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Hairstylists Serve as Therapists for Clients Seeking Makeovers

When the whirl of the blow dryer faded out the sound of my mother’s voice, I knew we’d be leaving soon. I watched as the stylist stepped over the chopped ends of the ash-brown hair, nodding as my mom rambled on. 

 

We’d been in the salon for at least three hours, an experience I encountered regularly, usually on a Saturday morning. Nothing was off-limits when my mother was in the salon chair. For those three hours, she would talk about upcoming vacations, annoyances at work, and even the year she battled breast cancer. 

 

At the end of the visit, the stylist walked Mom to the front counter. The conversation continued, shifting slightly to hair products and which ones my mother should purchase. After a hug goodbye, we left the salon as the stylist moved on to a new client, heading to the wash bowls where another long monologue was set to begin. 

 

***

 

When a client vents in CiCi Audain’s chair at Phenix Salon Suites in Garden City, a village on Long Island, the 32-year-old hairdresser listens, not noticing the toll the words take until she’s home alone, sitting on her couch and decompressing from the day. About 25 miles away, Cilicia Rene, who runs her own luxury salon in Manhattan’s Harlem, said that while it’s her purpose to help women feel comfortable with their hair, in many ways, her role is also like being a psychologist. Then there’s Hadji Dah, 20, a Brooklyn native who found herself working seven days a week at the start of her career, renting a booth in a Harlem salon popular with clients of Dominican heritage.

 

“A lot of people think it’s easy work and it’s not,” Rene said.

 

For decades, women have relied on hairstylists for transformations, whether it be trimming off a few inches of damaged ends or dying their hair from black to red. Salons are sacred settings where a woman can feel completely different leaving than she did coming in.    

 

While these changes are typically physical, they can also be internal. Clients use the space within the four walls of their salons to release the burdens occupying their minds. Some talk about dating and divorce. Others open up about insecurities, like losing their hair. 

 

“Nothing is off limits,” Audain said. The Queens native has worked in the beauty industry for more than 13 years. In a typical work day, she services five or six clients, back-to-back with minimal breaks. Her clients, of various backgrounds and ages, have occasionally used their time in the salon to “emotionally dump,” as she puts it.  Being an empathetic person, she finds joy in uplifting others, even though it can be mentally exhausting.

 

Some clients have sat in Audain’s salon chair, asking her if they should get an abortion. Others have grieved the deaths of their parents. 

 

On the receiving end of these monologues are hairstylists who are not formally trained to navigate conversations surrounding mental health. 

 

At the conclusion of each day, hairdressers are left alone, sweeping away more than just the hair on the floor. 

 

‘People are looking for big transformations’ 

 

“Sometimes you see people and they’re so sad and they’re going through so many things and they just get their hair done and they feel like a new person,” said Dah, who’s been running her styling business, Laced by Hadji, in Harlem since 2021. She shares a salon with other beauty service workers, but has also traveled to clients in the past, including the male rap stars Playboi Carti and Sleepy Hallow.

 

Just a few months ago, a client walked into Dah’s salon space, still grieving the recent death of her father. She came to get her hair styled for her birthday but was in no condition to celebrate. 

 

When she looked in the mirror at the end of the appointment, her entire mood had changed. She was smiling and even seemed a bit excited, Dah recalled. 

 

“That’s the beauty of it – helping people feel better about themselves,” she said. 

 

At the surface level, hair is just hair. But for some people, hair is an entity that holds onto emotional trauma and stress. 

 

After experiencing an emotional trauma like a breakup, some women find healing in changing their physical appearance. Celebrities have done it. The cultural phenomenon has even united women on social media. Search the term “breakup chop” on TikTok and hundreds of women documenting their physical and emotional transformation appear. 

 

Other times, women find themselves in salon chairs, hoping to change something from within. With inspiration pictures in tow, clients come into the salon with a set idea of how they want their hair to look. 

 

And while the end result can appear identical to the hair on their screens, Rene said, some clients still feel dissatisfied after the service. 

 

The hair was never what the client was looking at to begin with, Rene often thinks. It’s the confidence and happiness of the person in the picture. 

