From the roots of the hair
La Sentinelle, a small town in northern France on the outskirts of Valenciennes. Passers-by wander through the streets in the winter cold, busily purchasing Christmas presents and carrying on their daily activities. People chat in bars. They wait in toyshops, their arms full of presents. Behind a discreet shop window, hidden by a semi-transparent curtain, the social hairdresser of the association Bien être pour la beauté des femmes lives sheltered from passing gazes. The women who go there are sent by associations and municipal centres for social action. The majority survive thanks to the income of social security, a benefit that ranges from € 520 per month for a single woman to € 1,100 per month for a couple with two children. For these women, whose priority is to have a roof over their heads and something to eat, concern for their appearance has become an inaccessible luxury. Well, since in order to find a job people can’t afford to look scruffy, this soon becomes a vicious circle. Here the rustling of banknotes or the muted clicking of credit cards does not exist. The women pay in coins, three euros for a hair-do, one euro for a face treatment.
The stories are of the kind that leave their mark. One day a woman entered and sat down. But then she wandered about and asked to have her hair done with her back to the mirror. She could no longer look at her reflected image. Vincent, the hairdresser, cut her hair and coloured it. A conversation began that no one has ever forgotten. “Do you want to see how lovely you look?”. “No”. “But how can you know how beautiful you are if you don’t look at yourself in a mirror?”. “If I look beautiful, my children will tell me”. Learning to be looked at anew as people and holding their heads high takes time for these women when they are used to being walked all over. Before working in this shop Vincent used to see spangles, stars, and beauty queens. He began his apprenticeship at the age of 16, and then specialized in facial morphism, a technique which makes it possible to find the hairstyle that makes the most of the face. He was later in charge of a branch of a famous hairdresser. He went to Paris to take further courses. He was chosen by his company to be hairdresser for the elections of Miss France. Yet he felt that something was lacking.
“I had really seen everything”, explained this man who today is 39 years old, “from glamour to sequins, but I needed a project, I needed to feel useful. The women who come here really need a change. For them, to have their hair done is not something trivial, they are not used to it, they are disenchanted.… I do not expect thanks, this is not the point. But when I see that they feel better, I feel good too”. In his work as a hairdresser he has learned to understand in a few minutes the personality of a client in order to advise her on the products that best suit her. From the way in which she enters, from her attitude, from her gestures, he already understands more or less what she is like: emotional, intuitive, or cerebral. “Today I use these techniques to adapt my approach to women who have already had to bear so much, with respect for their personalities”. A change of heart. He has made astuteness for financial ends into a means of reconstructing self-respect.
Beatrice, a social beautician, works beside him. Having worked with disabled and elderly people she is doing an internship. “When I touch people I feel their emotions, their tensions and their negativity. I try to transform all this into something positive”. With her finger-tips, groping, she helps them reconstruct their image. “In society there are codes of dress. Those who do not know them are judged badly. Thus some women feel so ill at ease with their own body that they conceal it beneath clothing. They put one garment on top of another to hide themselves, they wear high winter boots with a tracksuit and on top of that various sweaters. I try to help them to restructure their external appearance because it reveals above all a deep malaise”. The approach is gradual. Unlike what decrees the success of the television broadcasts on makeovers, it is not a question of “working miracles” nor of “upsetting” people, but rather of helping them to pick themselves up. Sometimes two weeks pass between a suggestion and its realization – the time needed to allow the idea of a change to make headway.
“Touching someone’s hair”, Vincent remarked, “is already entering the person’s intimate space. It all begins with an exchange of looks, then I listen to them and I speak, I attempt to use a reassuring tone of voice. Little by little, trust is built up but it takes time. A great sense of humour is also necessary”. Little by little words come to the surface. Sometimes even pain. Some of the women have suffered physical violence. As in all hairdressers’ shops across the world, women confide in their hairdresser. The hairdresser sets his own self aside to receive their confidences. “When I go through the entrance”, Vincent recounts, “I leave my own problems behind. The clients are not there for that. I also try to maintain the right distance in order not to let myself be consumed by all those stories but when I get home I sometimes think of what they have told me during the day, of those people who, in addition to poverty, also have serious health problems. Then when I get up the next morning to come here I do not feel as if I am going to work. It is from this that I draw my strength”.
It is a strength which he shares with Annie Degroisse, who founded the project. The eldest of eight brothers and sisters, this mother of five, this beautiful blonde lady of 60 has also lived through a period of crisis: unemployment, five children to keep. “Our lives can change from one day to the next. But I then thought of a mother who had lost her three children, run over by a lorry a year earlier, and I said to myself: I have no right to complain. Poverty can overtake anyone”. That morning a client was waiting to have her hair tinted. The 60-year-old was there, dynamic and smiling. She was first in charge of a solidarity grocery store. But she left because she could not accept that the unsold food was thrown away rather than distributed to the poor.
Today she heads an association, but her earnings are meagre. She who had always helped others was obliged in her turn to ask for help. In France the increase in the number of poor workers has shattered the traditional categories of solidarity. The social workers who refer the shop’s women customers are as poor as they are.
At the outset Annie thought that one day she would take care of children and elderly people. But when she learned that a social beauty salon was being set up in Paris she had no doubts. Interested, she contacted the person in charge. After months of effort, the project went up in smoke, but she was not discouraged. So she sought and found public funding. Unfortunately, however, this wasn’t enough. Nevertheless Annie persisted: for a while the shop would function part-time. Aid increased and the shop could open full-time. A hairdresser was taken on, Vincent, and a social beautician, Sabine. In four years neither of the two has ever been absent from work. But nothing is certain. Every year a sword of Damocles hangs over their association. Last year, just before Christmas, Annie heard that that she would not be receiving the money from European funds – leaving a hole of € 30.000. She only spoke of this trial to her collaborators after the festivities, “in order not to spoil them”. The manufacturers of well-known brands, sometimes prepared to distribute their products free of charge to enhance their image, do not always keep their promises. La Sentinelle is far from Paris and does not make the front-page news. And yet Annie’s shop serves 83 municipalities. Thus at times it is an ordinary citizen who sends her a large box of cosmetics. Then at other times she manages to set up a partnership, like the one with the Kiabi brand, which clothes and advises about 50 women who must present themselves for a work interview.
This year too she wondered whether she would manage to carry on. Reasons for gloom are not lacking. As well as uncertainty concerning the reconfirmation of funding from one year to the next, there are administrative misunderstandings. As in the case of the woman who had obtained a work interview as a dental assistant and wanted to look well-groomed in order to get the job. To recognize her right to have her hair done in the social salon, the municipality on which she depended had asked her for an attestation of convocation… to be completed by her possible future employer. The woman then gave up getting her hair done. “Our fate sometimes depends on the wishes of a single person”. Far from giving up, Annie insisted, with a faith that can move mountains. She reread the words that one woman had written to her: “I am looking for work. I already have various administrative and professional appointments. The salon enabled me to look presentable. And this helped me a great deal”. Annie nourishes herself on the words that shine in her guest book. She thinks again of that client who hugged her so tightly in her arms. She remembers the 60-year-old woman who was wearing a large chignon. She undid it and her hair rippled to the ground. In her whole life she had never once been to a hairdresser.
Marie-Lucile Kubacki de Guitaut
St. Peter’s Square
April 24, 2018
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