salon mutiny

Salon Classism: “You’re a Cosmetologist?!”

I’m a cosmetologist who chose to specialize in nail enhancements. Apparently, that makes me some breed of salon sociopath.

More than once in my career, a salon owner who hired me as a nail technician has looked at my license and said, “Oh my god! You’re a cosmetologist?!” Other cosmetologists are often shocked I picked nail technology as my specialty. They look at me, bewildered, and ask, “Why are you doing nails?” As if doing nails were a disgusting career choice, on par with janitorial work or HAZMAT cleanup.

I don’t feel I owe anyone an explanation, and neither do you, but real talk: sitting face to face with your clients enjoying coffee and conversation is far better than standing behind them, sweating your ass off, talking to their reflection over the loud drone of the blow drier while trying to ignore the burning knots in your shoulders and the persistent ache in your lower spine.

At one particular salon, once my “secret” was out, the other nail technician I worked with made a comment to a client. “She’s not really a nail technician,” she muttered. “She’s just a cosmetologist. She didn’t actually go to school for nails.”

I guess that makes me less of a nail technician than she is? I carry a cosmetology license, have over 1,000 hours in CEUs, and twelve years of experience in nails exclusively. How does that make me ‘just’ anything? How does that make her a better nail technician than me? Because her license says, ‘nail specialist’ on it, she’s more qualified than I am, despite having less education, less overall experience, and absolutely no continuing education?

It’s peculiar how other salon professionals view you based on the license you carry.

The cosmetologists think I’m crazy for not doing hair. The nail technicians think I’m unqualified because I was trained in hair, nails, and skincare as opposed to nails exclusively.

A very real hierarchy exists in the salon and nail technicians are on the bottom of that totem pole. Often, we’re relegated to a back corner, near the salon’s bathroom or laundry room. We have to claw and scrape for our product orders. Our time and services are valued at one-half to one-quarter of what a cosmetologist’s time is priced at, despite the fact that consumers show a strong, persisting demand for nail services.

I would love to say, “I don’t judge a professional by the license they carry. I let their work speak for itself!” But I don’t.

I’m just as guilty of salon classism as everyone else.

I’ll share with you my personal prejudices. Go ahead and hate me, but before you do so, really think about whether or not you have any prejudices of your own.

Technical school graduates are less qualified than private school graduates: I have seen this time and time again. Technical school students typically don’t pay much (if anything) for their education. As a result, they tend to not take it seriously and few really apply themselves. Even if they do, instructors at technical schools are often reported as being poorly qualified and “only there for an hourly paycheck.” Critics of instructors make the statement, “instructors resort to technical school employment because they couldn’t make it in the salon.” After my experiences as a student at both types of institutions and my subsequent appearances as a guest lecturer, I can’t say that I disagree entirely with those assertions.

Professionals who use cheap tools and cheap products don’t care much for their clients or their work: There’s no exception to this. If you’re using some knock off, shitty enhancement product that breaks down in a week and a brush that’s falling apart, leaving bristles and staining on the enhancements, you have no respect for your clients and no pride in your work. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be thrifty and make smart purchasing decisions, just that those purchasing decisions are no longer “smart” if the end result is a poor service outcome. Professionals who care use products and tools that allow them to produce the best results possible.

Salon owners who have never worked as a salon professional are less capable of managing a salon: Anyone can be trained to manage, however, salon owners from outside industries tend to be absolutely clueless and require a considerable deal of work—even then, they’re not as good an owner as someone who has actual salon experience. Salon owners without salon experience are less likely to understand where their employees are coming from and are more easily manipulated by their employees, who generally don’t respect them because they lack licensing or experience.

I’ve seen a few exceptions to my prejudices.

I’ve met technical school graduates who are on par with celebrity stylists and produce excellent work, but they put in the practice required to attain that level. I’ve met passionate professionals who would kill for quality tools but have no choice but to use what they can afford. (Who can blame them for that?) I’ve met salon owners without experience who are savvy, effective, and loved leaders, but worked damn hard to get there.

Do you feel that you’ve been judged based on what your license qualifies you to do or based on what school you attended? Do you have prejudices of your own? Have any of you had any similar experiences with salon “classism?” Tell us in the comments!


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2 Responses

  1. Your assumption that technical school graduates aren’t as skilled as private school graduates comes from a place of financial privilege. It’s absolutely not true.

    As a graduate of a technical school working in a salon filled with graduates of name brand schools, I outclass them. Being trained in one specific line of products and color (Paul Mitchell, Aveda, Redken, etc.) isn’t necessarily the best way to learn. Just look at the Better Business Bureau or Consumer Affairs for higher end schools. They’re filled with unsatisfied or – frankly – scammed students.

    Regardless of the institution of learning, the state board exam is the same. You are of course entitled to your opinion, but making blanket statements is never a good idea.

    1. I actually went to school on a scholarship and could never have afforded to go otherwise, and I’m aware that there are no absolutes. (I also wasn’t trained in a brand-specific facility.)

      My blanket statement was informed by personal, extensive experience, and has been reinforced (and periodically contradicted) repeatedly. As I said, I’ve met exceptional trade school graduates and passionate, dedicated trade school instructors, but more often, I meet apathetic instructors and students who chose cosmetology simply because it was free for them to attend trade school–but that’s the entire point. Everyone has biases because we all experience the industry differently. I can even understand the bias against cosmetologists who practice as specialists because I’ve also encountered cosmetologists who had far less experience performing skin care and nail services than a licensed specialist.

      It’s probably also worth mentioning that the issues we have with our professional education system here are very likely region-specific. In Florida, trade school is free for high school students. Our state board exams are multiple-choice and don’t include a technical review. Wages are low (we’re one of the least employee-friendly states in the nation) and a good deal of areas have a largely tourist-based economy, which makes it hard to find quality employment in the industry. Those who want guaranteed paychecks, year-round employment, to be classified legally, and employment benefits–like health insurance–are more likely to find those things working in trade education than in private salons. Some of our corporate facilities, like Regis Corp. and JCP, used to offer competitive compensation and benefits packages, but that has since changed. (They were never really attractive options anyway, as they tend to use unpredictable retail scheduling, have a heavy focus on performance metrics, and are quick to terminate when professionals fall short.)

      As a result of our schools falling short and the chronic problems for-profit cosmetology schools have caused, legislators here are successfully pushing to drop program hours to the lowest in any regulated state. After decades of watching the schools react to repeated deregulation attempts, instead of proactively working to modernize their approach and make it more accessible and affordable (to invalidate the complaints of those seeking to deregulate so they have no argument in the first place), it’s no surprise that we’re in this mess.

      This article is a much abridged version of an entire chapter from my first book, which probably does a better job of explaining how our experiences shape our biases and why we have to be aware of the fact that, no matter how many times those biases are reinforced, there are exceptions to everything and region-specific problems can’t be used to form an impression of the industry as a whole.

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