 

In these moments, Audain tries to be supportive, often finding herself being a shoulder to cry on and an ear to vent to. But once her client leaves the salon, their energy remains. 

 

“I’m your hairstylist, you do feel comfortable with me,” she said. “But at the end of the day, you don’t take me home.” 

 

Heavier conversations can be uplifting in the moment, making her feel purposeful, Audain said. At the same time, they can be a heavy weight to carry later on. 

 

“Energy never dies, it’s transferred,” she said. “I absorb that energy and they usually leave feeling lighter.” 

 

Audain, who specializes in a variety of services from wig installations to silk presses – a hair straightening service typically styled on curly hair – has been working in the industry for more than 13 years. When she was 19, she went to Empire Beauty School while simultaneously attending Queensborough Community College where she studied psychology and business. In New York, aspiring beauticians must complete more than 1,000 hours of training and pass several exams to become a licensed cosmetologist. She became interested in the industry when she first started getting her hair done as a teenager in Queens. 

 

At the time, she noticed the respect clients had for their stylists. She saw customers bring lunch to them, sometimes even flowers. 

 

“I just always liked how the hairstylists were treated and the gratitude that was given to them,” Audain said.

 

The most sacred part of the body

 

Across different cultures, hair is rooted in significant symbolism. In West African societies, hair care professionals have long been viewed as highly ranked beings as they deal with the most sacred part of the body — the head — according to Afiya Mbilishaka, a licensed therapist with a doctorate in clinical psychology from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

 

“Even looking at places like ancient Egypt, people had to be initiated into the status of priests to be able to do someone’s hair because of how holy hair was,” said Mbilishaka, who also attended beauty school and previously worked as a hairstylist.

 

In the early 1900s, Madam C. J. Walker, a beauty pioneer recognized as the first woman to become a millionaire, led efforts in creating healing spaces for Black women. She was known for her Wonderful Hair Grower, a product she created after experiencing hair loss. 

 

“She wanted women to feel pampered and cared for and luxurious which wasn’t something that was offered to us in the past,” said Mbilishaka, who has spent the bulk of her career working to destigmatize mental health in the Black community. “So, it was a whole healing session where women felt beautiful and valued.”

 

Audain understands the significance of salons and how many view them as places of healing. She also recognizes the need for humans to release negative feelings, which can come in the form of venting. 

 

However, Audain and most hair stylists are not trained therapists. They did not enter the profession expecting to take on the role of a healer. 

 

“I just want to do hair,” she said. 

 

Audain has taken steps to protect her emotional space. She created “salon rules,” following the practice of other stylists. Audain asks clients to arrive on time and be polite. She asks clients to avoid oversharing. 

 

“Some people aren’t self-aware,” she said. “They just pour and they just dump on you without even being aware.” 

 

The rules are not displayed on the walls of her space but are occasionally posted on her social media platforms as a way to remind clients of her boundaries. 

 

While Audain has yet to do so, there have been moments when she has considered charging a fee for clients who take an emotional toll on her. She has even banned some clients from booking appointments, particularly those who have contacted her in the middle of the night. 

 

Grief, stress and sadness

 

Mbilishaka has developed alternative ways for stylists to set boundaries and console their clients. Just a month after Covid-19 restrictions were implemented across the country, she found herself in a virtual support group for hair stylists on Instagram. At first, stylists expressed their worries about not having any income. 

 

Then, a few months later, salons started to reopen. But the clients they had known for years had changed. Just like them, their clients had spent months in lockdown, some grieving the deaths of loved ones. Others, nearly dying themselves. 

 

Stylists were unsure how to navigate such a striking change in their industry. No longer were their salons just places for root touch-ups and braids. They became the first places people returned to for a sense of normalcy. 

 

“Hair professionals were often that first point of contact once the limitations were lifted during the pandemic,” Mbilishaka said.

 

Her idea to study the intersection between psychology and hair started in the early 2000s at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia where she ran a mini salon inside her dorm. Her experience in both professions led her to create PsychoHairapy in 2019, an approach used to destigmatize mental health in the Black community and train beauticians to build their emotional intelligence. 

 

Hairdressers and barbers “felt confused, depleted or needed some consultation and support around what they were experiencing and witnessing with their clients,” she said. 

