How One Beauty Salon Became A Safe Space For Those Living With A Hair-Pulling Disorder

“Salons can be horrifying to a person with trichotillomania. I avoided them for years.”

For some people living with certain mental health disorders, visiting a beauty salon can be a painful experience. And for those with trichotillomania — also known as the hair-pulling disorder — it can be particularly hard. 

Symptoms of trichotillomania include recurrent, irresistible urges to pull out body hair, pick skin, bite nails or chew lips, and those living with it don't often share their stories, even amongst family and friends. For one person living with trichotillomania, or trich, who we'll call Stacey for the sake of anonymity, finding a beauty salon and stylist was far-fetched until she came upon Salon Ziba, a salon in New York City's midtown Manhattan that caters to people just like her.

"Salons can be horrifying to a person with trich. I avoided them for years," she told A Plus. "Salon Ziba is amazing because they have a private room. Being in a private room just melts all the discomfort away, and the staff is so warm."

More than the pleasant staff and privacy, the salon, owned by Alonso Salguero, offers a style specialist with hands-on experience catering to people with trichotillomania.

Sheila Chung joined the Salon Ziba staff last December and brought nine years of experience working with trich clients. One of those clients was Stacey, who first worked with Chung eight years ago.

Sheila Chung
Sheila Chung Courtesy Salon Ziba

"I was so nervous," Stacey recalled about her first visit with Chung. "I had never told anyone that I pulled my hair out. I had never shown anyone my bald spots. But I really wanted help and was comforted by the fact that Sheila had other clients just like me. It was — and continues to be — an incredible relief to be so open, honest, and free with someone. She's like a therapist!"

Chung knows all too well that her work goes far beyond making her trich clients feel outwardly beautiful, especially for those who have had negative experiences with other stylists.

"Clients tell me that stylists make remarks and make them feel uncomfortable," she told A Plus. "Some of these girls don't tell their families about it, and to come to a salon and feel good is a big deal to them, as well as the privacy Alonso's salon offers."

Currently, Chung sees anywhere between 20 to 30 clients at Salon Ziba, with services ranging from haircuts and color to hair pieces and extensions. Her clients feel a sense of security in knowing that she understands what the disorder is and how to treat them so they feel beautiful and confident inside and out.

“There is so much shame in this disorder,” Stacey said. “I can’t express how much of an impact she’s [Chung] had on my life.”

Courtesy Salon Ziba
Courtesy Salon Ziba

Trichotillomania can affect both men and women of every background and age.

"It's very diverse," Chung said about her client base, which is currently all women. "Ages range from 10 up until the 40s, and there's no actual cure for [trichotillomania]. So, managing it is the best way to help them. Some of my clients don't know anyone else who has it, so my older girls — meaning they've been with me for awhile — they're willing to meet the newer girls. So, it's kind of a support group."

While the support of others who can relate can be inspiring, the reason behind why each started hair-pulling is often quite different, yet Chung has found that, for the majority of her clients, it started during puberty.

"One girl told me that she was on the bed with her best friend and they were pulling out their hair to see which was longer and then she couldn't stop," she explained. "Another girl was fighting with her brother and she pulled out her hair to show her mom."

Even though some of her clients were able to stop, it was only temporary as they "eventually get back into pulling because it's stress induced."

Courtesy Salon Ziba
Courtesy Salon Ziba

"I remember the exact moment, even though it was more than 25 years ago," Stacey recalled. "I was around 11 years old and hanging out with my neighbor on my porch. She pulled out a piece of her own hair and showed me the root. So, I pulled out a piece of my hair. I don't remember feeling any satisfaction from it, but that was the beginning. It took about a decade for it to really escalate to a point where I had my first bald spots."

Triggers for trichotillomania can include an increasing sense of tension, such as significant distress or problems at work, school or in social situations or when you try to resist pulling, and a sense of pleasure or relief after the hair is pulled, according to the Mayo Clinic. Additionally, like Stacey, most people with trich pull hair in private and generally try to hide the disorder from others. Still, the overall cause remains unclear.

For Salguero, being inclusive of his client base was of the utmost importance from the very beginning. He not only wanted people to leave his salon feeling beautiful, but to arrive with a sense of being at home amongst family that would never judge them for their differences.

“We wanted to look at beauty from within, and it’s always been my idea to help clients achieve a level of comfort and happiness,” he told A Plus.

Alonso Salguero
Alonso Salguero Courtesy Salon Ziba

"It's not just about the hair aesthetic and color, but what can we do to help them feel healthier within? Like vitamins and private services that cater to trich sufferers."

His salon's private room is also available to people of different religious backgrounds like "Muslim women, who can't unveil in front of men. We get a number of clients like that."

Teaming up with Chung was just the beginning for Salguero, who intends to continue using his beautiful salon to create a safe space for all.  

"Every person with trich needs a Sheila in her life!" Stacey said. "Beyond helping me cover and recover, she gave me the courage to be open with my loved ones. There is so much relief in feeling comfortable when you're used to feeling so ashamed."

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