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Local hairstylists privy to customers' personal problems

by Darlene J. Taylor

STAFF WRITER

We always seem to feel better after we get a haircut. Is it just because we are satisfied with the cut or is there more to it?

Hairdressers say their clients are more than just customers. They enjoy listening to them talk about their lives, their families, their concerns and their problems.

Jack McClung, owner of Royal Viking on Pike Street, says his customers are also his friends. "I like to give advice, especially if I can help someone. I have a lot of experience, both good and bad. I always try to make it positive. Then they have a tendency to feel better."

Carla Vernon, owner of Carla's Beauty Salon, Hepzibah, says, "We fix their hair and hopefully make a good friend and help them. Sometimes they just need someone to talk to."

Many people believe they can talk to their hairdressers about important issues and ask them for advice. This doesn't necessarily make a hairdresser a counselor -- but perhaps a good listener who truly cares about clients.

Don Worth, family and marriage counselor at Family & Marital Counseling Cente in Weston says that opening up to your hairstylist is a widespread practice.

"Several of my clients have told me that they talk openly to their hairdresser," he says. "People drawn to that profession tend to be those who are available and friendly. They have to be rather attentive, and they are touching them. That makes it much easier for customers to let them in on other parts of themselves."

"Friendship is cultivated," says Tammy Barnes, an employee of Royal Viking. "I cater to a lot of older people. I grew up with my grandmother, so I can relate to them. My customers come back because I care. I am concerned about them."

"Maybe you can lift them up and give them a brighter outlook on the day," says Vernon, a beautician for 37 years. "I try to be encouraging. I want to make them look better on the outside with a new cut and feel better on the inside.

Melissa Jackson has been going to the same hairdresser since she was a child. She now takes her son there.

"Carla has known me since I was a baby. One of her daughters was my best friend during high school," Jackson says.

"We talk a lot about our families, because we know each other so well. But I feel if I was worried about something or was wondering what to do in a certain situation, I could ask her," says Jackson.

With more than 80 beauty salons and a dozen barber shops listed in the Clarksburg telephone directory, there is no shortage of qualified hairdressers in the local area.

The majority of hairdressers say most of their clients are long-time customers.

Larry Policano, owner of Clarksburg Beauty Academy, says it is one of the few businesses, outside of the medical field, where you actually touch someone.

"With this personal contact, you can become close friends. They talk about their family and you talk about yours. There is an exchange of personal information. I believe 100 percent that hair stylists act as counselors.

"People don't go to a certain hairdresser just for the service, they go because they like their personality," says McClung, a hairdresser for more than 30 years.

"It is all about listening and confirming what they already know. Some of them don't realize there is a healing process with divorce or death. They want to know they are not alone," McClung says. "They have helped me through tragedies in my life.

"I have suggested counseling to some of my customers, but many people have a stigma about it."

But Worth says there is some risk when nonprofessionals try to tackle counseling, "especially if they are going to offer advice. It can also be helpful if they are just listening."

Dr. Walter Byrd, psychiatrist and associate professor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, says there are seven reasons why people talk to their hair stylists as counselors.

"They are in a relaxed setting, which makes it easier; they are usually good listeners; they are seeing the person on a regular basis, opening up the lines of communication; it is sort of an anonymous setting with them standing behind you making it more conducive to talking; many clients feel they are knowledgeable; they are confidential, and they are worldly and non-judgemental," says Byrd.

He notes that over 90 percent of counseling that goes on in this country is done by nonprofessionals:pastors, friends and relatives.

Worth stresses the need for hair stylists to be attuned to evidence of a real problem.

"If they have difficulties they are hearing, they should encourage that person to reach out to a professional. They are on the front lines," Worth says.

And if a hairdresser see evidence of abuse, it is helpful for the hairdresser to talk about the evidence of abuse so the customer won't "stay in denial," Worth says.

David Cox, manager of DC's Barber Shop, 228 East Pike St., says barbers are definitely asked for advice on numerous occasions.

"They feel they can relate to you. If they sit down and feel comfortable, they will usually ask you things or tell you things and see how you feel about it," says Cox, who has been in the business for three years.

"It's the nature of the business. They feel like it is someone they can turn to and tell you what is on their minds. It is like therapy for them," he says.

"You don't get rich in this profession. But you're always in contact with people and there is no tension. It's been good for me. Sometimes I think about retiring. But I would miss these people so much it would impact my life," says McClung.

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