I do my hair toss
Check my nails
Baby how you feelin’?
Feeling good as hell
– Lizzo, ‘Good as hell’
Salons advertise all kinds of treatments, from the mundane – Feeling sad? Get a mood-lifting manicure! – to the outlandish – Dull skin? Try our revitalising facial made from nightingale poo! These treatments are sold as the latest scientific miracles guaranteed to make you feel younger, sexier and more confident. But there is much more to salons than the newest age-defying goo or the freshest hairstyles: these are intensely intimate spaces. As society becomes more atomised, as our lives become more lonely and precarious, salons have become important emotional refuges, spaces offering human connection and exchange.
Since the industrial revolution, the market for beauty products and services has remained strong, even in times of war and recession. It is a fast-growing, in-demand industry worth billions of dollars – in 2018, the Australian industry was worth an estimated $6.5 billion alone – and recent figures show no sign of it slowing any time soon.
It is often assumed that the primary driver of the worldwide ‘beauty boom’ is our increasingly image-obsessed culture. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, it was believed to be the growing numbers of women entering the workforce and having access to disposable income. What we do know for sure is that, courtesy of strategic marketing campaigns, women have been sold the myth of ‘having it all’. And with women facing relentless pressure to look the part at work and in dating, the beauty industry is likely to continue to grow.
Western feminist critiques of beauty have, understandably, focused on the oppressive aspects of the industry, though sometimes this critique has landed on individual women. Sharp schisms continue to unfold between those who argue that individual beauty practices are inherently patriarchal and therefore fundamentally disempowering, and those who suggest that beauty practices can be recuperated through individual agency over self-expression. These propositions often descend into a heated contest between choice feminism and accusations of false consciousness: some argue that you can still wear makeup and be empowered if you ‘choose’ to conform to feminine norms, while others reject that premise altogether.
Both of these perspectives are understandable, though both end up missing the forest for the trees.
On the one hand, broad notions of what looks ‘good’ are inherently oppressive: they emerge from a specific history of colonial patriarchal capitalism. On the other, we must allow for an understanding of self-expression. That something is socially constructed doesn’t lessen the feelings tied up with it, nor does engaging with beauty products or visiting salons necessarily signal conformity to ‘mainstream’ norms. Surely both of these things can be acknowledged; the sticking point only arrives when a binary is established – that is, when individual acts are seen as exclusively disempowering or exclusively empowering, but never both.
Zooming out to take a historical view, we can better recognise the gross inadequacy of focusing only on the individual. Acknowledging why the desire to look and feel ‘good’ exists in the first place – including what this aspiration actually means – is crucial.
Little attention has been given to the confluence of beauty and capitalism with our emotional lives – in other words, the kinds of feelings associated with accessing beauty treatments, particularly visiting salons. After all, the salon is usually seen as a treat, a place to relax, be pampered. The saying ‘treat yo’ self’, coined in the TV show Parks and Recreation, has become common parlance among millennials to justify indulgent activities like mani-pedis and trips to the spa. At the same time, such activities have been increasingly rebranded as ‘self-care’, an essential investment in one’s body and mind. But beyond dry skin, cracked nails and limp hair, what is really being ‘treated’ in the salon? And, most importantly, who is tasked with making sure you look and feel good when you leave the salon?
I have spent more than two years on different research projects involving hair and beauty workers in Melbourne and have had the chance to interview a diverse range of people about their experiences in the day-to-day business of salon life. My research has found that while salon workers are tasked with the job of surface transformation, they must also negotiate a terrain of touch and talk that is hyper social and weightily emotional.
Salon workers I spoke with reported clients disclosing a huge range of issues in seemingly ordinary sessions: mental health struggles, suicidal ideation, relationship/family breakdown, personal grief, terminal illness, sexuality issues, gender struggles and much more.
For example, one beautician working in the CBD told me that a regular client once called her up to share news of being fired. The client wasn’t scheduled to come in that day, but called because they didn’t have anyone else to tell. This relationship, built up over many years of being waxed and groomed – activities that involve touch and care – had become imbued with a specific form of intimacy. Given how much is divulged to salon workers, and the pressure they feel to make sure clients leave feeling happy, it is hardly surprising that workers frequently describe themselves as makeshift counsellors. As many of the workers I interviewed reminded me, they are called beauty ‘therapists’ after all.
