As non-binary people, appearance is such an omnipresent part of our lives. For us, it is often a gateway into understanding our gender identities: what we’re drawn to, what feels good, what doesn’t, and what story that may tell about us on a particular day. These codes — whether clothes, tattoos, piercings, or, as we’ll hear more about, hair — can be shifted and molded. They become useful tools which allow us to express what’s innately inside.
Hair is something that is yours, but unlike tattoos and piercings, it is not really ever permanent — much like gender to non-binary people. It is a key communication tool and allows us to relay to the world exactly what and how we are feeling. It is also a means of wresting back our image from a dominant and binary system. It is a site of politics which, when dyed, shaved, loc'd, extended, and everything in between, can untie us from expected ideas about what traditional, acceptable hair should look like.
I spoke with seven non-binary people about their ever-changing hair. Something that rang true across all the people beautifully photographed was how frequently they make drastic changes to their hair. Styles, colors, and cuts move with mood and emotion, body and gender. "When it comes down to it, I don’t think hair is superficial," Leni Zachariou, pictured, told me as we chatted about our hairstyles. "The way we look is the way in which we express our identity. I am aware that the things you can control are things that can put you in danger but they can also make you feel safe. It’s a balancing act." Visibility is a tricky thing to handle, but as Leni said, while the world might look at you a little more, taking control of your hair can be a powerful way to show people that you prioritize understanding yourself over the misunderstanding of others.
"I’ve had my hair every color you can imagine. The worst color was definitely jet black. At the time I thought it was good, but the dye is such a bitch to get out. My favorite was this rainbow-gradient-crown-swirl thing. I just like having colorful hair because it feels like my natural state. I think I really suit a colorful head. My colorist is Mable Cable at Open Barbers, a hairdressing service for all lengths, genders, and sexualities, and Bex, a colorist in L.A., inspired my hair splat.
I don’t know if the color bears any links to my gender, but I definitely think having my hair short does. It’s something I’ve had for a very long time, from when I was a kid up until finishing secondary school. When I did buzz my hair, I loved it, and for the last 15 years on and off I’ve been shaving it. When it gets to a certain point I just want it off!
Not all non-binary people look the same, whether they’re AMAB [assigned male at birth] or AFAB [assigned female at birth]. How you present yourself and your hair doesn’t dictate your validity as a non-binary person. I would also love to have long hair but I just can’t do it. There’s a state in the middle that’s too dysphoric for me, even though if I did grow it, I could have rocker hair, like really long, bright yellow hair. But for me, shaving is just a reset. I think hair is massively tied to the patriarchy. We talk about clothes being genderless and makeup being for everyone, but hair is another thing which, for centuries, has been tied to gender as well as culture and wealth and many other things. We haven’t really moved from that in the ways we have with fashion and beauty. We haven’t had a new hair world. I would love to see a new hair world."
"My hair (styled by Ceisha Simone) is in locs, and I’ve had it like this for over five years. I used to bleach and dye my hair quite frequently when it wasn’t in this style, but recently I just wanted a drastic change. Up until today, it was blue, purple, and pink, but I wanted something different and I decided to bring out my fiery personality. When my hair was blue, I felt blue, too. Now I feel liberated.
My hair journey has been great. I’ve always been confident with my hair, especially when it comes to trying new styles. I like the feeling of taking risks, of doing something new. Potentially messing up my hair for the rest of my life is a thrill. With gender fluidity it can be difficult to accept compliments, because you often don’t really know what place it’s coming from and sometimes people just look at you and pick things about you and don’t accept all of who you are. Changing my hair allows people to discover more about me. I’m someone who takes risks. I put myself out there. I like having a balance between having my hair shaved and my locs. When they’re down, it brings out the more feminine side of me, but then I might wear a cap with it.
