How to make your beauty business trans-friendly
LGBT charity Stonewall estimates that the number of transgender and non-binary people in the UK is around 1% of the population, meaning around 600,000 people. But how many beauty businesses make an effort to welcome these clients?
No figures exist about the number of transgender people (or those who identify as any of the identities under the transgender umbrella) who regularly have beauty services, but it’s fair to say there’s a lot more the industry could do to help tackle issues of trans visibility and acceptance.
Given the importance of image in the transgender community, beauty professionals have a lot to offer someone wishing to present as their true self when this differs from their natural-born gender. This is why Paul Heaton set up Born UK last year. Based in Manchester, Born is a “confidence consultancy” for transgender women. “We noticed a gap in the market for a place with a salon feel where trans women could come and feel completely relaxed. We wanted to offer the level of service that natural-born women have access to without the feeling of someone in the waiting room giggling or the staff not knowing what to do in certain circumstances,” he explains.
Born offers wardrobe and make-up services, and has a relationship coach and emotional freedom technique practitioner on board to provide a holistic service for confidence building, support and guidance. It also runs Transgender Awareness Training for salons and other businesses that want to engage with the trans community, so “they can treat trans people just like everyone else when they come into contact with them", says Heaton.
That’s where the emphasis lies – in treating trans clients just like you would any other. “The training teaches how to address people and what to do in different situations, but emphasises not to go overboard,” he says. Heaton uses the example of waiting areas and says that some businesses understandably assume the client requires total discretion and privacy, but this can sometimes do more harm than good. “You might think you’re protecting them when actually you’re compounding the problem by hiding them away,” he says.
Whether or not a trans client requires an extra level of discretion will be a completely personal preference and may depend on if they are “out” in their work or personal lives. Deborah Bone, a nail tech and owner of Nail-ific in Fareham, believes her trans clients appreciate the private setting of her home-based salon, which is on a suburban residential street and has its own entrance, separate from the house. “Many people can be intimidated by an open, public salon. Mine is very private and clients enjoy the intimate and personal space,” she says. To maintain this privacy, Bone added extra questions to her consultation form that ask if clients are happy to have pictures of their nails taken and be tagged on social media.
Some trans clients may feel more comfortable if they don’t have to interact with other customers in a salon, especially if they are early on in their transition. Pippa Nicholas, a trans woman and a client of Bone’s, says that first and foremost it’s important to try to understand trans people. “There are those who sit behind closed doors and those who are out and about, and the shy people out there will be completely phased by walking into a salon full of people who might look down their noses at them. There’s a psychological fear for many trans people about what others will think,” she says.
The best way to navigate the question of privacy is to give options. Natasha Griffin, managing director of Satori in Plymouth, says the salon makes sure to accommodate requests from any client for additional discretion. “We believe everyone has the right to the services we offer, and privacy for our clients is paramount. For example, we would normally carry out an eyebrow wax in the main salon area but if a client would like seclusion, we can carry it out in our waxing rooms," she says.
Simple tweaks like these are some of the easiest ways to make your business more trans-friendly. Similarly, the fear many people have of unintentionally causing offence or upset can be an incredibly simple barrier to break. “It’s a lot more straightforward than people think,” says Nicholas. Everybody makes this so hard, but just be straight up and ask the question,” she says, referring to the question of which pronoun to use for trans clients, which can be more difficult when a client makes a booking over the phone. “My advice would be that when the client gives their name, if it’s a female name then [address them as] “madam” and if it’s a male name, “sir”. She adds: “If you’re unsure, simply ask how they’d like to be addressed.”
Heaton agrees that the general consensus is: “If someone is presenting as a woman the pronoun is ‘she’ and if they are presenting as a man the pronoun is ‘he’.” He says the presentation Born gives as part of its training is actually relatively short because “a lot of it is common sense. The training just gives salon owners the tools to avoid that moment of panic.”
Unfortunately, Heaton says the Born team frequently hear of incidents where clients have been made to feel unwelcome in salons or have experienced negative reactions to their gender identity. However, he adds that “99% of the time it’s not the salon’s fault; it’s a just a communication error.” As ever in the salon environment, communication is key. “There needs to be a lot of understanding on both sides,” says Karin, a trans woman who has regular treatments with Sam Marshall at The Beauty Guru in Manchester. “Just be open and honest; you have to listen and learn,” she says.
