By Paula Grech
While I was undergoing my DMT masters training at the Laban Centre in London in 1999, I funded my studies by working at a hairdressing salon in Sevenoaks. As I studied dance-therapy theory, I became aware of some of the parallels between hairdressing and therapy.
I first trained as a hairdresser in 1983. With both hair and therapy, there is a transformative process — although therapy takes longer! The symbolic act of cutting hair is significant in that each snip of the scissors cuts away at the weight of the past, replacing it by a lighter feeling. The hair is old, faded and damaged; healthy, shiny and clean-cut hair replaces it.
It is in fact that same process that takes place in therapy. Assuming the haircut hasn’t gone disastrously wrong (a bad cut or misjudged colour can make people feel damaged), clients leave feeling more confident and assertive in their new-found selves.
From Self to Self: Transformation
I was interested in the process of helping my hair clients feel better about their self-image. Of course I understood the importance of listening to my clients in a way that enabled me to know how much exactly cut off, to be precise and not “to interpret”. A trim happens easily. It isn’t a major transformation; nonetheless the whole process is designed to uplift. A restyle takes longer and is generally best prefaced by a good chat before the process begins. The one thing I felt my clients appreciated was having someone listen with great care and respond in a non-judgmental way. Even if I have nothing in common with my clients, I respect difference and diversity and I love the perspective that comes from working with people from many backgrounds. A salon can be fun from this point of view.
Very often, there is a sense of loyalty that one establishes with clients and visa versa. I found it very hard to let go of clients I’d been working with for 25 years, between the ages of 17 and 42. Yes that’s how long I remained a hairdresser in the UK before I left for a stint in Australia. I’ve managed to work simultaneously with both professions for many years now.
A hairdresser is not supposed to talk about politics or other controversial subjects. Once you get past holiday occupations and weekend activities, you establish a professional relationship. The therapeutic relationship has similarities to that between client and hairdresser. First, there is the creation a safe space. The client will pick up the ambience of the salon; if they are satisfied they will return. As well, clients are looking for a service and a sense of money well spent. Finally there is the act of sitting in the chair, with both hairdresser and therapist winning the trust and confidence of the client.
The Courage of Therapy
Going into therapy requires courage. It’s a step people make when life isn’t going well, and when one wants to make deep inner changes. One of my clients who knew I was also a hairdresser asked me to cut her hair. It was important to her that I undergo this transformation with her. We knew each other outside the open group I was running when she came to my dance and movement personal development session.
During some of our group movement sessions, Sue* touched some painful emotions. It had been a difficult few years for her.
When Sue asked me to cut her long hair into a short style, it felt important to ask her why she wanted to make such a drastic change. It felt like a big responsibility — but I wasn’t afraid to take the risk with her, so I made a list of some questions for Sue to think about as she was going through her symbolic process of transformation:
· Why do you want to have your hair cut ?
· How long have you been thinking about this change?
· What do you hope to feel after the change?
· How do you hope this change will make you feel?
· How much do you want to have cut off?
· How much time are you going to put aside for styling?
We made an appointment for Sue to come to my house. After almost 40 years, I still enjoying cutting hair and I’ve found the right space and lighting to set up a salon in my home. But the day she was due to come over for her haircut happened to be the day her child became ill — and so she had to wait for the doctor to pay her a home visit. Sue phoned several times that day to postpone her haircut (the doctor still hadn’t come) and I could hear the distress in her voice. I knew how much it meant to her; she was really disappointed, when she realised that it might not happen. I felt sorry for her and so offered to come over and cut her hair at her house.
Sue appreciated the questions I had asked her to fill out via a questionnaire. She even signed it! For me, if felt as though we were setting up a treatment plan: identifying the problems and looking for an outcome. As things stood, the haircut marked a major transition for Sue, who had been grieving the death of her father and an end to a relationship with a man, as well as embarking on a new path of education with her child (whom she was raising as a single parent).
As I was cutting Sue’s hair from from below her waist to shoulder length, I felt that Sue was changing herself from her father’s image of her as a little girl. This woman was growing up and making important changes — and the cutting of her hair became clearly symbolic. It felt like a release. She wasn’t going for the super-short hair women turning 50’s often make. It wasn’t a power cut. The newly defined Sue was interesting, sharp, with a slightly asymmetrical fringe that represented her ability to see the marginal shifts of life. Her newly defined self represented flexibility, fun and change. I also loved the softness that shaped her face.
This softness was visible to me in the way Sue was responding to herself. I cut layers into her hair, giving her a sense of lightness and movement; I played with slicing and graduating her layers. Sue loved watching the way I cut her hair; my movements reflected back to her in the mirror a feeling of how she wanted to be. Often we reflect back to our clients in a dance-movement session by attuning and mirroring; this enables us to step into our clients’ shoes and offer empathy. Sue loved her hair; she said it made her feel even more the person she had become. It was a big step for her and courageous one.
The New You
Interestingly people didn’t recognise her at work or at the shops. I thinkSue liked the radical change because it was a way of reinforcing the fact that she had left a part of her old self behind, the part of herself that she had outgrown. She received many compliments but most importantly, she loved the way her hair made her look and feel. I was really happy that, with her changes, she also managed to quit smoking. She had put on a few more pounds but she was showing up as herself and seemed so much happier.
From therapy to the hairdresser’s chair, I offer ways of how I might support you towards change by tapping into a deeper process, of discovering perhaps the hidden perspective of yourself. By observing and working out what those changes might be, I can help you feel more positive about yourself and better able to see the radiance and inner beauty within. Taking risks often leads to better pathways. It’s helpful to have support from someone who’s listening and is able to be reflective with you.
I’m very happy to offer my services to hair as well as DMP clients! It was in fact Sue who suggested that the service I gave her might also be of help to others.
If you would like some help and support to draw out the ‘new you’, I’ll be delighted to help you make those changes.
* name changed for privacy