Why Women Are Opting Out Of The Hair Salon

Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
“Short-haired women — we’re like a squad. It’s hard to explain, but we immediately compliment each others' hair and ask where we got it done,” says Elena Polson, a New York graphic designer who sports a longer-on-top-shorter-on-the-sides crop. In fact, flagging down a random girl with an edgy pixie was exactly how Polson discovered Freemans Sporting Club, the Lower East Side barbershop where she now drops in for regular cuts. Yep, she gets her hair cut at a barbershop.

Ladies aren't completely new to the barbershop scene. Plenty of women have long preferred the efficient, less ritualistic atmosphere of the local barber, where a lack of bells and whistles translates to lower price tags and a refreshing, informal attitude. But the barbershop's appeal is widening at a surprising rate — and it's evolving well beyond its cut-and-dry image.

Places such as Freemans and Blind Barber (which has three locations in New York City and one in Los Angeles) subscribe to the long-standing principles of barbershops (they're quick, affordable, and entrenched in their neighborhoods), but cater to a younger, "hipper" crowd. That means the barbers who work there have developed a sensibility that goes well beyond the buzz cut. They trim, shape, and layer with the precision of salon stylists, while reinforcing the communal spirit and sense of loyalty that draw clients such as Polson.

"We tie back to some of the really positive things of a traditional barbershop — which is community, which is service — and then elaborate on them," says Rob McMillen, head barber at Blind Barber (pictured here at the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, location). "We're all-encompassing, accepting of all individuals, and can understand folks with different needs."

That's not to say barbershops are no longer havens of red-blooded conversation and quick shaves. And they are, predominantly, male spaces. But many women, particularly those interested in getting and maintaining short cuts, are entering unfamiliar territory for the promise of a sharp new style and a more casual vibe. And barbers seem to be welcoming the opportunity to utilize their impressive skill sets.

Ahead, we take a peek into a few of these establishments, and find out why the women who frequent them have given up the salon, for good.
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Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Rachel Warren (pictured), a dancer and fitness/wellness instructor, was ahead of the curve. She’s been frequenting Freemans since it opened in 2013, when she decided to shave her head. She was super-particular about keeping it completely bald, so at the time she stopped by the barber every other week for a touch-up. Freemans' cuts are $48 (which is on the high end of barbershop prices), but just imagine how much that would have tallied up to at the hair salon.

Warren was never a salon girl. Even before she buzzed it all off, her friends would cut her hair which has been shorter than a bob since she was in college, and every color of the rainbow. “I just always had a very casual relationship with my hair,” she says. “I was willing to do whatever. Now, I’m moving into a place of wanting to look a little more pulled together, just natural — elegant, classic, with a slight edge.”

Freemans delivers on all counts.
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Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Josh Livingston (pictured) is the barber who helps her achieve this look, using both scissors and clippers. "People have a negative stereotype about clippers because they feel like [they'll impart] too much of an edge," he says. "But it doesn't have to be so severe — it can be soft and short." While men traditionally want cuts with more precision, women tend to focus on texture and movement, says Livingston — who has learned to adapt as more women come into the shop.

He began the learning process with Warren — his first female client — who started seeing him as she was growing out her buzz cut. “He was definitely nervous when first cutting my hair, because he didn't want to mess it up," she says. "I mean, I'm sure he doesn't want to mess anyone's hair up, but I think there is an idea that women hold so tightly to their hair. That was part of the reason I shaved my head; because I needed to clear out and start over.”
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“When Rachel came in, I thought about it: I have all the technique, I have all the skills, I have good training — why don't I give it a shot?" explains Livingston. "So as she started to grow her hair out, we kind of did it together and now I have more female clients as a result. She broke the barrier.”

At Freemans, the clientele is now about 10% women. Does this change the barbershop "boys' club" culture? "In this place, not too drastically," says Livingston. "We're a neighborhood shop... Part of [the neighborhood] is old-school, and part of it is the new people who are moving in, and everyone needs a haircut. This is part of the reason I love cutting hair in the first place: It's like the neutralizer."
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Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Warren adds: "In this particular spot, it's not like, 'Oh, now there's a woman here.' It's a progressive, very communal, grounded place." More draws: It's easy, it's convenient, it's fast (each cut takes just 30 minutes), and you can "wiggle in an appointment, and it's not a big to-do."