Jennie Lawson, founder of Mimosa Beauty in Chelmsford, was a finalist in the Specialist Therapist category in the 2016 Babtac Awards – her specialism being transgender electrolysis. She says she was completely open and honest in the consultation with her first trans client and that helping her on her transition journey has been a massive learning curve. “I told her, ‘I’m really blunt and I’ll need to ask questions but if any of them are inappropriate, please tell me’,” she says. “I’ve learned so many things. For example, what I thought was a wig is actually her hair. When I referred to it as a wig she corrected me and I just had to note that and learn.”
Regardless of the relationship you might come to establish with a client, everyone I spoke to for this feature emphasised that there are some questions that are unacceptable to ask. Nicholas explains: “For a trans woman who is out, the ‘no’ questions are: ‘Have you still got male genitals?’ and ‘Which bathroom do you use?’ It’s not relevant to the scenario and if the person wants to talk about it they will,” she says.
Lisa Henning, owner of Beautiful Ink in Brighton, who treats trans clients for semi-permanent make-up and scar revision, agrees that even if the client has opened the topic with you, it’s important to know when to stop asking questions. “Sometimes it’s a fine line if someone is being so open with you, so let them guide the pace of a conversation of that nature because if you make them feel uncomfortable they’re unlikely to come back for another treatment,” she advises.
Henning attended a transgender support group in her area to learn more and find out what she could offer to people in the community. She contacted the group and asked if she could attend, but if you want to do this, bear in mind that trans support groups are ultimately for people in the community, and are not a question and answer session for anyone who’s curious, so understand that you may not be welcome. If not, Henning suggests asking if you can leave business cards or information on services that may be relevant to group members.
For some treatments, it may be necessary for the therapist to know more information about the client’s journey. With intimate waxing, for example, the treatment can only be carried out if the therapist has the required training to wax either male or female genitals, so it’s imperative to know what you will be faced with in order to avoid any confusion or upset.
Sam Marshall, owner of The Beauty Guru in Manchester, says, “The general consensus is if someone has a penis they’ll ask for a male intimate and if they have a vagina they’ll ask for a female. They don’t expect someone to be able to work it out.” If you have a statement about transgender services on your price list, Marshall suggests adding guidelines about this to avoid any confusion further down the line.
Heaton also sees the difficulty here. “It’s tricky because we tell people to never ask about genitals. But if a client [upon booking a treatment] says they’re trans, if it’s anything to do with the genital area you really need to find out,” he says. Explain to the client that different training is required for male and female intimate waxing. It’s a matter of client safety and the salon being insured to carry out the treatment. “Reassure them it’s not curiosity – you have to ask questions around health issues,” adds Heaton.
When treating a trans client for electrolysis, Gill Morris, director of commercial development at Sterex, which runs a specialist course for electrologists who want to offer hair removal to trans clients, says the technician will need to know of any medication the client is taking, hormone or otherwise, as it could contraindicate the treatment. She says it’s also sometimes necessary to know about the client’s surgery history or any planned surgeries in order to manage expectations.
“Not all transgender clients intend to have gender reassignment but some intend to have breast augmentation. If they intend to have full gender reassignment, for example, it takes approximately nine months for the genital area to be cleared of hair,” she advises.
Similarly, Henning says she would need to know about any client’s medication regardless, because her treatments involve puncturing the skin and drawing blood. However, “I don’t need to know whether someone is trans if there’s no contraindication to semi-permanent make-up,” she adds.
In the case of scar revision treatment, Henning says in an ideal world she would know about the surgery the client was intending to have beforehand so she could give advice on scar prevention to get the best possible results from the treatment. She explains: “If I knew a client was about to have a mastectomy I’d want to tell them how to do proper aftercare, because aftercare advice for scarring after surgery tends to be inadequate and trying to make it look better afterwards is really difficult.”
Giving clients all the information they could possibly need about their treatment and salon procedure is even more important when dealing with a trans client who could be new to the environment. Consider that the client may have a lot of questions but not the confidence to ask them. Lawson says: “In an email confirmation with any new client, give every single piece of information they might need about their appointment, and in treatment tell them constantly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
Ultimately, a willingness to engage with trans clients by making your business more welcoming and accommodating goes a long way when coupled with some research about the community and proper etiquette. Griffin says: “If your customer service is completely focused on the wellbeing of your client and your team are trained to feel confident and comfortable in working with a diverse range of clientele, then you should be able to avoid offence or upset.” Possibly the most important advice comes from Karin who says: “More than anything it’s about not judging anyone, even subconsciously. Treat everyone the same and don’t make assumptions about them in any way.”