For many women, the hair salon is a confessional of sorts. Between perms, dye jobs, and liberal doses of gossip, they talk about current events, marriages, and family problems.
“My oldest wanted an earring. Marcus he’s 12. No, no, no, he gotta prove some other things before he can get into that stuff. But you know, he’s a really good boy.”
On this day, women gather at Bernie’s Hair Salon in a west Birmingham strip mall. As the TV talk show hosts analyze their guests, veteran hair dresser Maxine McCluney expertly twists her customer’s hair into the latest ‘do’ ‘ while imparting a little wisdom of her own.
‘It’s like my girlfriend. Her son actually wanted an earring so he ended up telling his mom, can I have a tattoo and she was like ‘ No! So he said, well since I can’t have the tattoo can I get an earring. So she said yes! But he actually wanted the earring.’
Hairdressers are lay therapists, of sorts ‘ a fact that isn’t lost on UAB health educator Teresa Wynn.
‘I think anytime someone is washing your hair or massaging your scalp, you feel as though you can just tell them any and every thing. No matter what it is, somehow that beautician is able to break down those barriers and talk to that lady and she feels comfortable sharing that information b/c she knows that she’s going to get some advice ‘ whether it’s good advice or bad advice ‘ she’s going to get some advice from that beautician.’
And, when it comes to health advice, Wynn wanted it to be sound, medical advice, so she started a new program called Shop Talk. It puts hairdressers through an intensive three week training session where they learn about the proper way to do breast self exams and the importance of regular mammograms and pap smears. At Bernie’s Salon, stylist Maxine McCluney was quick to sign up.
‘I’ve had a relative to have cervical cancer and passed away. We were close in age and it kinda bothered me. And part of that was because she didn’t do what she needed to do and take it to the doctor like she should have.”
A common problem ‘ especially for African American women, says Dr. Wynn.
‘The stats are alarming. There are so many needless deaths occurring in the communities out there.’
African American women are diagnosed less frequently than white women for breast and cervical cancer. But their death rate from these cancers is significantly higher. Teresa Wynn says access to care is a big issue. And so is late diagnosis. Many African American women either don’t know the warning signs or wait too long to see a doctor. So Shop Talk trains hairdressers to talk to their clients in a non-threatening way about cancer prevention.
“We told them – you engage your clients in a conversation and you know your clients and you know what they will accept and what they won’t. As the conversation begins to unfold, you can say – well, have you done your breast self exam? That person may say – well I don’t even know how to do one.”
To assist the stylists, the Shop Talk program has outfitted each salon with lifelike props to make the job of explaining breast exams a little easier. It took McCluney a little while to get comfortable using them.
“Well, you know one lady was sitting there and I say, hey, grab that bag right there and she opened it up and she looked at it and she was like – girl! It’s a breast!”
A fake breast, actually. A palm-sized dark-skinned model that McCluney uses to teach women how to find lumps. Smiling, McCluney admits it was a little awkward the first time she tried showing a client how to use the model.
“And I told her, just feel around and see if you can find the lumps in it and she found a couple of them and then I told her you know there’s one that elongated. That’s not round b/c they told us that all lumps are not round. That you should be looking for some that are kind of elongated and so she said I can’t feel that one and I said, well keep feeling, keep feeling! And finally she found the one that was elongated.’
McCluney says she’s gotten more comfortable with the model and several clients have thanked her for finally showing them how to do their breast self exams the right way.
‘Don’t just do a quick exam. Make sure you be really detailed about it. And that was it!’
Nothing extraordinary, but certainly empowering, says customer Gladys Edwards, a regular who visits the salon twice a month to have her hair done.
“You’d expect to see it at your doctor’s office and not at your beauty shop. But it’s a good place because a lot of us on our days off or whatever, this is the other place where we come and it’s good that it’s here.”
Shop Talk has trained 9 hairdressers in a half dozen salons so far, but the program is still too new to tell for sure whether it’s making a difference. The hairdressers say if just one client is helped by the information they provide, it’s been worth it.