ShorttCuts #2: “Hairdressers in the wider public health workforce …or, why we shouldn’t assume hairdressers only talk about holidays!”

wider public health workforce

So, for the first time in 6 months (!) I sit in front of my dusty and neglected blog and think about all the wonderful writing I was going to do on maternity leave… all those projects, plans and musings that were going to fill the nap times and keep me connected to work related things… hmmm, clearly not so much! Hanging out with my daughter was far interesting…

But here I am, 2 weeks in to being back at work. New routines have begun; nursery drop offs, juggling work and motherhood, nursery pick ups …and old routines have returned; marking summer exams, writing external examiner reports and teaching prep for September (already). So now feels like a good time to polish the virtual dust off this blog and get writing again…and true to form, I’m thinking about hairdressers…

A few weeks ago a friend of mine, who owns a beauty salon, sold her business and I happened to spend part of her last day at the shop watching the clients of over 11 years come and say goodbye. It was an emotional day. Loyal clients came and went, dropping off flowers of thanks, gifts and cards. Probably one of the most common phrases I heard from those who dropped in was ‘what am I going to do?!’ …there was a sense of loss in their voices… ‘where will I go now?’, ‘who will I talk to?’, ‘who can I really trust?’. I half expected them to finish with a crack in their voice and cry ‘WHY ARE YOU LEAVING ME?!’

Genuine bonds and friendships had clearly been formed and in this well-documented ‘intimate’ industry (see Paula Black’s book The Beauty Industry, 2004) clients are left bereft of a regular confidant, a frequent counsellor, an advisor for life, love, health and family.

I left the shop to the sound of clinking glasses and the popping of farewell champagne. The next day I was in my regular hair salon (which happens to be opposite my friends shop), with Emma, my hairdresser. Over foils, bleach and tea we talked about the shop closing and how and why clients become long term friends. We made comparisons with hairdressing and once again came back round to acknowledging how this intimate work creates trusted bonds – not just in terms of the work done (lots of us know how hard it is to find a good hairdresser!), but what the relationship itself offers clients.

From articles in the Sunday Times (see Blasberg’s article in the Magazine, 2006, pp.137 – 138) to academic research (see Gimlin, 1996; Black, 2004; Cohen, 2010), for years many have recognised the in-depth and close relationship that often develops within this physically intimate service encounter. In my own research I found mobile hairdressers in particular become heavily involved in family life and the boundary between client and friend becomes blurred and fuzzy. Many of the hairdressers I have worked with talk about the personal, private, emotional parts of their work and how deeply involved they have become in the lives of those sat in their chairs – support through divorces, guidance through pregnancy, coaching through career breaks. And at times, this can be a reciprocal relationship; one hairdresser I worked with in London briefly moved in with one of his clients whilst his divorce was finalised.

Thinking about all this reminded me of one of the stereotypes hairdressers often live with –  hairdressers only talk about where you’re going on holiday. They don’t. At least not the ones I have met during my research …and I was pleased to find that a recent report (2015) by the Royal Society for Public Health has recognised something similar in this valuable relationship hairdressers can have with their clients. The report, ‘Rethinking the Wider Public Health Workforce’ suggests that hairdressers (and firemen and postal workers) could help form a wider public health workforce and positively impact health and well-being through their work. The idea here is partly based on the fact that these workers see clients on a regular basis, have often formed close, long-term relationships already and have opportunities to initiate conversations about health and well-being in a sensitive and non-judgemental way.

Given the current health crisis in the UK and with an under-resourced public health workforce, this report calls for action and highlights those professions that could help make a big difference …and I’m all for it. I think there is a real opportunity here and I think Blasberg was right when he said, ‘Hairdressers have gone up in the world and are no longer regarded as tedious mane-crimpers you are forced to discuss your holiday plans with every six weeks…they are pioneering a new status, mixing beauty maintenance with friendship, pride and dependence…’ (2006). Many hairdressers are already a core part of communities across the country, already offering support to members of those communities…if, with appropriate training, they can enhance that support by acting as signposts to health advice and services, then surely that can only be a good thing.

For more information and for the report itself see:  https://www.rsph.org.uk/en/policy-and-projects/areas-of-work/wider-public-health-workforce/