Warren and Livingston have become good friends over the years — the barbershop being a place that cultivates such relationships and tight-knit communities. "Everyone here knows my name, and everybody is very cool," says Warren. "I like the feel of the barber; I appreciate the culture. On a vibrational level, it's a lot more chill [than a salon]."
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“Barbershops intentionally cultivate a culture of community — it’s a really important ritual. It's not just a grooming ritual; it's social," says Rae Tutera (pictured left), the Handsome Feminist of social media fame, and focus of the Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner-produced documentary Suited, which follows her and her clients at Bindle & Keep, a Brooklyn clothier that specializes in suits for gender-nonconforming people. "Certainly, you can find a lot of misogyny in [barbershops]. That said, a lot of those spaces are changing, so you get the community without the misogyny."

Tutera stops by the Blind Barber in Williamsburg about once a week to get her hair cut by one of the two female barbers on staff, her best friend Alana Lucia (pictured right) — and, of course, to hang out.
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Lucia has seen an uptick in women in the shop of late — her client base is about 20% female. She doesn't prefer cutting men's or women's hair, she just prefers cutting it short — which she sees a lot more women doing these days.

“Girls are really cutting their hair off more than ever right now,” she says. “I think [many] always wanted to do it, but didn't feel like they could because it's not seen, in some people's eyes, as...'pretty' or 'feminine.' Then one person does it, and then another, and then they say, ‘Oh, that looks really good. You know, I am just going to try it.'”

This ripple effect is contributing to the spike in female clients.
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Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Lucia used to work at a salon, but switched to barbering a few years ago — and hasn't looked back. "The main thing for me was that no one [going to a salon] actually wanted me to cut their hair," she explains. "I got into this to cut hair, and then all day I was cutting off just half an inch."
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Though she is a regular at Blind Barber, Tutera has been to many barbershops over the years — not all of the hipster variety. (She's never been to a salon, but once got a "very luxurious" head wash at Lucia's old salon while her wife was getting a haircut.)

"Barbershops are very welcoming," she says. "Every time I've walked by one in any neighborhood with a haircut like this, men come out of the shops, or they're hanging out in front of them, and always comment. 'Nice haircut, I could try and do that for you sometime.' It doesn't matter who they are — whether it's a Dominican barbershop, a Black barbershop — haircuts are their own language. Regardless of not having much else in common, we all care about haircuts."
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Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Tutera has, on occasion, had a negative experience. “I’ve been to barbershops where there is a lot of unpleasant conversation. And whether you're a sensitive feminist or not, you can feel like you're trespassing,” she says. “I am curious to see how barbershops evolve, since they’re traditionally such men's spaces...they don't want to relinquish those men's spaces... I am masculine enough; I sort of pass…but I feel there is a protectiveness there."
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When asked what cuts most women in his shop are opting for, McMillen says it’s normally something "out of the box" with a little edge to it, like an undercut. "Or sometimes, we have females who are wearing cuts that've been more traditionally reserved for males," he says. "I think we broke through some of those stereotypes or boundaries, and that is a really positive thing.”

But there are still those clients who prefer a more classic look. Chloe Kernaghan (pictured left), owner of Sky Ting Yoga, has been getting her bob trimmed by her friend Inna Shats (pictured right) at Freemans for the past six months.
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"I'm not very fussy, and I'm not interested in having a style that requires a ton of daily maintenance or upkeep, so I like the simpler cuts that I can get with Inna," says Kernaghan. "I like [the barbershop] because it is fast, straightforward, and it cuts out the fluff that you sometimes get with a salon experience."
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Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Like barbershops, salons have their own sense of community. Kernaghan thinks there is a particular type of female that will always go to a salon not just for the cut, but for the social aspect and ritual of it. "I do miss a good shampoo and head massage. But sacrifices must be made," she jokes.

