The girls are sitting around tables in a bright, white, air conditioned room, next to two hairdressers chairs’ and a television. Off to the side, there are lockers, atop of which sit a number of identically wigged mannequins. There’s a large print of cat-eyed American supermodel Gigi Hadid and the words Belleza Por Un Futuro in the sans serify font of L’oreal over the door. It’s a nice space, intimate, professional and pleasing to the eye.
This is the school for Beauty For a Better Life, a program co-run by L’oreal and Fundación Pescar, which finances hairdressing or make-up training for women who come from “difficult situations.” The school, only recently built in the Central Park building in Barracas, is a surprising little bubble of modernity in this working-class, at times, gritty southeastern barrio — in other words, you’re not going to find a restaurant called “Bangladeshi” or “Oui Oui” here, and the number of young, tattooed couples walking french bulldogs is almost negligible.
The warmth and pleasantness of the space is deliberate. The idea is that the women, many of whom come from marginalized backgrounds, get access to formal training and self esteem building. Paula, who works with Fundación Pescar, makes it clear that the program goes beyond teaching students a trade. “It’s about showing someone affection, so they feel valued,” she says.
For those who get in, Beauty For a Better Life is an attractive program: L’oreal provides 500 hours of technical training with elite hairdressers and Fundación Pescar provides “soft-skills” training that focuses on things like how to nail a job interview, write a CV or run a small business along with helping boost self-esteem. It is fully financed and includes travel and meal costs, as well as hairdresser’s and make-up artist’s kit. L’oreal and Fundación Pescar have also partnered with the Ministry of Education to ensure that the course is recognised and the women receive a certified diploma.
The idea is that “no cost whatsoever is generated for the women,” says Paula, and that they can “fully dedicate themselves to coming here and studying.” Without the scholarship, these women would simply not have been able to study hairdressing. “It’s expensive everywhere,” says Eva, who is the primary caregiver for her child. “For someone who doesn’t work, it’s difficult. If I had to pay for transport, food…It’s complicated, you know.”
The enthusiasm in the room of 22 students is palpable. You have the sense that the women feel as though are participating in something unique, that they have, in a way, won a passage to Mars or the lottery. “This is my place of peace,” says Malena, an immaculately made-up 38 year old, who lives in the Microcentro and works until 4:30am at a bar, before arriving for class at 9am. “I get home at 5am but I never miss a class.”
When they graduate, the idea is that the women are not only fully-equipped to find work in a salon or work from home, but that they’re competitive. According to Paula, the technical training that L’oreal offers is “of excellence.”
“They’re studying with the best,” she says. “The teachers are ambassadors for L’oreal.”
Paula, who, on this occasion, is teaching the women about self-esteem, is fiercely pro “educacion popular;” which is to say, education not as a didactic, top-down process between a lofty professor and a humble, unlearned student, but is rather the interplay between teacher and student, where anything can happen. “Sometimes I come to class with 10 activities planned, and we do three,” she says, “because that’s where the interest is.”
The students participating in the program, selected from a pool of hundreds, are from all walks, though they have, in part, been chosen because they come from “vulnerable” backgrounds though “the concept of vulnerability is broad,” says Paula. Many of the program’s participants lack secondary education, work informally, or are unemployed. In a room of 22, 9 are mothers, many of whom are single. There is one guy participating in the program, but wasn’t present at the time because he was in a job interview.
For many, life before this was ok, but not great. “What were you doing before this?” — “Nothing,” says one student. Which is not really true – she worked at home, raising her kids. But each day was the same, a steady succession of domestic tasks: taking the kids to school, cooking their lunch. She lacked a deep purpose or a reason to feel proud of herself.
The students are proud to have been selected. On their Whatsapp group, they jokingly call themselves Los Elegidos, “The Chosen Ones.” “We had two interviews,” says Malena, who had always wanted to study hairdressing, but had never had the financial resources to do so. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the moment they called me was the best moment in my life.”
Last week, they participated in an event with Oscar Colombo, the famous hairdresser whose salon is hosting classes. He had returned from Europe, with news of the latest trends (“short,” says Malena), and cut a number of the student’s hair. Romina tells me she used to have waist-length hair and shows me a photo of what her hair used to look like — it is the incarnation of perfect Argentine hair, voluptuous, feminine, ombred, lightly curled at the bottom. Women here are obsessed with their hair (on forty degree days, you see them ice-cool on the street with a huge, but always carefully-tended mane.) Letting go must have been difficult – an indication, perhaps, of the transformation the program seems to be working in the women.
A Woman’s Worth
The immediate aim of the program is to redress a grave problem in society today – the discrimination and challenges women face in the workplace. 10.5% of women are unemployed, in comparison to 8.7% of men, according to the latest INDEC results. And, on average, women earn 27% less than men. The figures are even worse if you consider mothers. According to a report by CIPPEC, 36% of mothers are unemployed, do not study and not actively looking for work. Meanwhile, 36% work informally, victim of the vicissitudes of unrecognised, illegal employment (no pension, no sick leave, no bonus, poor pay).
Some have reacted with cynicism towards the program. It is, of course, worth being critical. L’oreal has, over its 50 year history, probably done a lot to perpetuate ugly stereotypes about women: that a woman’s worth is in her appearance, that’s she an object of beauty. As well as generate anxieties about looking good, being ‘on trend’, battling ‘problem skin’, being clean and sexy “for your man”. There’s no doubt it also cooks up a heady blend of pseudo-scientific lies about the merits of its products. Apparently, they have a cream that will “put” a ray of light in your skin and another that, based on “gene science,” will “regenerate” your “youth” (they were taken to court for the latter, and lost.)
You might also say that they could do more with their money (L’oreal had a net profit of 3.4 billion in 2015) so as to make a bigger impact. They’re also obviously financing women in an industry that suits them, in a way, investing in the future promoters of the brand.
But, what would you expect from a company accountable to shareholders? If they’ve tried to make their interests overlap with a program that will have a tangible impact in the lives of vulnerable women, then perhaps we’ve got to take the good with the bad. Good will come of the program, and perhaps this is where the emphasis should lie, not in the motive or sacrifice the company makes.
Moreover, in a world that is relentlessly visual, where beauty is a currency as reliable as gold, and in which the beauty industry continues to grow steadily, arming them with this degree positions them for social ascension. “We will always need hairdressers”, says Paula, alluding to the rapid technological changes transforming the workplace. Equipping someone with the tools to earn a living wage and the confidence to embark upon a career, at home or in the workplace, is a powerful thing.