This month, a new law in Illinois goes into effect that requires cosmetologists, hairdressers, barbers, and nail technicians to take a training course in how to recognize the signs of domestic abuse or sexual assault. The law, which is the first of its kind across the nation, is modeled after similar legislation in Ohio that requires hairdressers and other cosmetologists to take education courses on human trafficking. The goal? Utilizing the close relationships between hair stylists and their clients to make victims safer.
That's all nice in theory, but some stylists in the state are concerned about how it will play out in practice. For one thing, the law doesn't require stylists to come forward to authorities with information, and mandates only one hour of training in how to handle suspected cases of abuse. Some stylists also think the law fundamentally changes the nature of their job—to make people look pretty—by forcing them to become counselors. We talked with hair stylists in Illinois about their thoughts on the new law and how they see it playing out in a real-life salon.
Self-employed hair stylist in Oak Forest, Illinois
VICE: What did you think when you heard about this new law?
Julie Karlson: If I wanted to be a psychologist, I would have gone to school for that.
You think it's overstepping your professional capabilities?
I think we're very in tune with our clients that we would know what to say and do any way, but there's a fine line and it's very personal. Usually women [in abusive relationships] unfortunately go back to the abusers and if I give them all this information and they're like, "Oh, well, Julie my hairdresser gave it to me," how am I going to know that the abuser isn't going to come back with a gun and shoot me? No one's thinking of that.
Have you had experiences of people telling you they've been abused?
One time a young girl—she was maybe 17—[told me she] had a boyfriend that slapped her once. I said, "I would think twice about continuing to date him." I wanted to tell her mother, but it's a fine line. That's the only case in 36 years.
Do you think the idea that everyone tells everything to their hairdresser is over-exaggerated?
[Clients] get extreme with other things that you really don't want to hear, like about their sex lives, but with abuse? No. That's a kept secret. I would know if I saw some bruises and I would just ask, "What happened?" And if they chose to tell me, then that's a different subject. But if they chose not to, I can't continue the conversation.
Did you get anything in the mail or any word from the state about the new law?
No, nothing. I've been looking it up online—zero information. Do you know what I honestly think this is? Another way for Illinois to get money. We're going to have to pay for these classes, which is unfair. If it's mandatory, then it should be free or if you have to pay for it and you truly feel like this is something you want to do, then you could voluntarily do it. I really think this is another way for Illinois to get money, and here's the poor hairdresser who doesn't have a 401k or a pension.
Rod Sickler Salon & Spa in Champaign, Illinois
VICE: How do you feel about the new law in Illinois?
Rod Sickler: I see two sides: Obviously, it's important to try to help people at any point with any sort of domestic abuse. The thing that makes me nervous is where we come into play as their hairdresser-slash-counselor. If it helps people, I think that's fantastic—but I think they could've given us more info on that before they passed the law. And I think there's a fine line there to what our professional responsibility is to somebody when we start talking.
So you're concerned that this law would turn you from a hairdresser into a psychiatrist of sorts.
Yeah, that's exactly right. I'm the first to admit that my clients probably tell me a lot more personal information than maybe they should or that I want to know sometimes. I think that people become very friendly with us as hairdressers, but at the end of the day, I'm still offering a professional service. What makes me more qualified to give them that [help] than any other profession that they seek out, whether it's a lawyer, whether it's their dentist, whether it's their doctor? What makes me more qualified than everyone else? Even though I've had years behind the chair speaking to people, I think there's a lot of counselors out there who would argue against [this law] as well. Even though hairdressers tend to give advice, that doesn't mean that we're qualified to give advice.
"If I wanted to be a psychologist, I would have gone to school for that." — Julie Karlson
Would you feel comfortable reaching out to authorities if a client told you they were abused?
Obviously, I want to help anyone in any way that I can, but it does create for me—being a man—an uneasy conversation. It's just, for me, a very awkward position to be in. If I can help them, I'm willing to do what I need to do but maybe it's through the education that I'll learn to do that. I just don't know where to get the education yet.
Great Clips in Peoria, Illinois
VICE: How did you feel when you learned about the new law?
Stephanie Lang: As cosmetologists, we're meant to cut hair and make people look pretty, but a lot of times people come forward about their home life and we become therapists as well. We hear a lot of things that people don't normally tell other people. A lot of times clients like to confide in their stylist and think that they're just going to not say anything, but if you hear of a kid being hurt or a wife being beat or you see marks on someone's head or neck, you should come forward with it. I think that it's a good law, but we are by no means in the police force so there's not much that we can do.
Have you had instances where you've noticed a client going through abuse or someone has confided in you about that?
Yes. A little kid said something along the lines of mental abuse—that they don't eat very well. When a kid tells you that, you're like, "Should I say something to the parent?" But you don't want to stir up anything in the salon, so you just kind of nod and take it as it is.
With the new training in Illinois, is there anything you're hoping to learn about how to handle situations like that?
I don't know what they could teach a cosmetologist in a day of work about how to handle such information, you know? Say I'm not at Great Clips but at a high-end, full-service salon. If I have constant clients and something like this gets dropped on me, how am I supposed to stray away from what I'm doing and take care of something that's really not my area of expertise? Maybe if there's a hotline they give us where we can say, "Hey, this happened." But you're still invading that person's privacy by giving their information to somebody. What if they don't want anybody to know? Or they're not ready to come forward with such problems?
Do you feel prepared to talk to someone about such personal issues?
Personally? I will talk to anybody about anything and try to help them with anything. But you get a very shy, naïve, straight out of beauty school stylist and she gets that? I don't think she's going to be prepared for something like that.
In that case, would you see regulated training as something that would help stylists in dealing with conversations they deem too sensitive or too awkward?
Yeah, I think that then they should definitely go into some type of class or training that teaches them how to handle that.
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