"We meet our clients at a unique level--they come to us with the expectation that we will make them feel good...and I think the actual haircut is only part of that."--Drue Malcolm
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"We meet our clients at a unique level--they come to us with the expectation that we will make them feel good...and I think the actual haircut is only part of that."--Drue Malcolm

The original intent of this piece was to educate the readers of Modern Salon on COVID-19, as it pertains to the salon industry. I’ve been struggling for weeks--reading books, articles, listening to interviews with virologists and physicians, speaking with epidemiologists--and even as a lifelong epidemiology nerd, myself, I kept feeling like an absolute fraud. Who was I to educate you, when the extent of my higher education is a half-finished Musical Theatre Performance degree and a Cosmetology license?! 

So after much debate, I scrapped almost everything I’d written and I’m falling back on the old adage “write what you know,” in the hopes that it will be more meaningful to you.

I read a Vice article back in 2016 (“The Life of the Skin-Hungry: Can You Go Crazy from a Lack of Touch?”) about prisoners in solitary confinement suffering from something called “touch starvation” (or “skin hunger”)--a scientifically recognized human need for physical contact with other humans. It’s been determined that a lack of touch has severe mental and physical repercussions; a study done after World War II took infant rhesus macaque monkeys and gave them two inanimate maternal alternatives: a wire “mother,” with milk, and a soft cloth “mother,” with no food. The baby monkeys overwhelmingly chose the soft mother, despite receiving no nourishment. 

COVID-19 is robbing many of us of touch and I believe we are starting to show the signs of starvation. 

There’s been a stark and alarming decline in the overall health of my clientele. The single folks who work from home are suffering the most and I’ve realized that for most of them, I MIGHT BE THE ONLY PERSON WHO TOUCHES THEM ALL MONTH. It lends a special gravity to our jobs as hairstylists because in addition to grooming them, we are tethering them to Earth through physical contact. We are needed now more than ever--our clients need the human contact and they need us to be their confidants, to give them some semblance of normalcy...and I hope my fellow cosmetologists and barbers recognize the importance of this role. 

Research suggests that women tell their stylists more than they tell their therapists, so some (brilliant!) cosmetology schools are now training students to look for signs of abuse and suicidal ideation, in addition to cancerous moles. I decided to pursue men’s hair, with the completely misguided belief that there was less emotional responsibility. I’m happy to report that the phenomenon is not exclusive to women’s hair and years later, I have found that being trusted by my clients with their hopes and their fears and their deepest confidences is an honor, unparalleled. 

We meet our clients at a unique level--they come to us with the expectation that we will make them feel good...and I think the actual haircut is only part of that. When we were still in trees, grooming behaviors were a backbone of tribal cohesion and picking out fleas and nits was not the only benefit. Grooming was also an altruistic behavior. We groomed each other because it felt good and it built strong social bonds faster than just about any other means. 

This is where we come in: we are among the only humans who are “allowed” to touch other humans with regularity right now.

While touch was incredibly meaningful before COVID-19, it has taken on an important dimension we mustn’t overlook; we are reminding our clients, with each haircut, that they are a part of this tribe and they are seen and heard...that they mean something. At the risk of sounding like a painfully cliche theatre kid, I’m gonna go ahead and say that we are doing LIFE-SAVING WORK...we are securing our clients to a community when the isolation of quarantine threatens to pull them away. 

Even though the original intent of this article shifted--from an epidemiological rundown of COVID-19 to the (still scientific!) importance of touch--I hope you read it with the same seriousness. To say it’s “a scary time” is an understatement of truly epic proportions, on par with “your hair texture might affect your results.” We’re all scared. Some of us are lucky enough to live with a partner or family member, so touch starvation won’t be a looming spectre in our lives...but there are many who aren’t so lucky.

This piece is my heartfelt plea to all my fellow industry workers to recognize the concurrent pandemic of skin-hunger. Recognize it, know it’s dangerous, and FIGHT it! 

The best part? We fight it by doing what we do every day: touching, listening, and being there for our clients.

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Drue is a stylist and manager at James Irving Salon in Minneapolis, MN. 

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