This piece is from our series, Hair Story. We interview an array of women from different walks of life to discover what their hair means to them. From photographing non-binary people who challenge society's norms by wearing their hair in bright colours, to investigating the 'dumb blonde' stereotype, this series explores the intrinsic link between hair and identity.
Two years ago, I woke up one morning with my 'non-tangle' hairband tangled in my hair. I'd had enough. I ripped out the band and took myself straight to the hairdresser to cut off all my hair.
At this point, my hair was pretty long and blonde as I had dyed it the year before… BIG MISTAKE. After bleaching, my once healthy hair had become lifeless and brittle, so it was time to cut it all off. On my way to the hairdresser I searched hashtags on Instagram for short hair inspiration (#TheCutLife, #ShortHairDolls and #GirlsWithShavedHeads, to name a few) and after screenshotting a catalogue of styles, I found the one I wanted to get.
When I got to the hairdresser, I showed her a picture of how I wanted my hair to look. To my dismay she looked at me and said: "I can't do that, you need to go to the barber." My heart sank. First of all, barbershops scared the shit out of me. When me and my friends were in secondary school in northwest London, grown men standing outside barbershops would catcall us as we walked past. Second of all, I had no idea which barber to go to. Luckily, she recommended her friend Derek, and I’ve been getting my hair cut by him ever since.
Derek, also known as the Dancing Barber or the Hair Doctor, is based in Clapton, Hackney. He is genuinely one of a kind and like many barbers, a pillar of his community. Whenever you get your hair cut by Derek, you can guarantee there will be people – young and old – from many different backgrounds popping their head through the door to say hi or pass him a drink or some food. He lives and cuts hair in Hackney and over the years he's seen a lot of young boys there grow into men. He's loved within the community.
Derek has always made me feel welcome and safe in his shop. On the odd occasion where customers or even other barbers have said inappropriate, sexist or homophobic things to me while I’m in the chair, he’s called them out on it. My experience in a barbershop tends to depend on what I'm wearing – if I’m dressed 'femininely', men give me quizzical looks and I think they question why I’m there. One time a man wanted to push his way in front of me to get his hair cut first, but Derek made sure he knew I had as much right to be in the shop as he did.
Derek gives me the cut that I want and never tries to impose any ideas about how he thinks women should cut their hair. I’ve had barbers in the past tell me that the haircut I want is for men and they’ll give me the 'woman's cut' instead as it will 'suit me better'. The most awkward time I can recall was this guy in the gym who told me he had a shop and I should come through and get a cut. His 'shop' turned out to be his flat and the whole experience was incredibly uncomfortable. He assumed I was straight and tried to chat me up, then after finding me on social media and realising I was queer, he began asking questions about my sexual experiences with women while he had a blade to my head. I wish I was making this up.
I now only go to Derek's shop and I’ve bought my own clippers so if he’s ever off work when I need a cut, I just shave my own head. Derek's created such a vibrant atmosphere, there’s always music playing, from Afrobeat to bashment to old school R&B slow jams. I genuinely love going and it’s become part of my self-care routine.
Since I've started posting my hair on Instagram, Derek's had an influx of new female customers. When he told me that I started to wonder how other women's experiences have been. Did they have the same ups and downs I did finding a good barber? So I spoke to three other women who have braved the clippers. Here are Fleur, Olive and Candace's thoughts on how women are treated in barbershops.
My first ever barber was my brother, ha! He used to cut his own hair so one day I knocked on his door and asked him to do mine too.
The first time I went to a barbershop I felt SO awkward though. It felt like I wasn’t meant to be there. I didn’t understand the queuing system at all because there were tons of empty seats everywhere but the guys wouldn’t wait for the next open chair, they would opt to wait longer for 'their' barber.
I’ve lived in Birmingham, Germany and London, so each time I had to find a new barber. My first point of call was finding a black barber in the area (in some cases, the only black barber in the area). Every experience has been different – one barber in Lewisham gave me one of the best cuts I’ve ever had with a cute design, but throughout the haircut he made me feel so awkward. He kept complimenting me and asked for my number a few times. Trust me, this is the last thing you want to happen when you’re getting your hair cut and there’s no escape from the chair.
The first time I went to a barbershop I felt SO awkward, it felt like I wasn't meant to be there.