“[Barbershops can] feel like a boys' club inside, so as a female, you have to have the guts to step into that. I go in towards the end of the day, when things are winding down, so it's not such a spectacle with a girl getting her hair cut,” says Kernaghan.
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Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
“I normally visit the [female barbers] at barbershops, because it is less stressful and awkward for me personally," says Polson (pictured right). "But also because most of them have been trained as hairdressers in the past, and left the salon world to work at a barbershop for the same reason [I started going to them]."

Polson's barber at Freemans, Ashley Overholt (pictured left), worked at a high-end salon in Milwaukee for five years before she made the switch to barbering. "I was really burnt out working in a salon and being a therapist," she explains. "I just couldn't take one more story about divorce or affairs, or illness, or kids; it was too much. Not everybody, but most women sit in the chair and instantaneously start telling you their problems… It just blew my mind… I was 22 at the time, so I was taking it home with me and becoming sad."
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“I had a really great friend who opened up the first barbershop of this Freemans kind in Milwaukee, and I went down to say hello and everyone was laughing, they were drinking PBR, the music was good. I was like, This is my vibe," Overholt says. "They're still doing hair, but it's not all this tense energy. It's so chill. That is what I fell in love with."

So, she apprenticed there — learning how to work with clippers, do fades, high and tights, and use a straight razor — before eventually moving to New York and landing a job at Freemans. She now has a handful of female clients who are mostly young and “have style, wear lipstick, and have really cool, badass short haircuts."
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Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
As a woman in a mostly man's world, Overholt says, "Every once in a while, I have to swallow my pride — when I overhear people referring to women as bitches, ‘my girl’ instead of ‘my wife’ — which sucks, because I am a feminist. Sometimes I am just like, Why am I here? Then, I realize I like so much more than I dislike."

She says the mood shifts a little when a female client walks in. "Everybody quiets down when a woman is getting her hair cut, because everyone is excited that a girl is in the shop," she says. "But I blend in now; we're all like this family and somehow I oddly fit into it. They treat me the same. I get my balls busted, and I have to give it back to them. It's taught me how to be strong. If you're going to work in a barbershop as a woman, you gotta be ready to give it right back to them."
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Though most of her clients have short hair, Overholt does get her share of long-haired clients. She welcomes them to her chair, but warns them that it won't be a salon-like experience. Barbers spray down hair with water instead of shampooing, and do bare-minimum styling — it's all about the cut. "I'll give you a great haircut, but I don't have a round brush, I don't have styling tools...we don't have volumizing spray. We just have pomade, a really light styling cream; it's slim pickings," she says. "It's rough-dry, and then you're gone... We'll give you a good, solid technical haircut, but it won't be fancy."
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Benade, an ad-agency strategist who has been going to Blind Barber for over a year, actually brings her own products to the shop. And after her cut, she blowdries her own hair.

Blind Barber was the first barbershop Benade ever visited. After moving to New York from South Africa (she had a bowl cut at the time), she first went to a salon, but couldn't believe how expensive it was. She saw Blind Barber on Instagram and decided to check it out — she brought McMillen a pic of Ruby Rose, and the rest is history.
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“I didn’t even know what barbers do, really… You sit in the chair, he sprays your hair with a water bottle, and just cuts it," Benade says of her first Blind Barber visit. "It was very nerve-racking. I was like, Fuck, what am I doing? But I think he was more uncomfortable than I was." Obviously, a lot can change in a year.

"[When he was done], I was like, 'Uh, I need my hair dried,' and he was like...'We don't have any round brushes.' 'Okay, but do you maybe have a hair dryer?' And he had to literally go into this closet and search for this hair dryer," Benade recalls.
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But even with having to put in a little work, Benade says it's worth it (and doesn't ever see herself going back to a salon). "I've never felt this at home with any stylist or hair salon,” she says. “Rob is just really nice, and everyone is just really nice — and we talk shit a lot.”

