I Think I Need a Barber But This As A Man’s World

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.

Go ahead.

Give it a try.

Then come back later when I share more thoughts on reasons 3 & 4.

Peace & Love

Sarah L. Webb

9 thoughts on “I Think I Need a Barber But This As A Man’s World

  1. “I sat down and waited to be greeted or acknowledged”… that really made me laugh.

    But seriously, that is not a culture that exists in my country, Trinidad & Tobago. I actually always wanted to have an American black barber shop because on TV it just looks like 1 big family.

    My sister has a hairstyle like yours and she told me the barber cuts her hair short the way she wants it, unlike a hair dresser, so maybe you should keep looking till you find one that is right… maybe try talking to them before you sit and wait.

    As for Point 4, that is young boy thinking (teenager to early twenties). I use to think like that because of society, but now I don’t mind if a woman cut my hair. However, I will NEVER go to a beauty salon.
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    • Now, that difference in culture is something I never knew. I think barber shop culture is great for the people that fit into it. So, yes, I will keep looking until I find the one that works for me. And don’t worry, you’re not missing out on anything by not going to beauty salons. Lol.

  2. Interesting post. Am a bit confused by the last part of #1 – You’re feeling a bit disrespected, but you still want to pay full price? WHY?! Why would you refuse a discount?
    I’m curious about #3 because I partly disagree…will be back 🙂
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    • Hi,

      Thanks for commenting. My point about #1 is that some barbers might be giving me what I pay for. Not all people, but many provide better services to better paying clients. It’s been my experience that I can’t expect a barber to spend the same amount of time on a discounted haircut that he would a regular price haircut, especially if he feels he has to give that discount every time.

      I’m curious to know your thoughts about #3. If you already know that you disagree, why not comment now?

  3. Very interesting post. I like that you ventured into a man’s territory; that you were bold enough to do it. Although, I know it had less to do with that and more to do with the cut you wanted for your hair. I think maybe your experience with barbershops could change with how you treat the experience. At this point there is probably a notion about barbershops that you carry into each new barbershop experience that influences how you feel, act, and react in that environment.

    Sometimes all that’s really needed is for you to break the ice. I think men oftentimes want a “women-free” environment because they feel women don’t understand, or don’t care about the things they care about the way they care about it. But I also think that men enjoy even more having a woman who understands or enjoys what they enjoy infiltrate their environment.As long as the woman is not judgmental and respects them/their space/environment. So, I say maybe all you need to do is go in with the attitude that you’re gonna chit-chat and find common ground with the barber. This is probably a new experience for them as well and they don’t know how to approach it either. You might even open up a conversation with “So, do you guys get many women in clients in here?” It’s a topic I’m sure he’d have something to say about and it breaks the ice. It also shows him that you recognize that this is not typically female territory thus in a sort of round about way acknowledging that this is a “man’s space.”

    The other thing is, how can you be a “loyal customer” if you never come back a second time? It is wrong for them not to treat you with the respect you deserve, but, ya know, with men sometimes we have to MAKE them respect us, and that might mean going back a second or third time. That will show them that you’re not some thin-skinned chick who can’t handle the environment and also show them that you are serious about your hair and didn’t just come on some frilly whim.

    Also, I don’t think it would be wrong if you chimed in on one of those convos that they have about the TV show or the women on it. They’re already giving their opinions so maybe even ask them some questions that would allow you to add your opinion as well. Say, they’re talking about a woman’s body; her boobs are too small. You ask what’s wrong with small breasts? Guy answers (which is almost fated to be sexual), then you add your opinion, but in a non-threatening or judgmental way. “I think small boobs are perfect especially for sex. Big enough to fit in your hands, small enough to fit in your mouth…” Whatever your reply. It should sort of meets them at their level but doesn’t necessarily have to agree.

    I enjoyed reading this and the way it provoked some thought and creativity on my part to try and give you a solution to your problem. Have a blessed one!
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    • This is a great response, Shaks. I think you’re on to something. I will definitely try the chit chat approach. I also try to go early in the week when shops are not so busy.

  4. Hi Sarah, I’m actually thinking the opposite. Hehe! Maybe its different culture over here, but I think men over here love women to cut their hair because the barbers here are rough and they don’t give you an awesome haircut like the ladies in the saloon.
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  6. Natalie on said:

    I enjoyed reading this piece. I am a queer African American female who has been wearing my hair rather short since 2008 and I remember what it was like going into barber shops and not having a clue on what to do. I went to barber shops with my dad and brother all the time as a kid so I was used to the setting but I didn’t know how to communicate what type of hair cut I wanted. There was a lot of trail and error when it came to finding a good barber shop. I remember one experience where the male barber assumed the hair style I wanted and was surprised that I wanted an edge up like a mans hair style. He reluctantly did it and I never went back to him.

    Luckily I have found a couple of barber shops that aren’t too crowded that I return to and communicate with me and try to understand the hair cut I want.

    Something interesting to note. Where I live there are a number of Hispanic barber shops and one day I went to one because it was close to my job. It was a little odd at first, I don’t think they were used to seeing a woman in their shop, but when I sat down and told them what I wanted he did a fantastic job and gave me the best hair cut I have ever had.

    Keep with it and keep trying different shops until you fond one that works for you. And you do not have to talk if you do not want to lol. I am a quiet person; I go in, get my hair cut, pay and leave.

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