More than just a haircut: how one Thunder Bay hair salon is working to be more inclusive
Local hair stylists hope gender-neutral haircuts can be the 'new norm'
A new business in Thunder Bay Ont., is striving to make the hair salon experience about more than just cut and colour.
Kristyn Schmerk and Jillian Cronk, co-owners of Altr Hair Studio, opened their business in July with the goal of filling a gap in the beauty industry in Thunder Bay, by providing a more inclusive experience for their clients.
"We are Thunder Bay's first official safer space, so we are a member of the Dresscode Project which is a global alliance that helps hair salons and barbershops create gender affirming hair services for the LGBTQ communities," said Schmerk in an interview with CBC.
Dresscode Project, founded in 2017 by Kristin Rankin in Toronto Ont., works with salons, like Altr Hair Studio, to provide resources and education to hair stylists to help them serve their clients in a way that makes them "look the way they feel."
"It's never just a haircut," said Rankin in an Interview with CBC. "Gender dysphoria is just when you see yourself a certain way, and you physically don't feel like you're represented in that gender expression...and the way we look at it through the Dresscode Project is that, we are helping people have haircuts that look the way they feel."
Rankin said Dresscode Project, from the beginning, has been about making hair salons a better space for queer identifying people, and especially those who are going through transition. They added that a haircut is often the most accessible and inexpensive way of finding gender expression, and sometimes can be the first part of someone's transitional journey.
A 'revolution' for service pricing
To be a Dresscode Project salon, owners are asked to fill out a questionnaire that help the organization gauge the salon's understanding of the LGBTQ community. Once completed, stylists then receive a guide from Dresscode Project that Rankin explains as "service based" and hair stylist inclusivity training.
Schmerk said her studio is one of the few salons in the city of Thunder Bay to offer gender-neutral pricing for haircuts, which is just one of the ways her and Cronk have adapted their studio to become a more inclusive space for their clients.
"So essentially we have adopted a gender-neutral pricing scheme. So rather than gendering hair and providing, say a men's or women's haircut, we charge based on length rather than gender," said Schmerk.
Schmerk said having gender-neutral bathrooms is another key part of being considered a Dresscode Project salon. Altr Hair Studio also offers something called a "silent service," which aims to provide a more quiet experience for clients, with only "technical prompts" from the stylist throughout their visit.
"Sometimes if someone isn't the most social, coming to a salon can be a source of anxiety for them. But we don't want that to be the case here, we want people to feel comfortable...they can come here and be themselves and just enjoy a moment of peace," explained Schmerk.
Making positive change
To date, there are over 400 registered salons in the Dresscode Project's online directory where LGBTQ people can find a gender affirming salon or barber shop close to them. Over 40 of those businesses are in southern Ontario.
But in northwestern Ontario, Altr Hair Studio is the only salon listed, and Schmerk hopes that can change.
"We're hoping that this can sort of become an industry standard. Thunder Bay can be kind of regressive in lots of ways, so we're kind of hoping that this will encourage other salons to adopt this sort of pricing and again, for this to become a new norm," said Schmerk.
Rankin said it's important for the Dresscode project to reach areas like Thunder Bay, and even more remote communities, so more people feel supported within the professional beauty industry. They added it's an industry that has always been considered a safer space for the LGBTQ communities, but still has a long way to go with education, acceptance and understanding.
"I think it's so important that salons like Altr Hair Studio reach out and get support to be as authentic as they can be," said Rankin. "I think it's wonderful that hair stylists in that area are recognizing that this is something that needs to happen, and there is a gap...and that they're willing to do the work."
Being able to create positive change while using her skill set as a stylist, even if it's in a small way, is something that Schmerk said is important to her. She added it "means a lot" to be able to contribute to Thunder Bay since moving home from Toronto, after graduating from the Aveda Institute.
"I've been inspired by lots of business owners in Thunder Bay. I've worked for a couple local businesses especially in downtown Port Arthur and I've really just been inspired by how (it) has had this revitalization in the past 10 years," she said.
"There's lots of young entrepreneurs opening up really cool businesses. And I just wanted to be part of that. I wanted to bring something to Thunder Bay that we didn't have yet."