Hair Salon

Hairstylists Can Tell When Someone's Being Abused

The salon has always felt like a safe space for women, and hairdressers like counselors. New laws about domestic violence awareness are making all of that a lot more official.

Joan Rowan sees the world with a particular slant of Midwestern optimism. The owner of two Aveda concept salons on Chicago's South Side — one in the old Irish community of Beverly, and the other in the village of Oak Lawn — Rowan is a lifelong local who says "people want to help people." On a humid August evening, she tells InStyle, "Women want to help women. Education can change everything, and just a little bit of it can have a major impact."

To be clear, Rowan is speaking both generally and very specifically. The "little bit of education" she is referring to is a domestic violence awareness class that, over the next two years, is set to be completed by all 84,000 salon professionals in the state of Illinois. The goal is to give these workers, who are already in a unique position to see symptoms of abuse in their clients, an increased ability to help — a move that has the potential to help save lives.

The idea was brought to Representative Fran Hurley and Senator Bill Cunningham by two Chicago-based nonprofits, Chicago Says No More and A New Direction, back in 2015; it was introduced as an amendment to the Barber, Cosmetology, Esthetics, Hair Braiding and Nail Technology Act of 1985, signed by Governor Bruce Rauner the following year, and became law in January 2017. Now 18 months later, the details of the training are still in review, and the requirement for salon workers to attend it goes into effect this coming January.

With the number of adults who are victims of domestic abuse in Illinois alone hovering above 40,000, according to Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence data from 2017, the course will provide another avenue for aid. In fact, it already is: An early version was offered at America's Beauty Show in Chicago this April, and to date some 8,000 salon professionals have completed the training.

Salon hair quote 1
Illustrated by Uyen Cao.
| Credit: Illustrated by Uyen Cao.

In a high touch profession like hairdressing, clients and stylists often develop close relationships, even if only for an hour at a time, over the course of years or even decades. If you've ever sat in a shampoo chair while someone massaged your scalp, then you already understand why. That these interactions can often take on the attributes of therapy is both a cliche and a truth of salon culture.

"The intention of the law is not to turn licensed cosmetologists into counselors — they shouldn't have to do that, and we don't want them to do that," Sen. Cunningham explained over the phone to InStyle. But it will give these workers a clearer understanding of the signs of abuse, which many of them will encounter in their hours behind the salon chair. Now, they'll know what to do; the training will help stylists identify different types of abuse (for example emotional, physical, or financial) and coach them on how to get resources to a client they believe is in need. "It's not something that people are prepared for when they enter the profession," he says. "But it's something they end up dealing with all the time."

He knows this personally. More than 25 years ago, when he was first dating his now-wife, Juliana, she was a hairdresser who would often come home worrying about the women who sat in her chair; she'd fret over how involved she should get, and wonder what help she could — or should — give when they confided in her about suffering abuse.

As Deb Long, the owner of Advanced Educator School of Beauty in Washington, Illinois, who hopes to offer the training to cosmetologists in her area as soon as next spring, put it: "When women are in a beauty salon, their guard is down. They don't have any fear, they feel safe; they don't feel like anyone would tell anything. Hairdressers, we feel a little like psychiatrists. Women just kind of know that you can tell your hairdresser anything."

Salon Chair Quote 2
Illustrated by Uyen Cao.
| Credit: Illustrated by Uyen Cao.

There is something natural about the idea of a salon as a safe place for women to be themselves. Like in the iconic film Steel Magnolias, a beauty parlor is a place where women congregate in towns and cities across America, where they keep up with one another's rites of passage — proms, weddings, babies, illnesses, sudden streaks of white strands — along with community chatter. The new Illinois law certainly makes the salon-as-refuge concept more official. But it is also a natural extension of what's been happening behind those doors all along.

"In our industry, we see domestic abuse all the time. It's the man walking the woman in and telling her how much she can spend on her hair; what color her hair is supposed to be; how short, how long she should cut it," explains Rowan. For that reason, she's long made it a point to have transparent conversations with her staff about abuse for decades, and to leave support materials for clients who need it in private, but conspicuous, places. She used to post a tear sheet with the number of domestic violence support groups on the back of the bathroom door, until she found them disappearing faster than she could replace them. Since then, she's switched to palm cards.

Over the course of her 44-year career, Rowan recalls encountering women who asked to pay in trade so their husbands wouldn't know they'd spent money on shampoo, or who wanted to make out their checks in a way that disguised the fact they were spending money on their hair. Rowan, who went to beauty school at 18, says that, in her experience, this happens in high-end salons in upwardly mobile neighborhoods just as much it does in local suburban storefronts catering to Catholic school soccer moms. She remembers a woman once trying to squeeze onto the schedule because her husband wouldn't let her back in the house until she was blonde again. For some, the hair salon is the only place they are able to go without their abuser. "It created a feminist in me, what I was seeing, and the way women talked to me," Rowan reflects.

She first began to make the connection between her salon services and this kind of awareness more than 20 years ago, when a local community organizer, Rita Ryan, was running a safehouse for abused women in Beverly, near Rowan's salon. Rowan remembers Ryan subtly hinting to her during an appointment that the same women were coming in to get their hair done. That's when she started having Ryan come talk about domestic abuse awareness with her staff.

