About Polly Chester

Polly is a thinker, writer and social worker with passions for human rights, caring for the environment, social justice, social policy, epistemology, philosophy and psychology

If Polly Chester (and a lot of you, c’mon admit it!) chats to her hairdresser about “sensitive” subjects, should “hairdressing therapy” be explored as a legitimate avenue for mental health interventions?

A month or two ago, on a whim, I went to a new hairdresser and got myself a brand spanking new bob. I’ve just turned 30 and acquired a grown-up job so it was time I did away with shaving bits of my head and have an adult haircut to match in order to propel myself further into the make-believe world of maturity.

I’d never met the hairdresser who performed this operation. I’d been recommended this salon by a friend with whom I had coffee earlier in the day. During said coffee date, we got around to talking about how hairdressers often perceived themselves to be counsellors of sorts and ruminated about why people often disclosed sensitive information in the company of their little-known hairdresser.

We reckoned it was the same deal with beauty therapists and to a lesser extent, tattoo artists.

My friend had read some research that suggested we’re more likely to disclose sensitive information to these particular professionals because during such appointments there are rarely times when some form of touching doesn’t occur. Intimate physical contact seems to soften us; the power of touch is so impressive that we lose our minds a bit and pour our hearts out to virtual strangers without any kind of contractual trust arrangement. There are no confidentiality agreements or ethical guidelines stipulated that ensure our information is kept safe. If no such arrangements were made in a counselling session, duty of care would be breached in several ways. Counsellors are mandated to be strictly confidential, except in cases when a person is at risk of harming themselves or others.

We discussed the kinds of things that we’d disclosed to hairdressers over the years. I remembered a hairdresser of mine who for an extended period was the cutter of choice for all the girls who I lived with. We loved her. She was middle-aged and a very experienced hairdresser. She was also an aspiring bodybuilder and had a great sense of humour.

My best friend had a head full of foils and was sitting in the hairdresser’s chair at the time I called in hysterics to break the news that someone in my immediate family had died. My friend immediately disclosed this information to the hairdresser, who got her out of the salon as quickly as possible. We all became even closer with the hairdresser after that. The only reason I stopped seeing her was because she injured herself and had to take a break from hairdressing. I often think fondly of her. I didn’t know very much about her, but she certainly knew a lot about me.

Back to the present day: As I walked into the salon du jour where I got my snappy bob and sat down in the chair, I was thinking about the conversation I’d had with my friend and made a mental note not to talk about myself. I looked at the young lady standing behind me with scissors poised and decided I was safe – from the look of her I could tell we didn’t have much common ground.

Before I knew what was happening, I heard words coming out of my mouth that I seemed to have no control over. I’d just disclosed a bunch of rather sensitive information about my love life. To make matters worse, she was offering me terrible advice.

Fuuuuuuuuuck, I silently hissed at myself. Stop talking right this instant.

I quickly wound the conversation up and changed the subject to her love life, but the damage was done. Communication is irreversible.

I’ve since done some research into this phenomenon of over-disclosure to hairdressers. The peer-reviewed hairdressing journal article that I read in Hairdressing Counsel cited interviews with several hairdressers that explored the therapeutic relationship between hairdresser and client. The evidence suggests that hairdressers see their industry as creative with an emotional twist. Some hairdressers are considering the inclusion of a counselling and psychotherapy module as a standard fixture in training. They acknowledge the responsibility that comes with their role. As hairdressers understand it, they are objective third parties to whom people feel more comfortable opening up because they have no real connection to the client’s life or situation.

Another article I came across discussed the concept of beauty therapists engaging in “emotional labour” – a sociological concept used to describe the invisible dimensions of interpersonal work that people do that isn’t part of their defined professional role.

The therapist is being paid to wax someone’s bikini line. Having hot wax poured upon your vulva, then having hair ripped out, is painful. More often than not, pain stirs up tender emotions, and before you know it clients are disclosing personal information about death, illness and cheating partners.

The therapist is not being paid for the provision of confidence and morale boosting and stress management techniques, which is essentially their emotional labour. Nor are they adequately trained to do it, but from my experience and from what I’ve read, massive emotional disclosure is rife in the beauty industry.

I’m clearly not the only idiot who discloses highly sensitive information to their hairdresser, so perhaps this area needs to be more thoroughly explored as a legitimate avenue for mental health interventions? If people will only access mental health support in their hairdresser’s chair, fine. If Muhammed won’t come to the mountain…

I was delighted to find that in Australia, hairdressers have Talking Health, an organisation that enlists health professionals to deliver free training for hairdressers to assist clients with referrals to mental health support groups and professionals when issues such as grief, loss or family violence crop up in the salon. Talking Health consultants help salon staff set healthy boundaries with their clients and teach them to look after each other in order to avoid emotional burnout.

I wonder what will become of the relationship between hairdressing and mental health? Perhaps in twenty years’ time every hairdresser in Australia will be armed not only with scissors, capes and towels, but also a social work degree and a Medicare provider number?