Among the numerous pop cultural “glimpses” into life inside American prisons, Great Big Story’s “Beauty Behind Bars” video from Valley State Prison offers an unusual key inside its gates: documentation of its inmates training to meet your cosmetology needs. If this sounds ironic, it’s supposed to – Carmen Shehorn, the Career Technical Educator at the prison, narrates her own intrigue when she first arrived at the prison. She gasps with wide-eyes, “What did I get myself into, here?” pointing our attention to the otherworldliness of the prison. Meanwhile, the camera captures fragmented footage of uniformed inmates gently filing toenails, delivering buzz cuts to tattooed scalps, and methodically combing mannequins’ hair. Combined, this audio and these images present you with the paradox of presumed virulent masculinity and feminine self-discipline, inviting you to witness the inmates’ fashioning of their best selves through practiced care for others.
Part of the program’s credibility is its association between beauty work and morality, by demonstrating how vocational training renders a transformed subject. Mimi Nguyen first introduced us to a similar project, the Kabul Beauty School organized for Afghan women at the midst of the War on Terror in 2003. Nguyen critically examines the film produced about the organization, and she notes:
“Disseminating presumed expert knowledge about hygiene and health, disciplined labor and household management, moral rectitude and right living, these groups’ curricula sought to programmatically train targeted populations to transform their conduct as well as their sensibilities. Such operations in governmentality, those forms of action and relations of power that aim to guide (rather than coerce) the conduct of others, enjoin their subjects to exercise freedom correctly.” (Nguyen 373)
Here, Nguyen highlights that the Kabul Beauty School – and I would argue, the “Beauty Behind Bars” program at Valley State Prison, too – is not just individual instruction for personal needs. The projects depend on the rote training of the individual body so that its behavior fundamentally changes its essence and values. Hairdressing, nail manicuring, and massages appear benign, but in these projects, they offer Afghan women and incarcerated men of color economic self-determination. Consequently, the training of a mass of people could be powerful enough to redefine their worthiness of freedom.
The Valley State Prison, though, deals with a population that is more explicitly named as criminal and therefore undeserving of freedom. To combat this push-back, the “Beauty Behind Bars” project mounts various checkpoints that evaluate inmates behavioral and educational values. These checkpoints are essential to the program because they prove that inmates qualify for the program and that they have changed through its course. An evaluation of inmates before they are admitted off the project’s wait-list, the two year-long and 1600-hour program itself, and the board exam ultimately determine if inmates have acquired the technical skill along with the acceptable social skills to be certified beauticians.
However, the video suggests that inmates judge their transformation in different terms, not through their technical training, but through their care-giving allowed by the cosmetology program. Juan Brizuela is one inmate interviewed, who admits that his favorite body work is the facial, which permits him to, “see my clients relax and get comfortable with me… its real personal and being in prison, they teach you not to touch each other…” Brizuela illuminates that the emotional provision of services is part of their service, but that such a burden actually allows him to experience a social act denied to him inside the prison (Kang 3). Brizuela calls us to consider that perhaps his learned care-giving can facilitate his reintegration into the public on moral terms. His narrative also reflects that the affection permitted through body work already serves as a gateway into a more humanizing socialization, which should call us to question, how can the conditions of affection reconfigure who is free and not-free? and how might we call others to step into these conditions the next time we seek body work?
Kang, Miliann, “Introduction: Manicuring Work,” in The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 1-31.
Nguyen, Mimi “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in an Age of Terror,” Signs 36.2 (2011): 359-383.