 

Mbilishaka organized virtual visits with salons and barbershops across the country, sharing mental health resources along with teaching a course on how to cope with loss, manage guilt and process rejection. 

 

“I definitely believe in creating communities of care,” she said. “People start to heal when they feel heard.”

 

As part of her program, Mbilishaka teaches hairstylists how to communicate with their clients about mental health, mostly through a 12-hour course primarily aimed toward Black hair professionals.

 

Compared to their white counterparts, Black Americans are 20% more likely to experience  psychological distress. Black women, in particular, are nearly half as likely to seek mental health support. Barriers such as costs, medical mistrust and cultural norms have created challenges for communities of color when it comes to seeking mental health care.  

 

“Sometimes in Black and Latine communities, depression can look a little bit different or anxiety can be a different sort of expression,” Mbilishaka said. 

 

That “person who has a really bad attitude,” she added, can really be experiencing anxiety or depression.  

 

With the appropriate consent and training, she believes hairstylists can provide just as much emotional support as seeing a therapist. The touch of pressure points on the scalp. The transformative feeling of a new hairdo. The scents of shampoo and conditioner. A quality conversation. These are all parts of the salon experience that can aid in lowering stress levels and boosting mood, Mbilishaka said. 

 

“Sometimes we isolate emotional support to just therapists when everybody can do that,” she said. 

 

***

 

By the time Sonia Sanchez called me over to her chair inside her salon suite in Midtown Manhattan, it was dark outside. It had been for most of the day — a stormy Saturday in New York.

 

Because of the rain, my hair had frizzed up. As I sat in the salon chair, I felt a bit anxious, a feeling that arises most times when I get a haircut. It never fails that the stylist comments on how much hair I have, and how long it takes them to blow dry it. 

 

To my surprise, Sanchez complimented my hair, saying it was very healthy. 

 

As she cut my tresses, I couldn’t help but notice a framed picture of her dog, Tokyo, on a shelf near the salon chair. She got him as a spontaneous gift to herself for her 30th birthday. He has also played a big role in helping improve her mental health, she said. 

 

Over the past few hours, I had been sitting in Sanchez’s salon suite, a space she shares with two other stylists. She had been at the salon since 9 a.m. Before getting to me, she was working on her second client of the day, dying their hair from blonde to brunette. 

 

That day, the women in the salon talked about everything from mice-infested apartments to dealing with roommates who drag them out to bars and clubs. They also talked about hair loss, boyfriends and the budding relationship between Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce. 

 

For the most part, Sanchez quietly listened. But when the conversation shifted slightly to mental health, I noticed her look up from the strands of hair in her hand. 

 

At a point in her life, Sanchez began recognizing her own struggles and the importance of prioritizing her own well-being. More recently, she’s started journaling and meditation. 

 

As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Sanchez had a cultural stigma toward mental health and didn’t view support as something that was accessible. She believed that if nothing traumatic happened to her, there was no need to seek help. 

 

But, “it wasn’t that you had to go through trauma,” she later realized. 

 

About a month ago, she moved into her new salon suite on West 48th Street, across from Rockefeller Center. On that Saturday afternoon, she seemed focused and at the same time relaxed in her own environment. 

 

If mental health was something talked about more during the start of her career, especially in cosmetology school, she believes she could have had the tools to navigate things differently. In recent years, Sanchez has noticed changes when it comes to mental health in the industry. It’s a topic that is discussed regularly among younger stylists, she said.

 

“The generation after me, they’re not putting up with that,” she said. “I love and respect that.”  

 

By the time Sanchez finished my haircut, she had been at the salon for nearly 10 hours. The space was much quieter by now compared to when I arrived. 

 

As I looked in the mirror one last time before I left, I felt the transformative feeling I had been hearing hair stylists talk about for the past few weeks. Only a few inches were cut, yet I felt lighter and my hair looked so much better compared to the frizziness I had when I walked in out of the rain. 

 

Being her last client of the day, she was heading home, too. But she’d be back in the morning, where more haircuts and monologues would await. 

About the author(s)

Brianna Benitez is a student at the Columbia Journalism School.