WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK FIVE – Part 1, Appearance)

May as well be like this.

As I sit cross-legged with my brutally unkempt hair reaching past my shoulders I’m completely aware of the situational irony that I am about to criticize folks who work in beauty. I’m not exactly the kind of person who will ever be put on a magazine, I’m one of the last people to think about beauty (or even hygiene at times) and I maybe got to the barber every six months, if I’m feeling up for it (financially and otherwise, being trans) and it’s been longer than 6 since my last.

Getting that out of the way, let’s get to criticizing!

Sam Mature (Barber)

As someone who tends to lack hand-eye coordination, I can’t imagine being a barber. The closest I’ve ever personally gotten was when a bundle of hair was constantly getting in my face and I just cut it. I made no attempt to figure out what was the “right” way to do it, I just did it. When you’re dealing with work, little annoyances like that get lost in the shuffle.

Of course, I do usually wear my hair in a ponytail and keep it together with cheap hair bands. So I don’t usually have to worry about it, except when I want to have my hair down…anyways, where was I?

I know about nine barbers went out of business in this area alone. A man used to get a haircut every couple weeks. Now he waits a month or two, some of ’em even longer than that. We used to have customers that’d come in every Friday. Once a week, haircut, trim, everything. Now the same fella would come in maybe every two months. That’s the way it goes. (p. 233)

There’s reasons for this of course: Increase in accessibility to the same technology that barbers used to have. And while degrees are tough for people to come by over the years this kind of knowledge is easily learned online (for free!). So I’m sure in more recent years it hasn’t gotten any better for the barber.

I partly think this is a shame because hair places can become a great space for communities. You see this especially in the Netflix show Luke Cage, based on the Marvel superhero. The barbershop was such a great place for Luke and other assorted interesting characters to come around and chatter about what’s what and catch us up on the plot/fluff.

On the other hand, social places like that aren’t really for me. Barbering tends to be made up of inane conversations.

As proof I offer:

A barber he has to talk about everything—baseball, football, basketball, anything that comes along. Religion and politics most barbers stay away from. (Laughs.) (p. 235)

Mature is repeating the tired old trope of not allowing religion or politics at the dinner table. I’ve never understood why this isn’t considered “polite” discussion. I get that “breaking the ice” is a thing and it’s important to take conversations easily and with the pace of everyone in mind, but dammit difficult issues should be discussed too, right?

I just don’t see the point of having the marketplace, relationships with our family and loved ones if we can’t discuss the things that press on our hearts. If we can’t say what we think about the world then what’s the point of being together? As with a group of barbers and customers it just strikes me as inane ritual to catch up with people in the tamest way possible. And OK, there’s certainly a place for that but it shoudln’t be at the expense of serious conversations.


Usually I do not disagree with a customer. If there is something that he wants me to agree with him, I just avoid the question. (Laughs.) This is about a candidate, and the man’s he’s speaking for is the man you’re not for and he asks you, “What do you think?” I usually have a catch on that. I don’t let him know what I am, what party I’m with. The way he talks, I can figure out what party he’s from, so I kind of stay neutral.

That’s the best way, stay neutral. Don’t let him know what part you’re from cause you might mention the party that he’s against. And that’s gonna hurt business. (p. 235)

So. Boring.

Look, we don’t all have to be into politics. I must admit I’m not going into a barber shop to hear a great theological debate about the validity concerning the ontological proofs for God or whatever (hint: they’re bullshit). But at the same time, if you’re customer wants to bring it up, who else can they blame but themselves? They asked for your opinion!

And eventually someone is going to notice you are being neutral on a moving train. And they might just get even more upset that you don’t have the backbone to just speak honestly to your customers. After all if you’re not even going to be open and honest about your personal beliefs how can they trust you otherwise? So you can still lose business.

