On Working in the Beauty Industry Without Making Women Feel BadS

Women talk to me about their body issues a lot.

It's not just relegated to things above the shoulders, even though I am a hairdresser. They'll sit in my chair and look in the mirror across from them and wince at the way their thighs spread as they sit; they'll shift uncomfortably and ask me to put the cape on to cover them up, mouths laughing but eyes not going along with them.

They'll start pulling the skin up at their eyes and tut-tutting at the lines there, or tap up at the skin under their chin with the top of their hand. And I empathize with them, because haven't we all felt that way?

But I've come a long way in my acceptance of my looks and my weight and my chin wiggle, and I want to encourage other women to get cooler with themselves. So I look them in the eye and try to make some remark that's offhanded enough not to get too weird but sincere enough to maybe get through a little bit, like "Oh stop it, you're perfect the way you are."

And then I tell them what they should do with their hair to make themselves look better.

The way I prefer to think of it and put it into action is that there's a very important distinction between "better" and "EVEN better" that I try to honor. And my relationship with my clients is very fulfilling in that way, because I do make an effort to make every suggestion with their personal best interest in mind.

I'm not into trying to convert someone over to coloring their grays who didn't ask for it, or insisting a woman cut her beloved long hair shorter because she's over 40 and "it's time." But I can't deny that when I expand my gaze beyond my station, beyond my salon and into the beauty industry as a whole, I'm a very small part of a big system that's built to get women to want to see themselves a certain way in order to make money from their insecurities — a way that's not always attainable.

Hair commercials with models swingin' it to show off the shine are retouched just like turkeys are shellacked to look all shiny and delicious and in food magazines. And being a part of something like that, albeit a teeny weeny part, can make me feel a little conflicted and gross.

A few of years ago, a couple of other stylists and I were asked to do a small stage presentation at a local hair show. It was pretty simple, we were just asked to pick a model to cut and color their hair ahead of time, then bring them onstage and talk about what we did.

Now I don't remember wording, but the gist was basically that we were supposed to use people who were model-y, meaning conventionally attractive and probably thin. And I found myself silently fuming — what does that matter? We're supposed to be talking about their hair, aren't we? Aren't we supposed to be showing other hairdressers what they can do on their clients, clients who might have small noses or cankles or asymmetrical faces?

But I bit my tongue and went onstage with a great model, but one whose hair I wasn't able to do as much with as I wanted, toeing the line and showing people a modified version of what I (and they) can do.

It was a bummer but it was when I realized that expanding my career into facets of the industry I was interested in, like becoming an educator for color lines, probably wasn't something that was going to work for me. Hair shows and things like that are generally part of the package, and participating just didn't make me feel good about my job.

What makes me feel good about my job is being sincere with people and working toward helping them realize what's going to work best for them, but maybe helping them reconsider the way they think about their hair a little bit.

It doesn't necessarily have to be about wishing that you had hair like Nicole Richie ..."and her body too," as many clients joke. I try to steer clients toward thinking about the idea that there are a lot of reasons to do different things to your hair, it doesn't just have to be to make it pretty. It can be because it's functional and you actually don't care about it that much. It can be tactile, because you love to zone out and run your fingers through it. It can be because you want to convey something about yourself.

There are things that you're allowed to value alongside or over being attractive.

So much of beauty standards and the beauty industry is built on aspiring toward something that you don't have. And having aspirations isn't necessarily a bad thing at all. There's aspiration that's super fun and has you crossing your fingers that something works out, and then there's aspiration that makes you feel like you just don't stack up.

Luckily I spend my time in the beauty industry working in a salon with a really amazing group of people who share a lot of the same morals I do. It's inspiring and heartening. I've had more positive experiences with hairdressers who really want to see people leaving the salon feeling a little lighter than negative ones with hairdressers who want to be rockstars with scissors.

At the end of the day, I do love my job. But I've come to realize that I'm happiest and the most useful in it when I keep to my tiny part of the system, standing across from women looking at themselves in the mirror and telling them that they're better than what they wish they were. They're perfect.

This post originally appeared on xoJane. Republished with permission.

Image via Shutterstock.