Rowan quickly learned the sessions wouldn't just benefit clients; her team of stylists needed help recognizing patterns in their own lives, too. "I realized my staff needed to hear these truths," she says, adding that not enough has changed in the decades since. That domestic abuse is still an epidemic across America, she says, "[is] a travesty I really never expected in 2018. It's very disappointing."

Karen Gordon, whose salon, J. Gordon Designs, is located in Chicago's tony Lincoln Park neighborhood, echoed the value of abuse awareness among her staff. Not so long ago, when the bill that required this training was still working its way into law, one of her young hairdressers came forward about being abused by a boyfriend, and said she needed help. Gordon put her in touch with Chicago Says No More; ultimately, that staffer had to leave the city to get away from the abusive partner. That was when Gordon realized: "Oh my god, this is not other people. This is in my organization."

It was an epiphany that continues to resonate; Long shared a similar story about a member of her own staff, a few hours south. Both women also said that the training had opened their eyes to what domestic violence and abuse actually looks like — that it's not always what you would think. "We tend to believe it's going to be the woman who sits in your chair, who has a black eye, a bruise on her arm," Gordon tells InStyle. In the case of her employee, the symptom was low self-esteem, a consequence of emotional abuse. "I think that's what the class taught me: A lot of abuse is invisible. It's subtle. And maybe you can't bring it up. But if there's a brochure — in the bathroom, in the changing room, somewhere — a person can go privately and find help. Even though it's kind of out of your hands, you can help guide someone in the right direction."

Salon Chair Quote 3
Illustrated by Uyen Cao.
| Credit: Illustrated by Uyen Cao.

When InStyle asked Sen. Cunningham about how the law itself fits into the broadening cultural discussions about abuses of power, he spoke about the ways in which the Me Too movement has made it more possible for conversations about previously off-limits subject matter to occur, and of wanting to create more points of access for people to find help. "It's understandable why a victim of domestic violence would want confidentiality, and to keep things quiet. But we also want to break down taboos," he said. "We want to say to people: This is a big problem. It's not your fault. You should feel empowered to come forward, and to ask for help."

Still, the new requirement hasn't been without its critics. In the legislature, a distinct minority expressed concern that it was an example of government overreach. Among salon professionals, there was pushback about this allocation of responsibility, and the burden it could potentially place on stylists: Even though there can be a confessional quality to the client-stylist relationship, not everybody gets into the business to be a counselor.

Both Gordon and Long attributed that resistance to a confusing rollout — what the former called "putting the cart before the horse." At the beginning of 2017, "They said it was required, and you have to do it," Gordon remembers. "But now they're saying it's been pushed out another year. [The law] had great intentions, but it wasn't as well organized as it could have been before being implemented."

To be clear: This domestic violence continuing education requirement will not make salon workers legally liable, or even require them to report abuse, an early concern among some in the industry. It doesn't even add additional hours to the course credits salon professionals are required to take in order to maintain their licenses. It will be one hour that only has to be taken once. (As for the cost: The current Chicago Says No More curriculum, which the group is considering translating to an online course in the future, has so far been offered for free; the organization intends to keep it that way.)

With specific regulations still yet to be finalized with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, the implementation dates have shifted. For cosmetologists and estheticians, the law will be in effect for license renewals as of September 2019; for cosmetology and esthetics teachers, that date is September 2020. Nail technicians, nail technology teachers, hair braiders and hair braiding teachers have until October that year. According to Sen. Cunningham, the lag in implementation is bureaucratic. In July, he explained, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) was given "rulemaking authority" to implement the training. Next comes a joint commission to approve those rules. The wheels are turning, however slowly.

Kristie Paskvan, a CPA who is the founder of Chicago Says No More, says that's forward motion nonetheless, and it's enough to make a difference. "There are 84,000 people licensed [as salon professionals] in the state of Illinois, and if 80,000 people have a conversation with just one person, that's another 80,000 people who have a new awareness," she says. "It's just a matter of starting the conversation. We need to make people realize that it's okay to talk about abuse, and that it's okay to seek help."

Gordon sees it this way: "I'm in my 40th year of being a hairdresser, and, when I think about it, what is one hour of training for the people who sit in my chair, who have afforded me a beautiful living? I have to get 14 hours every two years anyway to keep my license. So why not put one hour into domestic violence? Even if it's not somebody you see in your chair, you're going to be touched by it in your life, somehow, anyway." She's not the only one who thinks so. Since the time the Illinois bill was passed into law, 14 other states have introduced or enacted their own legislation. "We put this process in place to empower people and let them know that they can get help," says Sen. Cunningham. Slowly but surely, that is coming to pass.

Rowan had hoped that progress would be further along by now, but she remains optimistic about the change that is already afoot. "We are a nation of laws, and creating this law where our staffs are required to do this training is one little change — like the flap of a butterfly wing — that will make a big difference," she says.

In her staff meetings, she tells stylists that it's more than just a legal responsibility but a personal duty to make clients feel safe. That looks like caring, listening, keeping secrets — and, sometimes, yes, guiding them to resources that could change their life. For the most part, salons are about playing beauty parlor and having fun, like a little party where the focus is on all things pretty. "But the reality is that at any party, there are always women in a corner saying, 'You won't believe he did this,'" she says. "We, as a community of women, have to stop the madness." And that's exactly what these women are trying to do, one appointment at a time.

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or chat online at for help.

Splitting Hairs is InStyle's monthlong exploration of hair based on a survey of women across America.