I think from a cultural perspective a lot of people have this misconception that as soon as you have locs, a) you’re going to be Rasta and b) you’re going to smoke weed. But I’m half Jamaican and I have a mixture of cultures within me: Trinidad, English... I feel like a lot of people look at me and there’s a sense of disappointment to see how far I’ve gone with my hair. Culturally, when you grow your locs, you’re not meant to bleach or dye it, and if you do, people think it’s Westernizing your hair. It hasn't necessarily been directed at me but that has made me reluctant in the past. Now, it's less of an issue for me. Traditionally, across many cultures, piercings, tattoos, body modification, and hair have been statements, and I think combining all of that within my aesthetic makes me who I am."
"I used to wear my hair a lot more colorful. Last year I wore it pink and black and I’ve had rainbow hair, too, before going completely black. I thought I was quite unique when I went blonde but I took a trip to Berlin and literally everyone had my hair! I got to the airport and there were all these gay boys with blonde mullets and I was like, Shit. I get my hair done at Open Barbers and I’ve been going there for four years. We just experiment together. There was a time when I had a red triangle shaved and dyed into my hair. It became like an art experiment and it was less about hair.
People react really differently to you when you have a weird hairstyle. They think you'd be up for a challenge. You get stares and confrontation. I noticed this especially when I didn’t have my shaved sides. I was out with my friends at the chicken shop and this guy walked past and was being a dick, and I believe that if I weren’t sat there with this hair it wouldn’t have attracted this attention. So the choice to have different hair often brings about unwanted visibility. Men are really threatened by someone who looks female and has weird hair and style. They think you’re challenging something. I am so used to being harassed, so when it stops I think, Oh my god, maybe I’m not my true self? I’d rather get in a big argument with someone than have them think I’m heterosexual.
I worry that sometimes I think about it too much because I’m so gender fluid. Hair is such a gendered thing. No matter what I do it’s seen as feminine. It’s hard to want a hairstyle and not think about how people see you. And you can really see how people treat you differently. When I had long hair and a fringe a couple of years ago, I was always coded as femme and then after that, I made a move to a slightly more masculine style and people assumed I was trans masc. I want to be able to experiment with how I look and not worry about how I’m read. When I’m in my own head I’m not so worried about what people think, until someone expresses an opinion on a new hairstyle or a change. Interactions can make you feel really wrong or really right. I wish it was just neutral."
"I have a fresh shave, courtesy of me sat on my bed with a blanket wrapped around myself. I have a barber's clipper and I just go for it. I shaved it nearly a year ago and it was a test for me to see if I would a) feel as confident and b) feel like I’m still reclaiming my femmeness, if that was still possible. Now I love being shaved and it just works because it adds that extra layer of alien to my look, which I like. The whole of my head is makeup-free and I just pull the blush up the sides of my head.
Initially, I was just really happy that my head wasn’t a weird shape! It didn’t detract from anything and it has made me feel more confident. Now, I would never want to grow the rest of it back out to any length because I enjoy the freedom of it. It’s a real blank canvas and it makes me more versatile. My shaved head definitely has a correlation with being non-binary, as do all the aesthetic choices I make. It’s always intrinsically linked to my gender identity and expression. I got to a point with my makeup and my fashion where I just really didn’t care, so I was almost confused with myself as to why I was apprehensive to do anything with my hair, and why I didn’t have the same attitude I had with fashion and makeup. More is more. Or in this case, less is more.
There's lots of positive attention online, but when I’m in public the response is negative. It’s more hurtful, because that kind of visibility is the worst part of it. I always laugh when people say to me, 'Do you do this every day?' Of course I do — it’s my look. It’s a stamp in time, a marker for me as a person to look back on my life and remember but also to create something to look back on in the queer history of now."
"I’ve done quite a lot with my hair. I’ve gone from buzzing it off five times to growing it out really long, to getting braids and cane rows and bleaching and dyeing it. I think it’s just a way to express myself without having to modify my actual self. This is partly because it’s so easy to get rid of my hair and do something new and partly because I don’t really have much attachment to it. It took a while to get to that stage, because growing up, especially in my community being Black and African, you have a lot of identity tied to your hair. People are like, 'Make sure you take care of it,' or 'Don’t cut your hair. Girls are meant to have long hair.'