Most people have visited a hair or other beauty salon in their lifetime, and many see their hairdressers or barbers on a frequent basis, yet the daily emotional work conducted within such spaces remains largely invisible. As all the workers told me, there has been a pervasive silence in the industry until very recently about the social and emotional aspects of the work. A big factor is the composition of the industry: it is primarily made up of small businesses, is largely non-unionised, meaning conditions vary vastly across workplaces, and has low wages, particularly for junior staff. Popular depictions of salon workers also reinforce the stereotype of hyper-feminised ‘bimbos’ (obvious examples include Grease and Legally Blonde). Little attention is paid to the hidden emotional work that occurs in these spaces, an aspect of the job that is not recognised culturally or economically.
The relationship that exists between salon workers and their clients is unique in terms of intimacy, sociality and identity. Aside from sex workers and health practitioners, there are few professions where people are paid to touch your head, face, hands or intimate areas. Unlike going to a doctor, physiotherapist or even masseur, visits to the salon involve casual chats that can be drawn out over hours. Other occupations, such as taxi drivers and hospitality workers, certainly involve a high level of social contact, but they lack the physical intimacy of a salon visit. And, unlike an engagement with a sex worker or nurse – interactions that involve physical and social contact – a salon visit comes with an expectation of transformation, of looking and feeling good when you leave.
In the salon, social and physical proximity collide with surface improvement. That the line between identity and appearance is slippery means that the change process in the salon feels deeply personal. Not only are you spilling the details of your life to someone who is massaging your head, you are also letting them style your identity.
While a doctor talks to you about your symptoms and health prognosis, the salon space is primarily about maintaining an enjoyable social interaction while technical beauty work is done. Salon workers occupy a unique position of familiarity, a liminal space between friends and strangers. As such, disclosing something private to a salon worker can feel relatively low stakes. As several of the salon workers told me, relationships with clients can start to feel like friendships. It is true that sometimes a client might not want to chat, and this also requires a high level of social rapport and emotional intelligence on the part of the salon worker.
Many salon encounters involve friendly and polite banter, though all salon workers I have interviewed report that clients also disclose heavy emotions, difficult life events and past traumas. This doesn’t happen in every conversation, of course, but the huge numbers of people that workers come into contact with means that it happens frequently enough. These numbers also mean that salon workers are exposed to a diversity of life stories.
Recent research in the US suggests that hairdressers are very likely to encounter clients who have experienced intimate partner violence. Since 2017, some US states have even introduced legal requirements for mandatory domestic violence training for cosmetologists (hairdressers, nail technicians and other beauty workers). The law means that to renew their licences, salon workers must undergo a one-hour domestic violence and sexual assault awareness course every two years.
Inspired by the US, as well as by programs in the UK, Canada and New Zealand, the Eastern Domestic Violence Service (EDVOS) in Victoria launched a training package in 2018: ‘HaiR-3R’s – Recognise, Respond and Refer’. Through this program, primarily funded by the Victorian government and free for salon workers to access, EDVOS has trained hundreds of salon workers on family violence, including how to recognise warning signs and refer clients to appropriate services.
I wanted to know how salon workers who had completed the programme felt about it. I worried the training might add to the unspoken emotional expectations placed on workers. However, my interviews revealed that trainees overwhelmingly found the experience helpful and were grateful to have clearer guidelines on what was appropriate to say or not say to clients.
One hairdresser, James*, tells me that the training gave him ‘the confidence to know where [my role] starts and where that stops, and how to manage it without diving into your own opinion’. It helped him ‘in understanding that [I am] not a counsellor’ and that it is more ‘responsible to give a client the information and the power to explore a more appropriate avenue of help, rather than feeling like it is your burden.’
For many, the training was the first time they had shared concerns about the welfare of clients with peers and had the emotional toll of their working life recognised and validated. While trainees found the HaiR-3R’s program effective, they also suggested that family violence is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to difficult client disclosures.
On the whole, workers in Australia report that the beauty industry doesn’t equip new apprentices and trainees to deal with the unexpected daily disclosures they will inevitably encounter. All the workers I spoke with reported that the emotional labour side of salon work was never mentioned in their formal training.
Equally worrying is the fact that no workers had debriefing mechanisms in place to work through difficult emotions. Instead, processing the day’s stories may happen informally over drinks, when workers are physically and emotionally exhausted from their shifts. For anyone who has worked in government or other social work services, the idea that there could be no formal support structures in a workplace where employees encounter regular, sometimes distressing, disclosures is frankly startling.
In spite of the emotional work involved in salons, the job comes with low social status. This is something that frustrates Angela, a spa and nail technician who has worked in the industry for decades. She reports encounters with people who dismiss her profession as purely ‘superficial’:
I remember I had this lady come in – her daughter bought her a facial and she was like a professor at some university on the other side of town. She kept asking me if I had another job. I said, ‘No, this is my job.’ She couldn’t believe that I could get enough people through the door that I could make a living doing this – that people spend money doing this stuff.
