Customer Service

Big Clients, Small Changes: How to Seat Plus-Size Clients Comfortably

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make your plus-size clients feel at home. All that’s required is a little awareness and sensitivity — and perhaps some minor modifications to your manicure and pedicure set-ups.

He gave the best manicure in town, but I’m never going back. I left his salon with hands soft as silk, glimmering nails that didn’t chip for a week, and gently arched brows that made my big brown eyes sparkle. He was conveniently located, had plenty of parking, and offered competitively priced services.

Too bad he didn’t want my business. I’m a clean, quiet, often funny woman who makes and keeps her appointments, treats technicians with respect, and tips well. I’m happy to pay a little more for excellent service — but apparently my hands and my money weren’t welcome in his salon.

At least that’s how he made me feel. When it happened the first time, I brushed it off to a stressful day. When I saw it happen to another client, I knew it was my last time in his salon. “You’re going to break my chair!” he yelled at her as she gingerly eased her size 22 body into his pedicure station. She turned beet red, and I turned around and walked out.

As one of the 60 million Americans who are clinically obese, I’m well aware of my size and the risks it presents. But in his nail salon (and, unfortunately, so many others), my weight is more than a health risk. There have been times when I’ve left a salon with pretty hands and a damaged spirit — and that’s not something I’ve asked for. Sometimes the injury is intentional, and sometimes it’s simply misguided.

Either way, it has to stop. Plus-size clients deserve your best service, a relaxing salon experience, and respect — just like all your other clients. Here’s how to start:

Focus on Fingers

I am in your salon because I want my hands (or feet, or brows) to be beautifully groomed. I am not there for diet advice, comments on my weight, or remarks that I’d be so pretty if only I lost a few pounds. That is what grandmothers and aunts are for. You may, of course, tell me that my rings are gorgeous, or that I look lovely in lavender, or even that I look a little tired today. But the moment you shift the conversation to weight, I’m a disappointed client.

I Know You Mean Well, But …

Let’s get this one out of the way quickly. Yes, I know I’m fat — and yes, I even know what I weigh. And no, I’m not here to talk about it. If it looks like I’m losing weight, tell me I look terrific. (Unless, of course, there are black circles under my eyes and I actually look pathetic. In that case, zip it.) If it looks like I’m gaining weight, don’t tell me — I know. You want to help me get thinner? Go work for Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers. I don’t need the weight police chasing me around the nail salon, too.

Sitting Pretty

As a large woman, one of the things I look for in a salon is comfortable seating. Area one: the waiting area. That buttery leather couch is beautiful, but it’s very low to the ground. It can be difficult and embarrassing for me to pull myself out of it. Throw it away? Never! But why not add a couple of sturdy, armless chairs to the waiting area? Standard banquet chairs are perfect — and with a pretty cotton cover tied with a bow, they’ll look fantastic, too.

Area two: your manicure seating. More often than not, I’m comfortable in the chair you offer me. However, some chairs with closely set arms or shallow seats may not work for my body. Others may have a low weight limit. If I look uncomfortable, ask me if I’d like another chair, and if I say yes, then bring out one of those pretty banquet chairs with the cover and a fluffy cushion. Also, take a look at the space you allow me. If your stations are stacked, my body will need more room — I don’t want to cuddle up with the technician behind me.

Area three: the pedicure throne. You’ve done the research and invested in state-of-the-art pedicure chairs, and I certainly don’t want to break them. You can reduce that possibility by pushing the seat base as far back as possible and by offering a sturdy place to hold on if I need to climb up or down from the chair. Forgive me, but a tiny 110- pound woman holding out her hand to steady me isn’t going to be much help if I start to fall. (Nor does she want to be in my path. Trust me.)

A professionally installed grab bar near one of your pedicure stations (preferably one on the end, with a little extra room) can be a godsend for your plus-size clients — as well as those who are pregnant, elderly, or disabled.

If you’re looking to change your equipment anyway, some pedicure chairs now come with arms that open or lift, making access a breeze. If that’s not an option, why not keep a portable footbath on hand for clients who can’t use your chairs comfortably? Again, bring out that covered banquet chair — or better yet, invest in a roomy easy chair with an ottoman. Ahhh, bliss.