After a recommendation by some friends, for the past year I’ve been getting my hair cut by Kris, who cuts with Trimit – a mobile barbershop. Not only is he a great barber, he’s become a great friend too. He asks me how I’m doing, lets me play my own songs, gives great banter and bounces off my mood.
Some advice: A great (and easy) starting point for other barbers to make women feel more included in the barbershop would be including pictures of women with shaved heads in the window – let me see someone who looks like me! Why are all the images of shaved hairstyles on men?
Getting my hair cut and going to the barber is so intrinsically linked with my identity. I’ve been cutting my hair short ever since I was 4 years old.
I came home after school one day after getting playground crushes on girls, and came to the conclusion I was actually a boy called William and wanted a 'boy' haircut to reflect that. Looking back I just didn’t have the context to understand that I was queer.
Up until I was 15 I got my hair cut in women's salons but I stopped going because the hairdressers would always try to give me more 'feminine' cuts and never cut it as short as I wanted, yet still charged me £40 for it. The last straw was when a woman gave me the dreaded 'Can I speak to your manager?' haircut. The next time I went to get my hair cut, I decided to go to the barbershop three doors down from my hairdresser.
The last straw was when a woman gave me the dreaded 'Can I speak to your manager?' haircut.
I was so anxious. It had always been men that had harassed me in public for my appearance, so I was terrified entering a space specifically designed for men. When I walked into the barbershop, all the banter stopped and there was an awkward silence. The barber pointed me to the bench to wait and when he finally called me to get my hair cut it took no more than 15 minutes. The same service and care I’d seen him take with his previous male customers was nonexistent. He didn’t even brush me down afterwards and had the cheek to try and charge me more than his usual rate because I was a woman and this was 'not a service he usually provided'.
I've had to endure homophobic 'banter' while in the chair and listen to sexist talk – it was as if they didn't want me to come back.
I've had to endure homophobic 'banter' while in the chair too and listen to sexist talk – it was as if they didn’t want me to come back. It was hard because as a queer woman my hair is so important to my self-expression and self-esteem.
Four years ago while living in Brighton, I found a barber who embraced me and made me feel valued. I’ve been going ever since and still make a monthly pilgrimage back to Brighton from London to get my hair cut there. They didn’t bat an eyelid that I was a woman or queer, they asked me what music I liked and put it on, offered me a drink and took care with me and my hair.
My advice for barbers is simple: give us the same service and care as you give your male customers and shut down conversations that you know would make us feel uncomfortable. If you’re unable to shut them down, please at least acknowledge it and apologise to us so we know you don't condone it. Lastly, charge us the same prices as men and spare me the opinions on what makes an 'attractive woman'.
Whenever I saw women with short hair, I thought they looked so powerful, beautiful and unique, so after feeling sick, tired and uninspired by my own hair, I decided to cut it off. Growing up I’d been to barbershops before with my dad and younger brother, but I’d still always feel nervous before going, as it's such a male space. Once inside, however, I was fascinated by the process and loved watching the cut itself as well as the way that a haircut could transform the confidence of a customer. My first experience of getting my hair cut within a barbershop felt like a sort of Russian roulette, a lucky dip. I went to a barbershop that my friends with good hair lines would go to, but I'd still research the shop before going. Saying that, I would never go alone and would stretch out my cuts for as long as possible.
The only bald woman that men seem to know is Amber Rose.
The only bald woman that men seem to know is Amber Rose. Every barber would offer pictures of Amber Rose as a reference and ended up nicknaming me Amber Rose in the process. I’ve had barbers ask me about my relationship status, asking my friends and I why we don’t have boyfriends. One barber even asked to kiss my friend's hand while she was in the chair getting her hair cut.
Barbershops should be safe spaces for women too, but I acknowledge that the barbershop has historically been known as a safe space for black men. I have no desire to see black men robbed of their sanctuaries – especially as they are so few and far between. I do think that this safe space for men can exist without the need for the traditional locker room talk or sense of being in an echo chamber of toxic masculinity. I would love for women to have our own barbershops, where we could centre women. It's something that I’m working on myself and I have recently trained as a barber. Barbershops can be a place where productive conversations, healing and learning can take place, for everybody.