A tourist landing in Tel Aviv for the first time might mistake the first Hebrew city of modern times for the beauty salon capital of the world, and it's not hard to see why. He or she would be hard-pressed not to notice the sheer abundance of hair and nail joints cropping up on just about every corner in the nation’s cultural capital.
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“It’s every third shop in Tel Aviv today,” says Avi Fadida, a hairstylist who operates a network of salons in and around the city, as well as a beauty school. Ofek Aharoni, one of the city’s celebrity hairdressers, puts it in even more extreme terms: “Kiosk, hair salon, kiosk, hair salon, kiosk, hair salon – that’s Tel Aviv.”
That same tourist might also be wondering, with good reason, where the big party is. How else to explain why every woman in this city, it would seem, is getting her hair, nails and face done. And in some sections of town, business is literally overflowing into the streets: Indeed, it is not uncommon to find beauty salon customers chatting on folding chairs on the sidewalk with their hair in foils, waiting for the color to take.
Dr. Yofi Tirosh, of the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law, does research on physical appearances and job discrimination. She attributes the growing obsession with beauty in Israel – a phenomenon she says is not restricted to Tel Aviv, even if it is more obvious here – to the need for escapism. “After 9/11, there was a big increase in the number of plastic surgeries being performed in America,” she says. “I feel that there’s something like that going on here.”
And when they're not getting groomed, she says, they're talking about getting groomed.
“If you eavesdrop in a café these days, what are people talking about? Real estate for sure, and then of course their weight and their nails. People don’t want to talk about politics anymore. It’s too loaded. Too depressing. So talking about your hair and nails is like talking about the weather. It’s a safe place to go.”
The statistics would appear to bear it out. According to Michel Mercier, head of the recently formed Hairdressers’ Association of Israel, one hairdresser serves every 780 residents in Israel. Compare that with the average of one hairdresser for every 3,500 residents in Europe. “It is a situation without any rhyme or reason,” he says.
The latest Central Bureau of Statistics’ figures show that the number of hairdressers in the country totaled 14,100 in 2010, an increase of more than 25 percent in less than five years.
According to figures provided by the Tel Aviv municipality, the number of registered hair salons in the city has also risen by close to 25 percent in the past five years, to total 612 today (not including another 200 facilities that do manicures and pedicures).
Tzahi Soriano, director of the Diana Beauty Academy on Dizengoff Street, Israel’s oldest beauty school, graduates several hundred students each year. “They find jobs easily,” he says. “We’re constantly getting inquiries from beauty salons looking for new hires.”
In his view, the recent beauty business boom could be chalked up to a court ruling that significantly lowered municipal tax rates for businesses that provide beauty services. This, he says, gave newly minted hairdressers an incentive to open their own salons. These new salons, in turn, have found a growing and receptive pool of customers thanks to the rising emphasis on beauty and aesthetics in Israeli culture. “There’s not one morning television program these days that doesn’t have some segment devoted to grooming and physical appearance,” says Soriano. “It has an effect on people.”
According to Dr. Omna Berick-Aharony, who teaches courses on gender at the University of Haifa, the phenomenon can also be explained by the growing need among Jewish-Israeli women to “hyper-sexualize” their appearance in order to differentiate themselves from Arab-Muslim women. “Most Jewish women in this country look more like their Middle Eastern neighbors than the women in the Western world they aspire to look like,” she observes. “So to be able to adhere to the so-called Western model of womanhood, many of them need to make use of the services provided at beauty salons.”
Another factor behind the new focus on beauty, she says, is the relatively newfound appreciation in Israeli society for Sephardi [Spanish/Middle Eastern Jews] culture. “The old-time Labor Zionists looked down at women who invested time in their personal appearance and in grooming themselves,” notes Berick-Aharony. “But as Sephardi culture has gained status in the country – a process evident in the past three or four decades – ‘gindur’ or ornamentation, which is very much a part of this culture, is no longer seen as a despised behavior. So, much like in India, beauty salons here began flourishing.”
For some, though, it can be too much of a good thing. Cash-hungry amateurs with little experience have been giving the profession a bad name, some of the old-timers charge.
“In all the rest of the Western world, you need a license to work in this business,” says Mercier, “but not here in Israel. Basically, anyone can open a hair salon here. They don’t need any training or any experience.” The association he founded, which has 200 members but is aiming to increase that number to 1,000, is lobbying the Knesset for legislation that would require tests for all new beauticians. “We work with chemicals in this business,” he notes. “If they’re not in the right hands, that can be dangerous.”
Fadida says the hair salon craze has to do with “our own peculiar national craze,” which is that “everyone here has to run his own business, and no one wants to work for anyone else.” It helps, he notes, that setting up a beauty salon is pretty simple.
Most salons appear to be doing well. That, Tirosh says, is because Israelis don’t mind forking out lots of money on their appearance. “It’s part of the mentality here,” she notes. “People don’t plan ahead. They live for the day. Keeping up your appearance costs a lot of money, but since saving money is not part of the culture here, people are willing to splurge.”
They’re also willing to spend today on beauty treatments, she adds, that they wouldn’t have in the past. “Maybe years ago you could get away with not having your toenails done. Today, it’s as if you didn’t brush your teeth.”