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Hair Stylists Who Serve as Lay Health Educators Encourage Clients To Adopt Behaviors That Reduce Health Risks

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Hair Stylists Are Strategic Health Promoters in Black Communities

By Rick Rader, MD
Director, Morton J. Kent Habilitation Center, Orange Grove Inc.
Former Member, Innovations Exchange Editorial Board

There’s a scene from the 2002 movie Barbershop, starring Ice Cube that I think serves as the linchpin for understanding the role of the barbershop or beauty parlor in the African-American community:

"This ain't no [expletive deleted] school of the blind, Calvin! This is the barbershop! The place where a black man means something! Cornerstone of the neighborhood! Our own country club! I mean, can't you see that? Hell, that's the problem with your whole generation. You know, y'all…you don’t believe in nothin'. But your father, he believed in something, Calvin. He believed and understood that something as simple as a little haircut could change the way a man felt on the inside."

The Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health has conducted community-based health education programs in African-American beauty salons since 1996. Since that time, there have been several successful programs in many cities addressing health issues, including cancer, asthma, diabetes, heart health, sexual health, smoking, nutrition, organ donation, domestic abuse, and even mental health.

Women tend to be the family health gatekeepers; therefore, the more women you reach, the greater the potential impact on the family and the community.

Arthur Ashe once said, "To achieve greatness, start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can."

Healthy People 2010's health communication goal is to use communication strategically to improve health. Verluria Cobbs, the Program Coordinator at the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan, describes the most "strategic" places in the African-American community: "Reach 'em where they pay, where they play, and where they pray." Although the beauty parlor and barbershops might fall out of the range of these three sites, the following quotation from The International Ethnic Barbershop Directory1 explains their significance:

"Blacks coped with job discrimination partly by setting up their own businesses. In doing so, they developed their own status hierarchy, with self-employed service businesses at the top of the ladder.…Barbering was (one of) their most prestigious occupations(s), and community leaders often were barbers who operated downtown barbershops that catered to the city’s elite. Barbershops have, in the past, typically served a social function as well as a practical one. Men would often gather in a barber shop throughout the day to discuss the town’s latest news.Discussions in barbershops have ranged from rising prices, to the latest love exploits of any given man, to the latest episode of the Jerry Springer Show."

More than 70 percent of excess deaths in the United States (that is preventable years of life lost) is attributable to social and environmental factors and individual behavior.2 Part of the problem, experts say, is the difficulty that health professionals have in communicating health information. Although large segments of the population are accessing health information in very sophisticated ways, many in the African-American population remain disconnected from basic lifesaving health information.

There is also an acknowledged distrust between the African-American community and the medical profession. Medical exploitation, health care stigmatization, the shame of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, and other practices that have become known as "medical apartheid" have contributed to the lack of African-American engagement in medical and health prevention and promotion programs.The use of visible, trusted, knowledgeable, and available African-American beauty shop operators in the Healthy Hair Starts with a Healthy Body campaign is an excellent step in overcoming these long held barriers. I was personally encouraged to learn that the recently held (August 2008) Bronner Brothers International Hair Show in Atlanta—an all-black hair industry show—attracted more than 60,000 African-American hair stylists.

It's obvious that physicians should be more diligent in ascertaining who referred their patients for treatment and how they did so, as the "referral for medical care" is one of the more obvious indicators that support the success of these clever, intuitive, and sensible programs.


1Barbershop Registration. Ethnic Media and Promotion. PO Box 961093, Riverdale, GA 30274. Copyright© 2001-2004 Ethnic Media & Promotion. All Rights Reserved.

2McGinnis JM, Foege WH. Actual causes of death in the United States. JAMA. 1993 Nov 10;270(18):2207-12.[PubMed]

Disclosure Statement: Dr. Rader has not indicated whether he has financial interests or business/professional affiliations relevant to the work described in this article.

Original publication: December 19, 2008.
Original publication indicates the date the profile was first posted to the Innovations Exchange.

Last updated: August 13, 2014.
Last updated indicates the date the most recent changes to the profile were posted to the Innovations Exchange.

Date verified by innovator: December 17, 2012.
Date verified by innovator indicates the most recent date the innovator provided feedback during the annual review process. The innovator is invited to review, update, and verify the profile annually.