On December 11 2022, TikTok hair influencer Leda Fazal (@ledafazal) shared a clip about an “angel cut” or “angel cut with layers,” one of many purported secret signals aimed at assisting victims of domestic violence or human trafficking; the same clip was shared by the same person on Facebook on September 29 2022:
@ledafazal It’s important to keep calm and natural if someone comes in asking for an “Angel Cut” #angelcut #angelcutwithlayers #ledafazal #hairstylist #hairsalon #hairtok #humantraffickingawareness #domesticabuseawareness #hairedu #salonowner ♬ original sound – Leda HAIR ????
Text visible at the very beginning of the video read “An ‘Angel Cut’ walk in,” and as is often the case in illustrative TikTok videos, the people in the video played more than one role. Fazal did not imply the clip was “real,” and it was presented as an obvious dramatization.
A woman portraying both the person in need of an “angel cut” and the receptionist appeared first in the video, along with Fazal as the hairdresser. Initial dialogue was as follows:
[Client requesting an “angel cut”]: “I’m here for my angel cut.”
[Receptionist to client]: “Okay! I’ll let Lena know you’re here.”
[Receptionist to hairdresser]: “Hey BB?”
[Hairdresser to receptionist]: “Hey, what’s up?”
[Receptionist to hairdresser]: “Hey … your angel cut is here.”
[Hairdresser to receptionist]: “Oh. Oh! Awesome. Alright. Thank you.”
The clip cut to Fazal and the client/receptionist (differentiated by their jackets). Fazal’s next line was spoken at an extremely low volume, and the dialogue continued:
[Hairdresser to receptionist, whispering]: “You need to call the authorities.”
[Receptionist to hairdresser]: “Okay.”
[Hairdresser to client]: “So you’re here for the angel cut? [Pause] Awesome! Okay. Let’s go ahead and get you washed, okay? Come with me.”
No other clues as to the underlying meaning of the dialogue appeared in the TikTok clip. A separate TikTok published by the same user later on the same day claimed that asking for “an angel cut with layers” would signal to a salon that the service was a “punishment haircut.”
A caption with hashtags on the initial TikTok alluded to domestic violence and human trafficking:
It’s important to keep calm and natural if someone comes in asking for an “Angel Cut” #angelcut #angelcutwithlayers #ledafazal #hairstylist #hairsalon #hairtok #humantraffickingawareness #domesticabuseawareness #hairedu #salonowner
“Angel cuts” and “an angel cut with layers” were one of many viral, safety-related “codes” on social media, typically designed to enable a victim of domestic violence or human trafficking to — in theory — covertly signal for assistance. In fact, one extremely similar rumor claimed that asking for an “angel shot” at a bar would signal to the bartender that a customer believed they were in some sort of danger on the premises and required staff intervention.
As with an “angel cut with layers,” an “angel shot” purportedly had modifiers. Asking for an “angel shot” with ice or lime would supposedly prompt staff to summon police or a taxi or rideshare:
One of the more common genres of modern folklore involves code or tricks that people in the know can employ against potential abusers to furtively summon help, exemplified most recently by a spike in chatter about the purported life-saving abilities of “angel shots” — a surreptitious device by which women who feel threatened by their dates can signal their need of assistance by issuing a code phrase under the guise of ordering a drink.
Here’s how it works: Order an angel shot neat and a bartender will escort you to your car. Ask for it with ice and the bartender will call a taxi or Uber for you. Order it with lime and the restaurant staff will call the police.
When “angel shots” went viral in 2017, human trafficking was not as prominent a concern on social media and thus not part of the story. A February 2020 rumor purportedly instructed people on how to make a “silent” call to emergency services, a November 2021 rumor covered a “fake cosmetics store” website where at-risk visitors could request emergency assistance while appearing to browse and order items, and a “black dot” signal served a similar function as early as 2015.
A common thread stretching across all the rumors was a somewhat common and serious circumstance (intimate violence or human trafficking), offering up what appeared at first glance to be a clever solution to a bad situation. Trapped individuals are anticipated to have extremely limited opportunities to seek help, making proposals like “angel cuts” seem at first to be a viable lifeline.
