When Your Hairstylist Becomes Your Therapist

unnamed Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Over the course of 30 or 45 minutes at the salon, you and your hairstylist have already discussed your date last Friday and why you need to ask for a raise. This is just another day at work for her; after all, beauty-service providers often learn the most intimate details of their clients’ lives. Of course, they're not psychologists, social workers, or therapists. So, why are we so quick to trust them with our innermost thoughts? Why them and not, say, our favorite baristas, cab drivers, or dentists?
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“I work in an industry where it’s actually okay to touch people,” explains Michelle Clark, lead stylist at Clark & Company in Nashville, TN. “A doctor may touch you and hurt you, but getting your hair washed, cut, or colored is a ‘feel-good’ touch.” Clark, who has been a stylist for 30 years, thinks there may be a connection between physical contact and willingness to spill secrets. “When I start touching people’s heads, necks, and shoulders, they start talking,” she says. “The physical distance between us is totally gone, so that emotional distance breaks down as well.”
Lauren Marino, a certified aesthetician and co-manager of Chicago’s Arch Apothecary, agrees that touch facilitates talk. “If you want someone to open up in a conversation, gently touching your hand to their arm may unlock their thoughts,” she says. “I think it works the same way between me and my clients, and I’m just touching their faces.” Marino, who studied at the Aveda Institute, says frequency of interaction also plays a role. “I see my brow clients every four to six weeks — it’s a consistent update,” she says. “In all honesty, with our busy lives, they may see me more than they see their parents or BFFs.”
While befriending your brow guru is totally normal, it’s important to draw a line between aesthetician and therapist — as well as between professional and client. “I can’t help people solve their problems," says Sydney Rupley, a spray-tanning expert in Nashville, TN. "But, I want to provide a safe place where they can share if they want to.” Rupley has worked at Private Edition, a luxury cosmetics boutique, for nearly six years. “More than anything, I work for the client," she adds. "That professional relationship cannot be compromised." And, when Rupley’s friends come in to get bronzed, she treats them like anybody else. “When my best friend came in the other day, I was like, ‘I want you to relax. Don’t feel like you have to talk,’” she says. “At that moment, I was the service provider and she was the client. We weren’t best friends chatting over lunch.”
Still, it's clear that beauty specialists get glimpses into their clients’ private lives. “I know the good, the bad, and the glory," says Clark. "I go to funeral homes and do the hair of my clients who just passed away." But, this closeness doesn’t mean everyone will know your business. “Confidentiality is an unspoken rule,” she says. “People will flat-out ask me about a client, and I just say, ‘I don’t know!’” Rupley backs this up: “If my client chooses to share something, it would never leave the service room.”
Granted, not every beauty professional is guaranteed to be a vault of secrecy. Still, Marino has great expectations for her clients' experiences. “I hope, over the course of the appointment, they’ve perhaps unburdened themselves and realize there are no consequences [to] telling me anything," she explains. "I’m like their Switzerland."
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