Hairdressers Use Their Voices & Use Their Power to Style AIDS Awareness
by Angela Leroux-Lindsey
On November 30, 2010, two events, occurring simultaneously—one in New York, one in Washington, D.C.—displayed perfectly the massive dichotomy (I might even say hypocrisy) that exists within the global power structure’s attitude toward HIV/AIDS. On the one hand, I attended the launch of a new UNESCO-sponsored HIV/AIDS advocacy program at the United Nations; on the other, House Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor, with support from the Catholic League, bullied the National Portrait Gallery into removing David Wojnarowicz’s piece A Fire in My Belly, a video installation he created in response to his lover’s death from AIDS-related illness and his disgust at the inaction surrounding the AIDS crisis.
What’s striking is that Wojnarowicz created the video in 1987, a time when HIV was still largely a medical mystery swathed in myth and taboo. In the two decades that have passed, medical professionals all over the world have researched and investigated the virus, deducing the ways in which it can be transmitted, the ways in which we can prevent transmission, the ways in which a positive diagnosis can be managed. And yet, myth and taboo persist; discrimination hasn’t abated; harmful stereotypes and misinformation pervade modern discourse in third-world communities and global superpowers alike.
This recent action by Representatives Boehner and Cantor, who are ostensibly ambassadors of the people (I say “ostensibly” in reference to the large and increasingly ideological divide in the United States), is shameful and sends a dangerous message about free speech and about our attitude towards HIV. Activists like Wojnarowicz are—have always been—a vital part of our great country’s progress toward acceptance and knowledge; events like this one have to spur a movement in response, an uprising by those of us who are dedicated to equality of hearts and minds, regardless of the economic, political, or religious differences that continue to plague the truth.
Happily, the United Nations agrees: They’ve recently, and with much enthusiasm, introduced an information campaign that taps into a well of powerful relationships that already exist in every single part of the country: the hairdresser and her client.
Hairdressers Against AIDS, sponsored by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization)and the L’Oréal Foundation D’Enterprise, flew 500 hairdressers from all over the country to New York to celebrate the event’s launch, and the positive energy was palpable; these men and women understand that getting the right information into the right hands is a challenge, and that they are uniquely positioned as liaisons. We trust the stylists who make us look good—in fact, we trust them for advice about all kinds of things, well beyond a recommendation for cut or color. We talk to them about our love lives, careers, families, successes, hardships…and we listen to what they have to say in return.
UNESCO and L’Oréal realize that by simply accessing this infrastructure—and providing training in up-to-date and accurate facts and figures about HIV—millions of conversations can happen every day in salons; then those conversations can be repeated in homes, schools, pubs, wherever. Knowledge has always been power, but accuracy is vital to keep power on track. That’s where UNESCO steps in.
These 500 hairdressers took a quiz fact-checked by the CDC at the beginning of the event, answering simple questions like, “Is there a cure for HIV?”; “Does getting tested require giving blood?”; and “How many people are currently living in the U.S. with HIV?” The participants were astonishingly accurate: Clearly, this was a group that was very prepared to be ambassadors. Some statistics may have been surprising (AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women ages eighteen to thirty-four; HIV is twenty times more contagious in the first two months after a person is infected) and others uplifting (with effective HIV testing and counseling, treatment, and safer delivery and feeding practices, the risk of HIV transmission from mother to child can be reduced to almost zero). An impressive panel of guest speakers touched on the goals and challenges of the initiative, some sharing stories about their own diagnosis.
This unique proximity and intimacy hairdressers share with their clients is perfectly positioned to saturate accurate information about HIV through speaks at the press conference. Photo Courtesy L’Oréal/S. Ramsom”]communities from a grassroots level. Professor Robert E. Fullilove, a professor in the School of Public Health at Columbia University, called HIV a “disease of the other” and a “wily, implacable enemy.” He compared HIV to cancer, an illness that has beaten stigma and is now discussed openly all over the world. We should be optimistic—but not complacent—that this shift can and will happen for HIV awareness.
Hairdressers Against AIDS has already been successfully implemented in twenty-seven countries, including Malaysia, Poland, China, and Russia. By partnering with hundreds of thousands of the seven million hairdressers in the world, UNESCO and L’Oréal hope to reach fifty countries by 2012, and to spur conversations with over 100 million people about HIV/AIDS. Hairdressers are already making a difference in people’s lives by using their hands; now they can be armed with information that will enable them to make a difference using their voices.
Chuck Pollard, vice president of the Creative L’Oréal Salon Product Division, talked about how often people working in any career question the impact they have on others. He’s earning a living, but “not saving lives,” he joked. But he quickly turned serious as he addressed the hairdressers. “Well, guess what—now you are.”
For more information about Hairdressers Against AIDS, visit www.hairdressersagainstaids.com.
Angela Leroux-Lindsey is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.