestic abuse.

The curriculum in Illinois will go beyond just spotting bruises. The sessions will act as a forum to exchange information about the behavior that should put a cosmetology worker on alert, and to recognize that abuse, especially when it is emotional, can be more subtle than a black eye.

For example, one woman in a financially tense partnership spoke of buying extra-large boxes of Tide detergent, showing her partner the receipt and then secretly exchanging the box for a smaller, less costly one so that she could pocket household money.

Another woman, Ms. Paskvan said, inexplicably asked her stylist to cut her hair extremely short. “It was the only thing she could control,” Ms. Paskvan said.

There are 88,000 licensed cosmetologists in Illinois, according to Ms. Nelson. The curriculum emphasizes the importance of letting clients take the lead in disclosing details about their personal lives.

“This is not a program where you are going to be badgering someone,” Ms. Paskvan said.

Ms. Nelson agreed, saying, “The association has been careful to make it clear to them that they should not interfere or say, ‘Oh, my gosh, what is that huge bump on your head?’ ”

Ms. Smith, the Chicago stylist, said she supported the new rule. She has helped women with advice, given them a friendly ear and has sometimes suggested that a woman call the police, like the time a long-term client said her boyfriend was threatening to ram her with his car.

A stylist since age 21, Ms. Smith said that clients might share what they think are routine anecdotes, such as money problems, but that those stories make her tune in a little closer. The shared confidences can occur with customers she has known for 20 years, or with new, younger clients, she said.

“Sometimes it’s the first time they sat in your chair, and when they leave, you are like, ‘Wow,’ ” she said. “If I can help someone sitting in my chair any more than I have been helping them, I think it is a really, really good idea.”