But maybe most people just don’t care. Like I said, I don’t go to barber shops to hear people discuss what kind of merits the Black Lives Matter protests constitute or do not (hint: They constitute a heckload of merits). There is also a definite need for non-political/de-politicized spaces in society. And no, I don’t mean that politics somehow won’t exist as in racism will magically vanish and we’ll all sing around the campfire in perfect harmony.

More that there should be areas of life that are (at least) not dominated by political discussions. And perhaps on that level barber shops and family gatherings are important, perhaps even vital. But the pendulum has swung too much in the opposite direction. The stereotype of the “racist uncle” who never gets challenged exists for a reason.

Funnily enough, Mature does get to talking about the economics of barbering:

“Most of your barbers today, actually there isn’t too many taking it up. Take these barber colleges. It used to be three, four hundred students. Not any more. You maybe get five or six there. Not only that, the tuition has gone up so high. It cost me $160. Now it would run you about six hundred dollars or better.

…When I took up barberin’, it took six months. Today you have to apprentice for almost three years before you can get your license. You work for a lot less—about thirty dollars less a week than a regular barber would get. (p. 224)

The licensor issues have only become worse over the years. As more and more industries become more highly regulated (you know, for our “safety”) they also become more monopolized. Barbers tend to be older folks and I only see barber shops that tend to promote themselves as “hip” once in a while, at best. There are also some barbershops based around ethnicity (such as people of color and Latinos) but these seem to be niche and not chains.

At any rate, the way the state regulates industries is generally towards the benefit of the entrenched and wealthy. Here that’s a fairly relative term but the ones who tend to be better established as barbers are probably going to have more capital and customer base to be able to deal with these ridiculous regulations around licensing.

This interview is pretty good for getting a feel for what it’s like to be a barber but let’s move on.

Edward and Hazel Zimmer (Hair Stylists)

This one is another notable interview in which we get a taste of two different folks perspectives. This time it’s on the subject matter of being a hair stylist and how that differs from other hair-related professions.

There are beauty operators, there’s hairdressers, and then there’s hair stylists. A hair stylist is more than a beauty operator. Anybody can fuzz up hair, but you ask them, “Do I look good in this Chinese look which is in now, Anna May Wong?”—-they don’t know. (p. 236)

Mr. Edward (as he calls himself) says the hair stylists are the specialists of doctors. You got to a general practitioner to get a larger scope idea of how your health is doing. But if you want to do something about your skin (say you’re like me and deal with eczema) then you’d maybe want to visit your GP and then see a dermatologist based on their suggestion.

So yes, I think this metaphor is fairly appropriate. I have maybe gone to a hair stylist once or twice and if so, it was because my grandmother wanted me to for some special family function. In fact, I think even then I went to some folks who called themselves hairdressers instead of stylists. But to be honest, I couldn’t tell you the difference.

Unlike Mature both of these folks have some actual opinions about things. I think I mostly want to go over the subject matter that stuck out to me and specifically that which I disagreed with. But I’m not trying to make these folks sound bad or like they’re bad people, I just found some interesting ideas I disagreed with.

For example, although Mr. Edward correctly states that being homosexual doesn’t lead to becoming a hairdresser as Jacqueline Onassis (John F. Kennedy’s wife) apparently thought when she fired some employees of hers she found out to be gay. But at the same time Mr. Edward insists on a stringent gender norms when it comes to styling:

The most important thing for a hairdresser, male, he has to dominate the woman. You can sense when you’re not dominating the customer. She can tell you, “I want the rollers here.” She becomes the stylist and all you become is the mechanical thing with fingers. (p. 237)

Maybe I’m crazy here (no maybes about that) but shouldn’t the ideal role for any provider of a service is to work with the customers? Dominating customers sounds like a great foundation of ethics…if you want to perpetuate asshole behavior from your male workers. This kind of norm is just perpetuating gendered stereotypes of how men must act and makes less aggressive men feel like they’re not “real men” which isn’t healthy either.