Angela’s reflection shows how the idea of beauty treatments as superficial can often attach to a judgement of the workers themselves. Yet this sits in stark contrast to how the workers understand their practice. In Angela’s case, she describes her work as therapeutic: ‘That’s how I see my work – more healing’.
While many workers report loving the social aspect of their job, few feel they know the appropriate line between being a sympathetic ear and a full-blown psychologist. Drawing boundaries can be tough in an industry where the goal is to have the client leave feeling rejuvenated. ‘Obviously you listen and are sympathetic,’ explains Stacey, a beautician in the CBD, ‘but then, after a while, I try and bring the subject around more to them, but in a nicer way.’
Keeping feelings positive often means avoiding political territory or ignoring racist, homophobic or other negative commentary. Given that many of the workers I spoke with were first- or second-generation migrants from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds, such comments can feel distressingly personal. Workers who own salons often manage this by not re-booking problematic clients, but those lower down the salon rung have to grin and bear it.
Salons depend on clients leaving feeling good, and cultivating positive feelings takes time and energy. As such, workers describe trying to keep conversations happy, even when things get dark. This process requires a huge amount of emotional labour, as Jane, a unisex barber new to working in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, notes:
I had this person come in last week that was really anxious about getting her hair cut and I haven’t had that in a long time, just like, yeah, it was interesting. I don’t know, I just don’t understand why you’d get that stressed out about having your hair cut, but I just tried to be supportive of her. I guess I tried to make her feel as less anxious as she could.
Similarly, Rosa, a hairdresser who has been working in the CBD for decades, describes the labour of making heavy feelings light for customers:
People come in sometimes really depressed and when they walk out … they are just so happy. You are talking to them, you are giving them something that makes them feel good. … You are like their psychologist. … Some of them don’t really know you that well and they love to pour out their heart to you.
As Rosa’s reflection suggests, beauty treatments are unique because they can transform a person’s outside and inside. The aesthetic side of the transformation is seen as essential for cultivating positive feelings because many of us have internalised a mantra invented by the beauty industry: look good, feel good!
As research on the global beauty industry indicates, early entrepreneurs didn’t just respond to the needs of customers, but also actively cultivated aspirations and desires, many of which hinged on claims about health. Early branding of beauty products often deployed medical and other scientific frameworks, intimately linking aesthetic appearance to notions of wellness. In turn, these ideas inextricably reinforced normative gender constructs.
As Harvard professor Geoffrey G Jones notes, early marketing of face creams emphasised that users ‘could make themselves feel more feminine as well as healthy’. Constructed ideas about hygiene were also deployed in racist ways, tying the use of particular products to notions of civilisation and cleanliness. For example, an infamous Pears’ soap ad from 1884 implied that black skin needs to be purified by showing a black child emerging from a bath with ‘clean’ white skin. Sadly, such messaging is not a thing of the past: in 2011, Dove released a ‘before and after’ ad campaign that showed models with lighter skin after using the brand’s products.
To suggest that there are universal ideals of beauty that transcend culture (as evolutionary psychologists do) completely fails to comprehend the way that ideals of beauty have been constructed in order to be sold. The beauty industry emerged as a capitalist tour de force that could profit off the desire to be healthy and ‘respectable’ in explicitly gendered and raced ways. During times of war and peril, beauty has continued to offer glimmering aspirations of wellbeing and normality.
In the context of the contemporary ‘beauty boom’, we need to take into account what is making us feel so bad – in other words, what is driving the need for the ‘look good, feel good’ solution. In Naomi Wolf’s widely cited The Beauty Myth, she claims that the social dictates of beauty are fundamentally ‘composed of emotional distance, politics, finance, and sexual repression’.
The beauty industry continues to construct and sell notions of beauty in connection with health, wealth and attractiveness, along very clear gendered and raced lines. Yet, in the age of neoliberal austerity, salons are one of the few sites offering human connection – a chance to ameliorate feelings of isolation and alienation. This is particularly evident in Australia, where ever-increasing cuts to welfare budgets are leaving people feeling lonely and disconnected. In this context, we must reflect on the spaces that continue to provide emotional support, while also acknowledging those who work in such environments. Whether this emotional work truly treats our ills or merely soothes open wounds remains in question, particularly when ‘beauty’ is so obviously marketed for profit.
* Pseudonyms used throughout
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