Benade doesn't consider herself a "one of the guys" kind of girl, but she loves hanging out at the shop. "When I am in the East Village, I'll pop in and hang out," she says. "It's so much fun. On Saturdays, I just sit there from like 1 to 6, being one of those weird people who just hangs out."
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Benade has received mixed reactions from people who find out where she gets her hair cut. "People keep asking me where I cut my hair. [I say], 'A barbershop.' 'Ooh, okay,'" she says. “I don’t think women are yet that receptive to going to barbers...because most people like all the pampering. I told my mom how they cut my hair, and she was like, 'No, I want the head massage.'”
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Heidi Hackemer, another Blind Barber regular, appreciates the no-nonsense experience. "I hate the whole rigmarole around a salon," she says. "You go in and you have to do the whole ceremony around washing the hair, and talking to people, and the whole thing. And when you have short hair, you have to get your hair cut a lot. So all of a sudden, you're looking at this massive time and money investment. So why am I spending so much money and time, when I can just zip down and pop into a barbershop and be ready to go in a couple minutes? Also, I find that salons don't do the undercuts as well."
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Hackemer has frequented the East Village location for the last five years. But she travels so much for her job at a marketing firm that she often finds herself needing a touch-up on the road. She has popped into different barbershops across the country — but sometimes getting that trim takes a little coaxing.

"I find that when I am traveling...I have to walk in and convince barbers to cut my hair," she says. "I have to do the cajoling [and say]: 'I need a number two, and I just need the ends cut,' and they're like, 'Okay, that's cool.' Once I do it in 'boy terms,' they'll take me in...and once they get over that, guys think it's a hoot... They want to know everything about you. Everyone, the crew, are like, 'Girl, what is up with you?'"
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Her first barbershop experience was the same way: “One day I was looking at W magazine, and there was a photo of Tilda Swinton,” Hackemer says. “My nephew was visiting me at the time, and I am like the crazy aunt. [I said], ‘We’ve got to go find a barbershop right now.’ ... I walked into a Hispanic barbershop, and they said, ‘We don't cut your hair.' ... I pulled my hair up and said, ‘Everything else, just cut it.’ The guy looked at me like I was nuts, but I was like, ‘Please?’”
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Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Though she did beg her way in that day, Hackemer always tries to be respectful. “I try not to be too invasive. If there is a group of 15 guys in there, and they're all shooting the shit, I'm not going to walk into that shop,” she says. “It's not because I am scared of it; it's because I know that it is their time. I think you can be a feminist and be like, guys are allowed to have spaces. As long as the guys aren't forcibly being jackasses about keeping women out, I think it's okay for us to be respectful [that this is often] where dudes feel comfortable, the same way I'll go to the nail salon with my girlfriends."
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After her time on the road, she always goes back to Blind Barber. "They are one of my touch points in the hood. I'll walk home and wave — if I'm ever sick or fucked up, they're like, 'Are you okay? Do you need anything?’ If I go through a breakup, they're all, 'What is up with that? Who's this guy? Do I have to go after him?' It's like having some brothers in the neighborhood."
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Tron, a tattoo artist at Three Kings Tattoo in Greenpoint, has been stopping by Blind Barber in Williamsburg every two to three weeks for the last two years. The appeal for her is less about the space or the price, and more about the haircut itself.

“It’s hard to find people who are experienced with cutting hair like mine, having super-thick Asian hair that grows out into a poof ball,” she explains. Her best friend turned her on to Paul Langevin (pictured), and she was hooked.
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Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
Tron has been to salons before, but never found a stylist or a cut that really worked for her. "It was fine, but a little more feminine," she says. "It's always been hard for me to explain how I want my hair, but [the people at Blind Barber] already understand how I want it to look."
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Though she's not solely in it for the atmosphere, she feels totally comfortable in the barbershop space. "I'm a tattooer; it's a similar, male-oriented type of vibe. I've always just been one of the dudes," she says. "Lots of shop banter; [it's] fun to hear conversations and chime in, and see regulars."
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Though each appointment is only 30 minutes, the frequency at which most clients visit their barbers makes them regular fixtures in each others' lives — not unlike the barista you see every morning or the person with the same commute, says McMillen.

Many barbershop relationships seem to go even further than that. "We are all buddies. Paul just got tattooed by me; I tattooed another guy here, too," says Tron."[Everyone] always treats me right. I get a coffee or a haircut. After, I'll still be hanging around, drinking my beer and chitchatting with the guys."
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Photographed by Cait Oppermann.
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