It got to a point when I didn’t want it to have that much of a hold on me. Now, the more I do things with my hair, the more free I feel. It’s just been a journey of trying different things and I’d say my hair matches my mental state a lot of the time. When I’m in a bad place I want to do something new. Changing something short-term gives me more power. There isn't much you can instantly do to relieve stress, but I believe changing my hair helps.
Sometimes, it's quite hard to realize where you stand, but in the same way that hair is an expression of yourself, so is gender. It’s like, I don’t know what I’m doing but let me try to work this out, let’s see where I end up. Gender and hair go well together. For me, it's easy to see the progression from when I wasn’t comfortable with myself to now, and I can see that in my hair. That's strange because I haven’t changed much facially or my body hasn’t changed, but my hair and my clothing is how I see myself."
"I'd gone through a phase of having my hair pink, red, and orange for ages and I wanted a drastic change, so I went for lilac. I’ve done it before but my hair was much longer. Honestly, I just walk into the salon when I want to change my hair color and I’ll just stand and look at all the shades until one jumps out at me. What catches my eye can reflect my mood or how I’m feeling about my body. When my hair was long and pink, I felt more femme, but when my hair is shorter, I feel different. Colors aren’t gendered, but there are associations connected to them, and sometimes I overthink that. When it’s shaved like this I have a disconnect and will put whatever color I fancy on. I feel more androgynous when it's shaved. When I dye my hair it’s like changing clothes. Sometimes I want to wear a dress and sometimes I want to wear boxy trousers and feel liminal. It’s the same with my hair — I can be happy with it, and then all of a sudden I need the change to feel different.
The need to change my hair comes from having an unstable sense of identity and that probably results in dysphoria for me. It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror for too long. You start to feel like you don’t recognize your face, or when you say a word over and over again and it loses meaning. When I stay static for too long, I feel like I need to change. That’s partly to do with feelings of dysphoria, but it’s also to do with the fact that I’m an impulsive person and need to shift. I can’t change the way people see me. I can’t change the fact that as soon as I speak, people will hear a girl’s voice. But I can change the way that I look, and that’s the one thing I have complete control over. The amount of times I’ve walked into a place and people have said, 'Oh my god, what have you done to your hair?' in a good way. I feel powerful. It’s the kind of attention that I want."
"My mum is Pakistani so she has dead straight hair, and my dad’s Yemeni so he has Afro curls. I had a mini-Afro throughout my childhood until I was 12. When I reached my 20s, I started to explore my sexuality and then when P!nk came out I was like, 'Wow, who is this woman? She’s amazing.' I contemplated changing my hair but I thought my mum would kill me, because in my culture, a woman’s hair is everything. Her beauty is her hair and if you cut it short it’s like, 'Oh! Who’s gonna marry you now?' That said, I still experimented.
My first cut was for Vidal Sassoon. I modeled for them and they gave me a mohawk. My mum didn’t know what to do with that, so she said, 'You know what, why don't you just start again, and shave it?' So I shaved it all off. I became bald and I really loved it. Growing up, I liked Aaron Carter and Nick Carter from Backstreet Boys, that kind of floppy thing. So I went blonde and everyone told me I looked great. I loved it and I thought, I’m gonna keep experimenting, and I went through so many hairstyles. I tried gold, shaved sides, undercuts, growing the top bit longer... Then I realized I had tried everything and I was still not satisfied. So I shaved it all off again.
I like balance in life. I’ll wear makeup but I like baggy clothes. I would love to go super short but I always think, Does it balance right at the moment? I think my hair has found itself now and my personality is really coming through. My hair means a lot to me. I’ve been sidelined a lot and I’ve been alienated by it, but I always ask, 'How do I make it my own?' I believe I can really do that with my hair."