I prefer short natural hair. Very short.
Unfortunately, that means I’m dependent on someone else to cut my hair because I haven’t learned how to do it myself.
I’ve often turned to the universal experts on my kind of hair–black barbershops, but it’s clear that barbershop culture is not ready to embrace women like me.
In Hair Story, the most comprehensive account of black hair I’ve ever read, the authors Anna D. Byrd & Lori L. Tharps explain that there is indeed a culture built around black hair:
“The many aspects of human adaptation–including language, technology, traditions, values, and social organization–are all identifiable components of the culture of Black hair in America.” p. 134
The first time I went to a barbershop for a haircut, it was a culture shock. I felt like an utter outsider.
I didn’t know that there’s a certain way to request services in a barbershop, so I sat down and waited to be greeted or acknowledged, you know, like: “Hi. How’re you doing? What can we do for you today?” I just sat there feeling and looking out of place.
When I finally got in the chair, I didn’t know the proper lingo or understand the technology for describing the haircut I wanted. Brush length or comb length? A number 3 or a number 2? I didn’t know there were different kinds of fades. I had a picture of a beautiful model that I tore out of a magazine, and that was the best I could do.
Whereas the average man has long since been initiated into barbershop culture from the time he was a few years old, I had no such acculturation. When I was a young girl, I spent hours in beauty salons and never ventured into a barbershop unless I was with my mother to wait for my brother. Back then I could never even imagine that I might be in a barber’s chair someday.
Beyond my personal ignorance of barbershop culture, there’s something else at play, something deeper and more troubling.
From small towns in Mississippi to big cities in California, I read a distinct aversion in barbers when it comes to cutting this woman’s hair, and I think there are four main reasons why the aversion exists.
1) When barber’s see me, they don’t see a loyal customer that yields the highest profit margin.
This explains why I get handed to the newcomer without many clients of his own yet, or I get passed off to the guy no one else likes very much.
But worse than that is getting the barber who rushes through the process of cutting my hair so that they can get back to their “real” clientele or back to sweeping floors. Those barbers disengage. They sort of do what they want, never cut my hair short enough, and don’t even let me evaluate the look before they’re ripping the cape from around my neck.
Unfortunately, with such crappy customer service, they never give me the chance to become a loyal customer. Like I said before, I love short hair, so I would actually come back if my experience was at least decent, if I at least felt respected.
In Hair Story a barber explains that full loyalty comes from “the way I treat him and the service we provide.” p. 154
Isn’t the same level of respect required before a woman becomes a loyal customer?
Respect is the reason I stopped accepting discounts. If you charge less because I’m a woman, it might be chivalry, but it could also mean you do lesser quality work because I’m a woman. I pay the same as the guys so that I can expect the same service as the guys. A dollar is a dollar whether it comes from a man’s pocket or a woman’s pocketbook.
2) One of the things men love about the barbershop is the absence of women.
In Hair Story, the authors explain this concept and cite the experiences of various men:
“One of the most satisfying times in my life was going to the barbershop [and] bonding with the other brothers.” p.151
“The Philadelphia Hair Company is the type of establishment where Black men go to get pampered, watch the game, and while away an entire Saturday afternoon in good company.” p. 154
If the owners were ten year olds, barbershops would definitely have “No Girls Allowed” signs out front. This boy’s club atmosphere is most evident in the conversation.
Sports and politics I can handle, but when the conversation, as it always does, veers into the realm of women and relationships, I wonder if my cute cut is even worth it.
Many barber shops have televisions streaming hip hop videos or melodramatic reality TV shows. Though many women are into those things (even I’ve watched a few in the past) I’m now averse to them.
But the barbers don’t just let these shows play in the background. They have to start offering their commentary on the women’s bodies, on the relative worthiness of each female character in comparison to each other and to women in general, on the “reality” of relationship politics, and other distorted ideology.
Perhaps this doesn’t signal that no women are allowed, but it definitely signals that a certain type of woman will not feel comfortable, like any woman who’s sick and tired of the racist and misogynist portrayals of men and women in the media, any woman who laments the continuous brainwashing of both sexes, basically any woman like me.
I won’t go into detail right now about my last two reasons but they are essentially this:
3) Men still expect black women to be at the beauty salon getting perms and weaves to look good for men.
4) Men don’t like to see women cut their hair
I don’t expect barbershop culture to change for me or even for the growing number of women like me. But I do think it’s a relevant experience that’s worth sharing (especially when I get deeper into reasons 3 & 4).
I’ve tried going to unisex salons or female stylists, but my previous post on hair explains why that’s not much better.
Now you tell me what you think!
Do my observations seem ligit, or is it just me?
Should I just suck it up if I want my hair cut?
Are barbershops and hair styles so irrelevant that you don’t know why you bothered to read this post?
Clearly, I have my opinion, but maybe you can sway me.
Give it a try.
Then come back later when I share more thoughts on reasons 3 & 4.
Peace & Love
Sarah L. Webb