No Playing Doctor

Once I’m relaxing in the chair and you’re ready to begin, you may (and should) ask me one medical question: “Are there any conditions I should know about before I begin?” I happen to be diabetic, so it’s imperative that my feet are carefully groomed and never cut. I also have poor circulation in my legs that leaves them discolored. My doctor is aware of this and has approved my pedicures and massages. Although both feel heavenly, I don’t like showing my legs to a new technician because she’ll often gasp in horror, point, and summon the other techs to gawk at my calves. Boom — my hour of indulgence just turned into a freak show, starring me. No thanks.

If you see something new, you may gently suggest I see a doctor for it. But that’s it — no playing doctor with my hands or feet. Don’t insist that I go visit your boyfriend’s acupuncturist or warn me that amputation is imminent. That’s up to my doctor.

The Balancing Act

While many clients may be able to hold their legs in the air during a pedicure, larger women may have difficulty, cautions Peggy Howell, PR Chairman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, a Sacramento-based advocacy group that speaks out for the rights of large people. She’s right. I can support each leg for a minute or two, but after that, I need something to lean on. I don’t expect you to bear my weight — especially if I can’t — but find something that will. One salon had a wooden foot support that did the trick nicely.

Slipping Into Something Comfortable

If you perform services that require clients to change into a gown or robe, your larger clients will adore you forever if you have a selection of bigger garments available. However, what’s huge to you may be small to us. To get around that, when your client calls to book this sort of service, mention that robes are available from sizes 2-24 (or whatever you happen to offer) and that she is welcome to wear her own clothing. At my old salon, this was one of the most difficult and ridiculous rules I had to break; their mandatory robes would be tight on Paris Hilton. It didn’t matter that I arrived with an old, comfy T-shirt that could only be improved with hair dye or nail polish. An assistant would stuff me into the robe like a sausage and then stare in horror at my contorted arms and bare back. The salon could have protected itself by asking me to sign a clothing damage waiver (once they untied my hands).

On a related note, if your client doesn’t want to uncover certain body parts, respect that. At my favorite nail salon, most women roll their pants up over their knees at the pedicure station. I don’t, and I don’t want you yanking on my pants to get them up higher. Whether it’s because my legs are chunky, hairy, or otherwise private, please respect my right to keep them covered. If my pants will get wet in the whirlpool bath, tell me, and offer to roll them up a little — but if I decline, just work with what’s there. I know your leg massages are legendary, but you will not hear me howling with indignation if you only rub my ankles.

No Keeping Secrets Either

Here’s one even your slender clients will appreciate: if English is not your first language, please don’t chatter about me in your own language with the other technicians. First of all, it makes me suspect you’re saying something you don’t want me to hear. Second, I may actually speak the language. (Although nothing was more delicious than the look on the Russian nail technician’s face when I replied to her, in Russian, after she told the receptionist she didn’t want to work on the “fat, ugly cow.”)

I am all for diversity and for using other languages. When in Paris, I spoke pathetic but passable French. In Cairo, I had a manicure from a stunning woman who spoke Arabic. Her only English was “No” and “Thanks” and she managed perfectly with silence and smiles. When I thanked her in Arabic, she kissed me. Language never has to be a barrier to good service.

Anything Else (and Are You Always This Cranky)?

Just a few things. Unless your client has told you she is pregnant, please, please, please do not ask when she is due. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me as a large woman. I’ve taken to answering “November 2024,” with a straight face. If you think she might be expecting, you may tell her she’s glowing — but let your client break the news.

If a client is very large, she may have difficulty bending or reaching her feet, so when her pedicure is complete and her nails are dry, offer to remove her toe separators and help her into her shoes.

Most of all, welcome your plus-size client just like any other. She is there for three reasons: proper grooming, indulgence, and feeling pretty. For the 45 minutes she’s in your salon, let her forget about her weight. She’ll appreciate the break — and you’ll have a client for life.

Pamela Yaeger is president of Scarlet Communications, a Long Island-based agency that provides editorial and design services to clients in the U.S. and Europe. She writes regularly on consumer issues and size acceptance.

Keywords:   customer service     pedicures     special needs clients  

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