Through my day gigs as a freelance beauty writer, I get a chance to come into contact with some of the top talents in the industry. While only the stories of backbiting and in-fighting seem to make the news, there are quite a few extraordinary individuals in the industry who are quite literally trying to change the world with their talents and skills. One such person is my friend Heather Packer of Cutler Salons, the founder of a charity called Fearless Beauty.
Fearless Beauty is a non-profit organization that teaches hairstyling as a trade skill to women in Northern India, a place where many are cut off from education and married as soon as they reach 13 years of age. Without education and skills that can earn them a living wage, they can be subjected to all manner of mistreatment. The lowest caste of the system, they can be neglected, forgotten, and disregarded entirely.
On the eve of their annual fundraiser, Blowdrys and Cocktails, which is TONIGHT at Cutler Soho from 6-9 pm, I asked Heather to tell a little more about the transformational powers of her charity, and a little about how hairstyling can truly change lives:
“Fearless Beauty is a non-profit organization founded in New York City, but our first project being in Northern India at a vocational center called the Kushi Project. The idea came when I asked myself the question ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid. As soon as I dropped the fear and got out of my own way, the ideas just started coming. I brought the idea back to Cutler Salon where I work, talked to Rodney Cutler about it, and the idea just started growing. He got involved, coworkers and clients got excited, and it just started growing. Rodney is really passionate about charitable causes; he helped build a school in Africa.
At first, I was just going to go to India to teach hairstyling on my own, but Rodney suggested in order to lighten the load for myself and to maintain my clientele in New York that I invite somebody else to come with me and teach. So, my coworker Brad taught the second month. It was amazing for us to teach together and it was great for the girls to have a different teacher. My other coworker, Rachel Bodt, is on the board of the charity as well. The program is expanding to teach color, and we’re hoping that Rachel will get to go and teach this year.
We hosted a fundraiser last October, which raised over $15,000. With that money, I left for India in January to start the vocational setup. We were able to fly in under the radar and work with an existing vocational center in our chosen city, which was amazing. We brought tables, mannequin heads and hair tools, and set up in what are essential computer and English language classrooms. We also wanted to be sure to put some money into the economy, so anything that we could purchase in India, we did. Ten girls were part of the first class. I asked a couple of teachers to help me translate every day, but by the end of the third month most of the girls understood what I was saying and some were speaking to me in English. They were so shy at first, but they gained so much confidence by the end that we could communicate with each other with ease.
One of the first barriers was classroom format. I asked everyone to sit in a circle with me, which was really challenging for the students at first. These women are very submissive and don’t see themselves as equal to me as a Western woman and definitely not to men, so they wanted me up front with the best seat. I said no, we’re going to sit in a circle and be in this together. So we did, and the experience proved very powerful.
I also took a lot of things for granted at the onset. On the first day of class, I handed out water bottles, mannequin heads and combs, and realized the girls didn’t know how to use a spray bottle. In the West, we’ve seen our moms using cleaning supplies with a spray bottle all our lives, so we know how to use them, but they hadn’t. So we had to start with basics, which began with how to use the tool. It was amazing to see them grow in dexterity and confidence from not knowing how to use a spray bottle on the first day to cutting hair on a live model on the last day. Roller sets, pin curls, braiding – I taught all the foundational aspects of hairstyling, and then the second month, Brad came over and we handed out the scissors and he taught the foundation of cutting, resulting in four basic haircuts. When I came back at the end, we cut on live models. We already had our models chosen, teenage girls who were part of the vocational center. They got to see girls who were a bit older learning a skill and becoming empowered. The little girls would come in and wouldn’t look me in the eye, and were so surprised to see my students joking with me and having fun. By the end, they were engaging with me and would come other days to hang out with us and watch. It was so sweet. I feel like some of those girls will be our future students.
I started to glimpse what it was like to be a woman there, who are the lowest caste in their system. We started with ten girls and only graduated with five. I would have graduated anyone who would have been able to complete the program, but they believe a woman should not be educated and is available to be married at the age of 13; she has no choice in any of it. Three of our girls stopped coming because they had to move away and get married, and one, who was 17, stopped coming because she got pregnant again after bearing her first child. She’s being abused by her husband’s brother. You hear these things, you read about them, but to be in the room and see and hear these women…it’s really happening. At the age of 12 and 13, these girls have to stop going to school because there’s no money for it; they’re considered a burden. They won’t pay for these girls to go to school. We’ll have ten new girls come in for the haircutting and hairstyling program, and the girls who completed that will do hair color. The two girls who couldn’t complete the original program can start with color and circle back around to gain the other skills. So, 10-15 new students.
When I interviewed the girls at the end and asked them the two best things they learned in the program, a couple of the girls came in and said that before Fearless Beauty came, they weren’t confident, but now they were.”
If you can attend tonight’s event at Cutler Salon, it’s from 6-9 pm. If you can’t make it and/or want to find out more about the charity (including the stories of the woman the program has helped) so you might be able to make a difference in a woman’s life across the world, click here to find out more.
Photos of Heather Packer shot at Cutler Soho in October 2015 by Kristin Booker. All rights reserved.