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Pandemic hair, turns out we DO care: Staying home redefines self-care

Grooming industry, salons adapt offerings to serve clients, save businesses

In the days before the pandemic kept her locked down at home in Midtown, Kwa Hill had a $100-per-week beauty habit that included maintaining her signature pixie haircut.

“I went to the salon every single week — hair, brows, nails, lashes. That was my life,” said Hill, 51, who works in corporate finance. “I was a big-time (beauty) snob.”

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When the pandemic sent her into a tailspin, she called her stylist. “We started talking about how we were going to survive,” Hill said.

Najah Aziz, owner of Like the River Salon in Atlanta, scrambled to assemble “quarantine premium survival hair kits” with shampoo, conditioner and other products for her clients to purchase online. Aziz went live on Instagram showing clients how to wash and style their hair at home. She also started doing video consultations to answer their questions.

By the time the salon reopened 10 weeks later, Hill was a new woman on a new journey. Her pixie had grown into a bob, she did her nails weekly with a popular home manicure kit and the lash extensions were a thing of the past.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Since then, more than half a million Americans, including more than 15,000 in Georgia alone, have died from COVID-19. Over the past year, just about every aspect of daily life also has changed, from the tragic to the mundane. Between now and March 21, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is publishing several stories chronicling the impact on Atlantans and Georgians — what we’ve lost, how we’ve changed, and what we’ve gained.Coming Wednesday: How we vacation

“I thought I had to spend time and money doing these things when I realized … I have the capacity to do some of those things at home and not only do I have the capacity, I like it,” Hill said.

For the many ways in which the pandemic has changed our lives, one of the most visible is how we look. We have gained or lost weight. Let our hair grow long or cut it short. We’ve dyed our hair blue or embraced silver locks. We have learned the hard way, said some Georgia residents, that self-care isn’t selfish but a pathway to self-discovery.

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Beauty and grooming was one of the first industries to return in Georgia when in April just a few weeks after issuing a stay-at-home order, Gov. Brian Kemp said salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors could open with enhanced safety measures such as mask wearing and fewer clients at one time.

But even that could not save every business. An estimated 15% to 20% of salons across the country closed for good as a result of the pandemic, Steve Sleeper, executive director of the Professional Beauty Association said. “Despite some shrinkage, I think (the industry) will come back more vibrant and stronger than ever,” he said. “The pandemic reaffirmed the relationships clients have with their service providers and owners.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

While the industry creeps back to normalcy, salon clients have learned to embrace change and adapt to a new vision of themselves.

Dan Parker, a drama teacher in Cobb County, resorted to his “summer dad” vibe — hair cut close enough to remind him of summers as a boy when his parents would shave his head and send him off to camp.

He bought a pair of $30 Wahl clippers on Amazon and went outside on the patio. When his wife shied away from lining the back of his head, he learned how to position two mirrors just so, to get it done. “I love the low maintenance of it,” said Parker, 41. “It is one less thing I have to worry about.”

For some Georgians, the isolation of the pandemic provided the cover needed to indulge their curiosity. What would happen if they ditched the color or stopped shaving?

“I thought I had to spend time and money doing these things when I realized … I have the capacity to do some of those things at home and not only do I have the capacity, I like it."

- Kwa Hill, who had a $100-per-week beauty habit before the pandemic

Before the pandemic, Russ Belin, vice president for the Southeast region of Broadway Across America, shaved every other day and got a haircut every three weeks. He worked out in the office gym after work. Now he gets his beard trimmed once a month and his hair cut every six to eight weeks. Workouts with streaming videos, free weights and resistance bands take place in the basement of his Peachtree Corners home.

It was the first time in 30 years that he grew out his hair and beard, but the look didn’t stick. The gray was just too much, he decided. “Maybe when I am 60 and retired, that will be the time I give it another shot,” said Belin, 46.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Spending weeks away from the salon offered the perfect timing for Rebecca Hadj Taieb to embrace her silver locks. The Druid Hills-based teacher had started to dread spending three hours at the salon and fighting for weekend appointments just to get color services, she said. Now she gets more compliments on her silver hair than she ever did before.

“It is the right choice for me and I’m not going back,” said Hadj Taieb, who feels more natural and connected and not so “handcuffed to my stylist.” “You become a different person in a more self-satisfying kind of way,” she said.

The link between self-care and mental health is one that came into sharp focus during the pandemic, said Amy Leavell Bransford, owner of Aviary Beauty and Wellness and SparrowHawk, a woman-focused tattoo shop in Old Fourth Ward.

“Feeling the best you can about yourself and loving where you are … that has been my big takeaway as a business owner and a mother,” she said. “We have always loved what we do, but to love it in a pandemic is next level. It has become more of a therapy than it ever was before.”

Like others in the grooming business, Bransford pivoted to make sure her business is sustainable — making home deliveries of products, promoting hydrafacials to treat maskne (acne from mask wearing), and for the first time, applying for grant funding. While 30% of her clients have not returned to the salon, the books are full, and business in January and February was at normal levels, she said.

“It is the right choice for me and I'm not going back. ... You become a different person in a more self-satisfying kind of way."

- Rebecca Hadj Taieb, who stopped going to the salon

Aziz, who reopened her salon after Memorial Day, also reports a rebound in business. “Everybody that came in needed a whole makeover,” said Aziz. The pandemic has renewed her focus on the client experience, she said. Now every client has a Zoom consultation before they come in to help minimize traffic and save time, and she continues selling the $130 quarantine hair kits online. About 500 have been sold to date, she said.

Hill returned to the salon but only to get hair color and trims every six to eight weeks, she said. With the money she has saved, she bought a new bike and roller skates to enjoy the outdoors.

“I am high maintenance and you never could have paid me to believe I would be in this place that I am today,” Hill said. “While I can’t say I won’t do some of it again, I know I will never go back to the lifestyle that I had before.”

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