However, “angel cuts,” “angel shots,” and other means to surreptitiously signal danger suffered from many functionally identical logical inconsistencies. In the example TikTok about “angel cuts,” for instance, it was not clear if the client was accompanied by anyone — if they were a victim of human trafficking, it seems unlikely they would be allowed to visit a salon or have conversations out of earshot of their captor, and if they were alone, they could simply ask for help in plain terms.
Another major pitfall we have discussed with rumors like these came up at least once in the comments. Owing to their viral nature, it’s just as likely the “signals” become known to abusers, placing the individual in need of assistance in possible danger should they employ the strategies and get caught:
As much as I love spreading this as a thing…. Is it not also just teaching abductors what to listen for?
Furthermore, signal-related rumors were vague by nature, intended to mask an urgent plea for assistance — and were not guaranteed to be in widespread use. That aspect alone introduced a very possible, upsetting outcome, where a request of the sort goes unrecognized and unanswered.
On our page about the fake cosmetics store, we referenced yet another supposed safety signal, one suggesting 911 operators (999 in the UK) were universally trained to recognize any calls with “pizza orders” as a plea that would necessarily alert the dispatcher to active domestic violence. We further referenced the “silent 999” rumor, which carried similar risks:
[An anecdotal comment on Reddit] quickly morphed from an individual anecdote to rumors that 911 operators universally understood calls asking for pizza were veiled reports of dangerous situations. That assumption could be dangerous, with a worst-case scenario being a misunderstanding resulting in help that never arrives … intermittent and unpredictable efficacy were a factor in connecting those in need with help to responders:
Essentially, a popular January 2020 Facebook post advising users calling 999 to dial 55 for a “silent” call was decontextualized to a point of posing risk to those exposed to the advice. A long-circulating, related rumor that silent 999 calls resulted in police dispatch have had fatal consequences, and in some cases, callers who remain silent might be asked to dial 55 (or cough, or make another affirmative noise) to prevent automatic disconnection of the call. In many cases, dialing 55 would have no effect, or callers would be asked to validate the call in a different fashion.
It was not uncommon for people sharing the content to claim it “couldn’t hurt,” it might be useful “even just once,” or that the larger goal was to “raise awareness” about human trafficking and domestic violence. But there are better ways to raise awareness and the dangers of both situations are dire; unreliable pathways to help could lead to real harm.
Finally, amplifying potentially dangerous advice unfortunately appeared to guarantee results (unlike the advice itself). Engagement statistics on the “angel cuts” TikTok far exceeded those of videos related to topics like hairdressing, and “warnings” of the sort were likelier to attract uncritical press coverage and media mentions.
A September 2022 item by British tabloid The Sun advanced the idea that “angel cuts” were a useful means for people in danger to seek reliable help from authorities. Describing angel cuts as a “NEW trend … [going viral] for all the right reasons,” the outlet asserted the “phrase is a secret code” known to “women and girls worldwide.”
Not too far into the piece, The Sun contradicted the “worldwide” claim by indicating that videos were “educating” hairstylists to recognize it. The Sun also provided a different explanation for “an angel cut with layers” than the one in the clip linked above, unwittingly emphasizing how unreliable the signals could be:
A NEW trend has hit TikTok – and this one has an important message behind it and is spreading awareness worldwide.
“Angel cut with layers” is going viral on the platform – and for all the right reasons … If you’ve scrolled through TikTok, you may have come across the “angel cut with layers” trend.
The phrase is a secret code used by women and girls worldwide to notify their hairdressers that they are a victim of domestic abuse or in an abusive relationship.
When a girl or a woman is asked at a salon how she would like her hair to be cut, if they respond with the phrase “angel cut with layers” it informs their hairdresser that they are a victim of domestic violence and are seeking help … Since posting, many hairstylists have thanked her for educating them as they now know how to identify a victim and help them.
A TikTok rumor claimed that asking for an “angel cut” would alert salons to domestic violence or human trafficking, whereas asking for an “angel cut with layers” would enable a client to quietly inform the business that the service was a “punishment haircut.” Both signals were iterations of perennial rumors intended to identify ways for victims of abuse to obtain help undetected by their abuser or abusers.
As indicated above, “angel cuts” and rumors of that type shared the same massive flaws: amplification of the signals (necessary to introduce them) was visible to abusers as well, there remained no guarantee the signal would be understood, and there is little to no evidence the concepts truly present a trustworthy lifeline to people in immediate danger.