The Good, the Bad, and the Highly Personal: A Reading List About Haircuts

Photo: Brian Auer

In 2011,  I had hair down my back. It was thick, wavy, and supposedly enviable. I hated it. I wanted it off my face, but my sensitive scalp made me prone to headaches and “sore spots,” as I’d called them since childhood. I didn’t have a knack for hot styling tools, which meant I was at the mercy of luck. When a bad hair day struck, I had to wait it out. I spent middle school trying to emulate the hyper-straightened hair of the popular girls and high school begrudgingly accepting my texture and reading a thousand WikiHow articles on living a shampoo-free life. I never could give up washing my hair completely. I’ve even made the mistake of getting bangs.

My first short haircut was a revelation. Two of my college friends accompanied me to a salon in Pittsburgh I chose via Yelp (I did not trust the hair-cutting joints in my small rural college town). My stylist was nervous, but my fellow clients and her colleagues encouraged us both. I wish I remembered her name. I felt as though I were a block of marble and my pixie cut, a sculpting. I could finally be who I was. I debuted my new “lifestyle” (the stylist’s words!) that night at the faculty talent show, striding up and down the aisles of the auditorium.

How strange that the fuzzy stuff on top of our heads is fraught with social and political implications, that it can destroy our self-esteem or make us feel like new creations.

1. “Barbering For Freedom.” (Elias Rodriques, n+1, September 2015)

Before I read this, I had no idea black barbershops had their roots in slavery. Elias Rodriques weaves his own experiences in black barbershops with his fascinating review of Quincy T. Mills’ Cutting Across the Color Line:

It is the barbers’ simultaneous advancing of black rights and climb up the social ladder into the middle class that leads Mills to his primary argument: the history of black barbershops “suggests that individual and collective interests need not be diametrically opposed.” In the 19th century, for instance, black barbers gained more wealth than other black freedmen, and certainly more than slaves, but also utilized their privilege to aid abolition movements. In the 20th century, black barbers profited off of their customers while helping black men conform to black masculine aesthetics, functioning as “conduits of black community formation and national belonging.”

2. “The Interrobang.” (Slate Staff, Slate, October 2015)

Bangs—Satan’s chosen hairstyle or downright adorable? Slate’s staff weighs in, and their entires are replete with baby photos!

3. “Better Living Through Meaninglessness.” (Melissa Broder, Vice, July 2015)

Melissa Broder is So Sad Today, the once-anonymous depressive persona behind the infamous Twitter and Vice column. In this essay, Broder deals with the universally anxiety-inducing bad haircut.

I’ve also come to realize that my anxiety is more comfortable when I am involved in a contained drama. On some level, I think I choose to identify with a fucked-up hair experience—even when it isn’t noticeable to the naked eye—because it’s a lot easier to manage my anxiety around hair than, say, death or powerlessness or personal freedom or the question of what we are all doing here.

4. “The Twilight of the Indoor Mall.” (Mike Nagel, The Awl, November 2014)

Seems like the only folks haunting the Collin Creek Mall with any consistency are the hairdressers.

5. “For Muslim Women at Hair Salons, A Room Without a View.” (Kathleen Burge, Boston Globe, November 2014)

A shorter article, but so interesting and important! Several inclusive salons in the Boston area are supporting their local Muslim community by installing private styling areas so hijabis can have their hair cut without compromising their religious beliefs.

6. “Declaring Something New: Learning How to Leave My Afro and Love My Queercut.” (Carmen Rios, Autostraddle, September 2012)

In my ~hair journey~, Autostraddle is my Bible. They post legendary galleries of “alternative lifestyle haircuts” and dedicated an entire threepart series to celebrate curly-haired queers, called, amazingly, “Our Hair’s Not So Straight Either.” Here, I’m featuring an essay by Carmen Rios, a writer I really, really admire. I wanted to conclude this list with this paragraph:

Cutting your hair is always a growth process, right? You sort of challenge yourself to do this thing and then cope with and readjust to it later. You sort of master yourself that way. Now it’s a new day, a new light, a new haircut. I no longer feel invisible when I feel femme and I no longer feel like an outsider when I butch it up. I also, you know, kind of like butching it up? And now I feel like I finally can. I think I can wear more shoes and maybe even more men’s clothes but also floral headbands and soft scarves and that makes me smile, and sorry, I’m not sorry, I’m super excited because now I can just try the world out for another go and land somewhere else and have it be super amazing and adventurous and honest.