In the annals of beauty, the pompadour, the beehive and the Afro all had their day. Now comes the lifesaving haircut.
From the padded swivel chairs in his Southeast Washington barbershop, Clarence "Chile" Brace dispatched two freshly trimmed customers with hypertension straight to the emergency room.
Around the corner, at the Divine Transformation Beauty Salon, beautician Arnica Ford cajoled a 300-plus-pound patron into trying a fiber-rich diet.
And in Northeast, Marquita Wise opened her rose-garlanded hair salon, Fresh Cut II All About You, on a Sunday night to check the blood pressure of a client who had nearly fainted after learning that her daughter had died in a car crash.
Brace, Ford and Wise are among African-American barbers and beauticians in five D.C. shops with blood pressure machines and digital scales tucked between hair-drying bonnets and bottles of shampoo. They have been enlisted in a program underwritten by insurers CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and the MedStar Research Institute to combat coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death among black Americans.
Modeled after a Baltimore program coordinated by the University of Maryland's Department of Medicine, the D.C. program trains stylists how to screen clients for obesity and high blood pressure and when to urge them to follow up with a doctor. The plan is to be in 12 shops by year's end.
"Everyone wants to be beautiful, whether they go to a hairstylist or barber or whether they go to a doctor," Ford said. "Now we're working with inner beauty as well."
Launched last month, the Hair Heart and Health program joins a groundswell of similar efforts across the country. All expand on the unique cultural role that barbershops and hair salons play in the African-American community to raise awareness about health issues, particularly those that disproportionately affect black Americans.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate from heart disease among black Americans in 2002 was 30 percent higher than that for whites. American Stroke Association data show that African-Americans have almost twice the risk of strokes as whites and higher death rates.
Other studies show that African-American women are more likely to die of breast cancer than white women, and African-American men have the world's highest incidence of prostate cancer, in part because the disease tends to be discovered at advanced stages.
Some see the phenomenon as a powerful indictment of the health care system. Many African-Americans have not been encouraged enough to seek preventive care, said Stephen B. Thomas, director of the Center for Minority Health at the University of Pittsburgh. He also said the Tuskegee syphilis study &
in which federal health officials deliberately withheld treatment from nearly 400 black men with syphilis from 1932 to 1972 &
left a legacy of mistrust.
Health professionals say hairdressers can help ease the lingering wariness.
"The average guy will not go to the doctor unless he's bleeding or in an ambulance," said Virgil Simons of Hackensack, N.J., who launched a program in 2004 called Going to the Barbershop to Fight Cancer. "You need some kind of stimulus to get them there, and barbers are a great vehicle to motivate them."
Barbershops and beauty salons are one place where African-Americans meet across socioeconomic lines.
They arose as hubs after the Civil War, when barbershops were among the few businesses that Southern black men could own. During the civil rights era, the shops were used for political gatherings. Beauty salons, in turn, became places where women could exercise their economic independence.
Today, they remain nerve centers where gossip is traded and racial politics is dissected, said Melissa Harris-Lacewell, author of "Barbershops, Bibles and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought" and an associate professor at Princeton University.
A survey by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that 80 percent of African-Americans visit a barbershop or salon at least once a month. Women typically stay 2 1/2 to three hours, and men stay only a little less.
Another UNC study found that nearly one in five conversations in hair salons is already health-related. The trick is to teach barbers and stylists how to weave health messages into those chats, study leader Laura Linnan said.
Farther from Washington, forums have been held in barbershops in Boston, where nutritionists served healthy dinners, and in Syracuse, N.Y., where nurses talked with cancer survivors. In Detroit, a program co-sponsored by the Michigan chapter of the National Kidney Foundation since 1999 has enlisted more than 800 stylists.
Simons, of Hackensack, has spread his Going to the Barbershop to Fight Cancer program to 22 states. Barbers host evening discussions with doctors, and clients receive coupons for free prostate screenings. The program has led to 30,000 screenings, he said.
And in Pittsburgh, the Center for Minority Health sponsors an annual Take a Professional to the People Day, in which psychologists, nurses and nutritionists take bicycle tours of black neighborhoods "so they can see why a parent might not let a child come out and play, or see the liquor stores, the five-and-dime stores selling only high-calorie foods" and understand the dearth of lifestyle choices there, Thomas said. Sandra Gilbert, 55, didn't know she was in for a guilt trip when she walked into Arnica Ford's Divine Transformation salon for a "sexy new look" one recent afternoon.
"What'll it be today, Miss Sandra?" Ford asked, running her fingers through Gilbert's tresses. Then, as she combed a relaxer through them, the beautician leaned over and, almost whispering, asked Gilbert when she last had her blood pressure checked.
"I have been slothful," replied the retired Verizon employee, a borderline diabetic.
With gospel music humming in the background and her hair newly fluffed into a cap of curls, she let Ford strap on the pressure cuff.
It was, Gilbert said, laughing, a "one-stop shop."
Barbers and salons catering to blacks