Hair stylists often hear stories of abuse from clients. Why not offer help at the salon?

A St. Joseph’s University study found stylists learned about abuse from their clients, especially in immigrant communities. It suggests salons could help offer resources.

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Kristina Amell and Grace Berry attend to clients at Starshine Salon, located on Manayunk's Main Street. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Kristina Amell and Grace Berry attend to clients at Starshine Salon, located on Manayunk's Main Street. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

Starshine Salon in Manayunk gets rave reviews on Yelp.

“I love how coming back every 4-6 mos is like picking back up with an old friend,” one client commented.

She remembers conversations you had and exactly how your dye was mixed last time,” said another.

Grace Berry is one of two stylists at the cozy, two-chair salon in the back of a comic book shop on Main Street. She’s been working there for five years and said creating a relationship with her customers is central to her work.

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“A lot of my clients are here for more than an hour,” Berry said. “They’re with you, you’re physically touching them, so you’re very much in their space. And eventually, you want to talk about things that aren’t hair.”

Her long-term clients tell her everything, she said: from the weddings they’re attending and the new jobs they’re starting, to the breakups that inspire a new look, or the fights they got into last night with their partners. Usually, Berry said, she just tries to listen. She nods when someone shows her a manipulative text thread, and agrees if someone complains about her boyfriend being a jerk.

But sometimes, it can be tricky to know where to draw the line.

Berry recalled one recent client who would pay for her appointment half in cash, and hide her receipts so her boyfriend wouldn’t know how much she was spending on her hair.

Su-Shan Lai, Berry’s boss, runs Starshine, and she said she’s seen male partners come in with female clients to control their looks.

“Basically, the female client had to get the amount of hair she was able to get cut off approved by her male partner,” Lai said. “It puts our sense up a little, of, like, ‘I don’t know if this situation is entirely OK.’”

Su-Shan Lai, owner of Starshine Salon in Manayunk, on June 18, 2019. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

But even if stylists recognize a situation is not OK, it can be hard to know what to do about it.

Honestly, sometimes I wish I could just reason with them and be like, ‘Obviously, don’t do this,’” said Berry, who is 28.  “But you also don’t want to hurt your relationship with them and further lead to their isolation.”

Recent research suggests that because women experiencing abuse are telling their stylists about it, salons could be a good place to offer resources about interpersonal violence to survivors.

St. Joseph’s University sociologist Chunrye Kim led a study among Korean stylists in Queens, New York. She found that more than half the women she talked to had heard about interpersonal violence from their clients.

Though this dynamic is not limited to immigrants, Kim said, that population is particularly vulnerable to interpersonal violence.

“A lot of women, they are financially or legally dependent on their offender, so if they try to leave, they are worried about their legal status,” she said. “Especially if they are waiting for a green card, for example.”

Kim added that language barriers also make immigrant women less likely to call the police or seek any sort of help outside their communities. Feeling shameful can also make it difficult to talk to family members.

Lai said it makes sense to her that clients would feel more comfortable talking to their stylists about abuse — they’re more neutral than a friend or family member, who might be judgmental about the situation, and less official than law enforcement.  

Plus, the entire premise of a relationship with a stylist is based on trusting that person with your image, your self-esteem.  

“I’ll have people who I’m meeting for the first time and we’ll do a consultation, and then they’ll end with, ‘I trust you,’ when it comes down to whatever I’m about to do,” Lai said. “It feels like a big responsibility, and I take it very seriously,”

But in her study, Kim found that without proper training, stylists offering help in a high-stakes situation could do more harm than good.

It’s not like they’re trying to give them bad advice, but it can be pretty negative in terms of helping intimate-violence victims,” Kim said.

In the study, consultation tended to go in one of two directions, she said. The first is a sort of “boys will be boys” attitude, agreeing that lots of men behave in a similar way.

“[Clients] think like, `Yeah, everyone’s experiencing intimate-partner violence, I’m not special. If I wait a bit, I will be OK,’” Kim said.

Other times, she said, a stylist would tell a client to simply divorce her husband, when it was obviously more complicated than that.

Berry said that when she doesn’t feel qualified to give advice, she does her best to flip the question back on her client and ask her what she thinks she should do. Still, Berry would welcome more training.

“I guess I would just want to know where the boundary is,” she said. “When do you report something? When don’t you?”

Illinois is the only state that mandates that stylists take two-hour domestic-violence training to get their cosmetology licenses renewed. Lai and Kim both said they’d like to see something similar in Pennsylvania.

Kim is hoping the Queens research will lay the groundwork for a follow-up study based in Philadelphia. It would measure how comfortable stylists who were trained in domestic-violence response were in offering resources to clients, compared with stylists who had not been trained.  

Salons are just one way of thinking about how community interventions might help detect interpersonal violence, Kim said. She’s interested in other methods too, like finding a way to use ride-share drivers to detect sex-trafficking victims.

“I think relying on law enforcement to help victims is not enough,” she said.

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