On my 30th birthday, I decided to get “the big chop
”. I cut my shoulder-length hair down to an itty-bitty afro. A number of friends accompanied me to the salon. It was … an event. We all watched nervously as a very kind gentleman at the Aveda Institute in Washington, DC tentatively cut through my tangled and chemically tortured hair. It was the last time (at least that I can remember) that I set foot in a salon.
Once my hair hit the floor, I said 'goodbye' and 'good riddance' to hairdressers' lengthy inquisitions about my then non-existent love life and how many children I’d want to have. I found the conversation topics inane, and I’d spend most of my time hiding in a book or in my phone, making it obvious I did not want to talk for the four hours I’d spend in the chair having my hair chemically straightened (that's assuming my hairdresser would afford me the privilege of starting on time). When it was all over, I’d be out anywhere between $120-150 if I was lucky.
Ever since I embraced my natural, short hair, I have gone to barbershops. I invite a number of odd stares from gentlemen curious to know why a girl has entered what is largely embraced as the boys’ club. Once they realize I mean them no harm and don't seek to change the environment one iota, they go back to reading or watching the game.
I find the stoic calm of the barbershop to be a welcome change. I've also enjoyed trying different barbershops over the years -- something I didn't dare do with my hairdresser when I was chemically straightening my hair. The hunt for a good hairdresser is epic, and once one is found you maintain your loyalty at all costs (including plane tickets). Now that I've gone natural, my hair grows back so quickly, a bad cut is just a nice reminder that, in the words of India.Arie, "I am not my hair"
. My roommate, Shay, sent me that song while I was particularly despondent following a terrible encounter with a barber who had probably never seen a head of African-American hair in his life. Both he and I learned a lot.
I’ve been to predominantly white barbershops and predominantly black ones. Today, my regular barber is Rey in Palo Alto. I ask about his family, and he asks about mine and my work. It’s a lovely, cordial and (thankfully) short conversation about relevant though surface-level topics. Rey also does a great job. I leave with a wallet that’s only $40 lighter. That’s because Rey’s spot is a bit pricier than other places, but I like Rey, and I know Palo Alto rent doesn’t pay itself.
Finding Rey was one thing, but the path to Rey was paved with little lessons in how to exist in a barbershop.
- First, know your guide comb number. I am a 3 to start with a 2 to for a bit more precision and a 0 for the details.
- Second, once you’ve found your regular barbershop, don’t just go to the first chair available. It’s perfectly okay to say, “Thanks, Bob, I’m actually here for Rey.” They get it, and they won’t pressure you into taking their seat. I used to think I had to go with the first barber available. That was fine when I was still hunting for my regular, but once I found him (and, in one case back in D.C., it was a her), I learned to stick with him/her. Some people are just better at handling my head than others.
- Ask questions. Barbers know a lot about hair, and they'll help you learn about yours and how they get you looking the way you want. Then you can inform barbers who are new to your hair on how you like to have things done.
- Always come with cash. My hair salons always took plastic. Barbershops, at least nearly all of the ones I have been to, take cash. So, come prepared with cash, and don’t forget to tip!
- Bear in mind that this isn’t a place that’s used to seeing a lot of women drop in and stick around. I’m basically a visitor, and I fully embrace that. So, I try to be very respectful of the other customers' space and keep to myself. It’s quite nice.
- Finally, enjoy the experience and observe. I find barbershops fascinating, everything from what they choose to play on television and on the radio to the books the customers read and the light banter. It’s a portal into another world. My favorite moments are when fathers bring their sons. Seeing these little boys get initiated into this world is fascinating and heartwarming. It reminds me of when my mother took me to the salon for the first time and how similar and different the worlds are.
I hope that, if you’re a woman considering the big chop, you’ll give it a go and explore the world of barbershops. They’re really a fascinating, fun alternative to the hair salon — and they’re generally cheaper too.