This story is part of the series “Surging in Silence” by WPLN News contributor Natasha Senjanovic and is produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. It examines the effects of domestic and sexual violence in the pandemic in Memphis and Nashville.
Hair stylists and barbers are notorious confidantes. So much so that a new Tennessee law, passed during the pandemic, will soon require them to recognize signs of domestic violence.
Like unusual hair loss.
Longtime Nashville hairstylist Betsy Briggs Cathcart has had many clients with alopecia, a type of patchy hair loss. But one in particular had a form she’d never seen before.
“What I realized through the training,” she said, “is that I think her husband was pulling her hair from the back, pulling it out from the abuse.”
The training she refers to was created for beauty industry professionals by Nashville’s YWCA, which runs the largest women’s emergency shelter in the region. The training is an overview of the physical, emotional and financial dynamics of intimate partner abuse.
A few years ago, Briggs Cathcart began hosting the sessions in her salon, BBC. She found it important for several reasons. First and foremost, she said, was when she learned that Tennessee ranks among the top 10 states in the country for women killed by men.
But on a more personal level, “when I learned that we are one of the people that the abusers will let the victim still come to.”
That’s because intimate partner abuse hinges on isolating someone from friends and family. And hairdressers are already used to hearing secrets, says Susanne Post.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, ‘I’ve never told someone this, or I can’t believe I just said that.’”
Post is also a longtime Nashville stylist — and a survivor of abuse. Even though she didn’t receive help from the YWCA, she is grateful for the work that they do. Which is why Post asked the organization to create the training for a program she launched in 2017, called Shear Haven. She also supplies salons with brochures on domestic violence resources.
Post says beauty professionals are uniquely poised to see injuries victims may be hiding, like bruises or hair that’s been pulled out. But physical abuse is only one part of domestic violence, which is about exerting power and control over someone. So there are other signs to watch for.
“It might be that their partner comes with them to every appointment,” says Post. “Or is always waiting in the car. Or maybe someone is very uncomfortable about making a change because they’re afraid of what their partner might think.”
This information can also help with recognizing potentially abusive clients, says Jamal Stewart. The owner of Masters Barbershop in Nashville hasn’t yet taken the training, but hearing about it reminded him of one particular client, who was overly vigilant of his girlfriend.
“She sat out in the car if he came in and got a cut,” said Stewart. “Or he might bring her in depending on how many people were here. So I guess that’s one of those identifiers.”
Post says these are the kinds of “a-ha moments” that the YWCA training was meant to inspire. Then she realized it could be done on a much larger scale, when she learned about legislation passed on this issue in Illinois.
Since 2017 that state has been requiring beauty professionals to get domestic violence training. So Post and the YWCA found lawmakers — state Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin and state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville — to sponsor similar legislation in Tennessee.
However, the bill stalled last year, before COVID shut down the legislative session, because lawmakers wanted the training to be free and virtual, to reach even the state’s most rural areas.
Post says they didn’t know how they would make that happen: “We hadn’t embraced Zoom yet!”
But when everything moved online in the pandemic, Post found a way to get the measure, HB 120/SB 216, passed this year. She reached out to King Research, the company that makes Barbicide, the blue disinfectant found in barbershops and hair and nail salons.
Thousands of industry professionals and students already take Barbicide’s online infection control training. Leslie Roste, the company’s education director, says adding a 20-minute video to their platform on domestic violence was a no-brainer.
“I said, absolutely. As long as it would be open to everybody who comes to our website, and it’s free of charge, we’re fine doing it.”
Since the YW video was launched in October, more than 25,000 people have been certified worldwide. And Roste says another 10 states are working on legislation similar to Tennessee’s.
Because at least one in four women and one in seven men will experience domestic violence, she says building awareness is vital. But Roste is very clear that the certificate, like the law, does not make beauty professionals mandatory reporters of abuse, the way that teachers and therapists are, for example.
“We are not giving someone all this information and making them feel responsible for somebody else. Certainly, that’s not what they signed up for when they decided to be a cosmetologist,” said Roste.
So what should they do if, for instance, someone tells them outright they’re being abused?
First of all, believe them, says YWCA counselor Kate Snodgrass.
As she explains in the training video, listen and do not judge: “Don’t ask, ‘Why are you staying? Why are you just now telling me? What do you want me to do?’”
Those are all accusations, says Snodgrass, “and that one moment of trust that that person’s instilled in you can be gone, and they may not trust another person to tell them.”
In the video, she and Post also teach that victims must not be pushed. It typically takes victims multiple attempts to leave an abuser, for a number of reasons. They may love their partner, says Post, and genuinely hope he or she will get help. Or they may be protecting themselves or their children.
Abusers usually get more violent when they’re losing control over someone, so victims must be able to leave them safely. Besides empathy, says Post, the most important tools to give them are the shelter and hotline numbers they can call to get the professional help they need.