A groundbreaking new law will see thousands of US beauty professionals trained to spot signs of domestic abuse among customers.
Backed by domestic violence campaigners and the Professional Beauty Association, the new rule will require hairstylists and beauticians in the US state of Illinois to learn what to look for and how best to offer support to their clients, though they will not be required to report suspected abuse.
There are 88,000 licenced beauty professionals in Illinois and all risk losing their licences if they do not take up the training when the law takes effect on January 1.
For many women, hairdressers and beauty salons are safe, female-only spaces where they are at ease with the stylists they trust to touch and transform their hair and body. This relatively intimate one-to-one relationship often leads clients to open up about a troubled home life.
Angela Smith, a Chicago hairstylist for 20 years, tells the New York Times she has helped clients who are victims of domestic abuse. As well as simply listening and offering a sympathetic ear, she has suggested to customers they finally need to call the police. This was the case with one regular, who told Smith her boyfriend was threatening to ram her with his car.
“They let go here,” Smith says. “Everybody doesn’t talk, but once you build a relationship with someone, that’s when it happens. It’s just like when you have a best girlfriend.”
Illinois hairdresser Jamie Feramisco is herself a domestic abuse survivor. She has completed the training programme and explains that being in such close contact with a stranger creates a strong client-stylist relationship.
“When you’re a hairdresser, you're touching people first,” Feramisco told the local Herald Whig newspaper. “I'll start touching your hair before I really even start talking to you. It’s really close. It’s one of the highest-touch industries, which creates a bond with your clients.”
Beauty industry workers have been consulted at length about the legislation, which has been fine-tuned amid fears staff could be held liable for missing signs of abuse and concerns over whether customers would welcome advice from their stylists
"The whole idea is to help hair dressers deal with disclosures. There is a right way and a wrong way to talk to someone. It can make or break the way a person handles their assault," says JJ Magliocco, of domestic violence prevention charity Quanada. "We are teaching them that they can make a difference. They don't have to keep their mouth shut."
Salon workers who suspect customers are being abused will be trained how to act on their suspicions and how to pass on help through options such as helplines, safe houses, restraining orders and access to legal support.
The training focuses on identifying warning signs among both female and male customers, with one in three women and one in seven men experiencing violence at the hands of a partner in their lifetime, according to Kristie Paskvan, the founder of domestic violence charity Chicago Says No More. In Britain the figures are one in four women and one in six men.
Women's Aid is trialling a similar scheme to the Illinois initiative in areas of London, Brighton and East Sussex. Called "Ask Me," the domestic abuse charity trains people in service industries to spot and understand signs of domestic abuse, giving them the skills to respond appropriately to domestic abuse victims who reveal their situation, and training them in the most appropriate ways to offer support.
Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid in England, said:“Asking for help with domestic abuse is not easy. Women who report abuse do so five times on average before they get the support that they need. Early intervention and community support are vital tools in working to end domestic abuse.”