My hairdresser is my shrink
The truth is, when it comes to salons, it’s not all about cutting, perming, blow-drying and colouring.
They do wonders for your hair — and, apparently, for your mind too. The long and short of how salon ladies are actually great armchair therapists and gossip buddies to boot
“Sometimes, I have to be a psychologist too,” quipped my parlour lady recently. It was a slow morning at work and she’d just gotten off the phone with a client, who’d been happily chatting with her for the past hour — not about hair and nails, mind you, but about life, in general. If you think the bond a little odd — you’re not alone.
After all, why ring up the local salon for a chat? Why not your family and friends? Apparently, your hairdresser — if you’ve known him/her long enough — is often family and friend, gossip buddy and armchair shrink, all rolled into one. And no, that isn’t just a scene you’d expect to find on-screen (although we have to admit, the connection Elle shared with her manicurist, Paulette, in Legally Blonde was gold).
The truth is, when it comes to salons, it’s not all about cutting, perming, blow-drying and colouring. There’s something about the place that makes people open up about their lives too — and when they do, they usually find a friend.
Srilatha M Nair, owner of Chicago Ladies Salon, says the subjects her clients engage her on are incredibly diverse. “We start off talking about facials or pedicures and end up discussing children, family, work — even personal issues.” The beautician has had anxious young women seeking her advice before meeting a potential groom, spouses distressed about familial misunderstandings, working professionals harried about office politics and, even, a couple of customers distraught over indiscreet affairs.
With all of them, Srilatha says she always tries to offer them comfort, confidence and a dose of grounding advice — if the situation calls for it. “Working in the hospitality industry means that we’re not dealing with paperwork here — we’re dealing with people. They come to us with fears that may or may not be beauty-related, but it is up to us to put them at ease.”
Such is the trust they build that clients often insist on coming to her Sharjah-based salon from as far away as Jumeirah too. But the best part for her is hearing when things work out. “It makes me happy because, by that point, I know the difficulties they’ve gone through. To hear that they are now well and in a good place brings me joy as well.”
Toni&Guy style director Sophia Santaniello points out that when clients sit down in her chair, they’ve already crossed the first phase by trusting her with their hair. As years go by, people prefer to “keep coming back to the same person”, which is when they start treating their hairdressers more like their friends. “As soon as a client sits down, I can tell whether they’d like to chat or just read and chill on their own while I work,” she says. “Most clients prefer to build a relationship though. The ones that come in regularly will often want to pick up from the last time they were there. And they’re usually happy to talk about anything and everything — including how things are with me.”
In a 2012 Psychology Today blog post, psychologist Seth Meyers supposes one reason for this level of comfort could be the “physical positions” a stylist and client maintain during a hair-cutting session: they’re not facing each other. “The client looks into the mirror and can see the reflection of the stylist standing
behind, but it’s far less threatening than the dynamic in psychotherapy, in which the therapist sits across from the client and looks 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 details.” It’s a compelling theory, for sure.
Others feel it has to do with the general atmosphere inside a salon and the people skills of those who work there. “It is quite a relaxed private area, isn’t it?” reasons Sophia. “Plus, we are fairly good listeners, so that helps too. They can talk about whatever they want to get off their chest — and we listen… I like being able to do that for them.”
In the last 10 years, she’s seen quite a few people come into the salon feeling down — but leaving it feeling a lot happier and confident. “They’re different people when they walk back out,” she notes, “and it’s not just because of what we’ve done for their hair!”
Hairdressers are not mental health professionals and their training does not cover emotional therapy, but most clients will admit: the occasional ‘venting/confession’ sessions at the local salon can prove quite cathartic. Abu Dhabi-based senior colour technician Lucy Hutchins supposes a lot has to do with being a “neutral person” in their lives. “Clients have, at times, told me things they hadn’t even shared with their family or friends yet,” she reveals. “The main factor for that is because I don’t personally know anyone they’re talking about. It allows me to give an unbiased opinion and just tell them what I think, without judging them or the situation they’re in.”
Does that help them? “I hope so!” she laughs. “It’s nice to catch up and be
involved,” she adds. “Some people come in every six weeks or so. That’s a really short span of time, so you tend to be up-to-date on what they’re doing, how their lives are going… and you know where to pick up from the next time they come in. It’s a good feeling.”
As a general beautician, Sharjah-based Esmi Sapno says she learned to listen a lot. It’s a good rapport that she has with clients as a result — especially with those who’ve been coming to her, right from when she first started working at the Al Safeerah Ladies Salon 13 years ago. “If they come in and I can see something is wrong, I ask them if they’re okay — but I respect their lines too. If they don’t want to talk, I let them be. If they open up, I try to help them feel better.”
Mainly because their mental wellbeing eventually connects to why they walk into her salon in the first place. Stress is the main culprit for most of their beauty problems, she says. “It’s usually why their hair is falling or their skin is breaking. Stress affects everything. My advice to them? ‘Khalli walli!’ (Arabic for ‘never mind!’). That’s my motto. Everyone has problems — but what will worrying do? You should look for ways to solve them, but don’t stress out.”
The ‘no worries’ attitude often acts as a great mood-booster for her clients. “I’m 57 years old but I don’t look like it, and they always ask me what my secret is,” Esmi chuckles. “I just don’t think too much about my problems or keep them inside. I laugh a lot and treat everyone nicely. Worrying will make me get old faster and I don’t want that — so that’s how I encourage my customers too.”
Seth Meyers sums up the relationship best: “For someone who wants to talk a little about what’s going wrong in life, the hair salon provides a helpful band-aid as opposed to the harder work — the metaphoric surgery — that comes with longer-term psychotherapy.”
No doubt, the deep emotional struggles are best left to the professionals, but sometimes, a hairstylist — who spends hours dealing with a myriad people and understanding human behaviour — can offer helpful feedback on the minor messes of our everyday lives. And really, what’s wrong with allowing them to comb through that?