And if someone says, “I want X” on their hair then isn’t it your job to make sure that is taken care of? Even if that does make it a it more mechanical and processed that’s not always a bad thing. Each stylist can make up their own way of putting in the rollers, or maybe they have certain colors or styles, or maybe something else, who knows?

And even if it’s a simple process then shouldn’t you still follow what the customers wants? It seems to me that this is the most important part, not how much you want to show off for them. Mr. Edward thinks men should have some sort of “ego” but this just seems like a great excuse for men to get insulted and become petty around conversations.

No thanks.

I do like this part though:

I used to go to a tavern around here. I met this guy. He didn’t know I knew he was a cop. He knew I was a hairdresser. He was drunk. He says to me, “You’re a queer.” I says, “How could you tell by looking at people?” He says, “The way you twist your mouth.” I said, “You’re drunk and you’re a cop.” He says, “How do you know I’m a cop?” I says, “Just the way you look and act.” … I said, “If you didn’t have a gun, how much authority would you pull around here? Anybody can do your job. You can’t do mine. It takes skill.”

(p. 238)

On the other hand, sometime pettiness is OK!

Surprisingly given Mr. Edward’s attitude he laments about a potential beauty stylist who got arrogant and did up a lady’s hair red when she never asked for that. Mr. Edward also says that you don’t argue and throw brushes at people, but I wonder if he ever realized that the attitudes he says about ego among men may have something to do with it?

Last word from Hazel:

They have commercialized it and came out with all these gadgets, and put work that should be done in a shop into home. You can buy a comb that cuts hair. You can buy a permanent.

They should have strictly remained professional. The manufacturers got greedy and they commercialized hairdressing, whereas they make it so easy that it can be done at home. So you can’t command the prices you did a number of years ago. (p. 240)

Oh, I see.

So when y’all could better monopolize prices it wasn’t greedy?

But when it’s made more accessible so people don’t need to spend “thousands of hours” (as Mr. Edward says on the same page) to be a professional this is obviously formed from unrelenting corporate greed or some such thing.


Jean Stanley (Cosmetics Saleswoman)

This is a pretty short interview so I don’t have too much to say here.

The most interesting theme was the inherent necessity or importance of what Stanley does.

I can remember when lipsticks at two dollars was tops. Now they have lipsticks that sell for five. Appearance. Many times I think, thirty dollars for this little jar of cream, I know it doesn’t have that value. But in the eye of that woman, it has the value. (p. 242)

I wonder at what price point do folks generally feel like they’re exploiting others just by selling something? Do car salesfolk ever get this bummed out or self-doubting? If they did they’d probably be out of a job, right? At my retail job I usually feel like customers are getting ripped off on a daily basis but it’s never on a big enough scale. Usually I’ll just numbly nod that they’re getting ripped off and remind them the retail store I work at is a glorified convenience store.

And for some folks this stuff really is great. Stanley talks about a cream that only lasts 40 minutes but may help a woman who come in with a job interview. In that case the value of such a cream seems clear and the price point of the item might not be as unreasonable as it could be for more general use.

There’s also discussion of TV, wanting to keep their husbands, and the anxiety of it all. Advertisements have certainly played a huge role in the beauty industry. There’s also been the gendered norms about how cis women are supposed to perform and represent themselves in larger society, that’s another factor.

Hazards with the job involve a lack of health care, as well as no pension, not to mention the hurt feet. The women there have no protection and are at-will employed, on top of handling all of their taxes for themselves and not even getting paid by the department stores but rather the cosmetic companies they represent while in the department store.

Wow, where do I sign up? (Sarcasm)

Stanley closes with these thoughts:

There are other things you’d like to be doing. I was interested in teaching but the Depression…You would have liked to do something more exciting and vital, something you felt was making a contribution. On the other hand, when you wait on these lonely old women an they leave with a smile and you feel you’ve lifted their day, even a little, well it has its compensations. (p. 244)

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