Why I changed my opinion of ‘macho’ barbershops – and straight men

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As I reclined further back than ever, I heard a gentle double thud – the chair releasing. My head was now horizontal, my throat completely exposed. At his mercy. I smelled mint with the faintest tinge of vanilla.

I traced ceiling patterns, tried to tune my ear to the blur in, blur out between two radio stations, wishing it’d settle on one. Then I felt it: the coldness of the shiny, sharp blade against my bobbing Adam’s apple, about to zip up my throat. I gulped hard. I could barely believe I was finally here. Five years ago, I’d have run a mile. Yet by the time he finished, I was hooked.

I once dismissed barbers as places of toxic masculinity. I’d long been suspicious of male-dominated places (outside of the naughtier gay clubs I attend). They always seemed like unofficial men-only clubs from which I felt alienated; where I presumed I’d be judged, shamed or laughed at for not being the acceptable type of man.

Yet, I’ve come to realise, I was personally guilty of the very judgement I feared. I’d presumed only “blokey blokes” go to barbers. I’m not that – I sip lattes, ride bicycles and date men. Barbershops seemed like places men chatted about sports and cars and subjects with which I cannot engage meaningfully.

Whenever a blokey bloke asks which team I support, I long to answer a different question, one that requires me to rank Madonna’s 11 world tours in descending order. I could do that off the bat.

Fussy salons were the only way forward for me, I thought. Head massages, gentle lighting, out of date Woman’s Weekly editions and the unnecessary washing of my short hair twice, all for a price I couldn’t really afford: this, I thought, was self-care.

And it kind of is. But it needn’t come with a salon price tag, nor a mixed sex vibe.

The first step on the road to the barbershop involved me connecting on a deep level with my salon-based hairdresser, Patrick – a straight man. He was a stylist, not a barber – those semantics appealed.

I shared secrets with Patrick I hadn’t shared with my closest friends. Because he wasn’t in my friendship group, I could divulge as he snipped. I trusted him and shared similar humour with him, and still haven’t fully forgiven him for deserting the profession, and me, to become a tradie. It was one of the hardest relationship break ups I’ve endured.

Hairdressers are more than stylists; they’re therapists. They probably don’t know your inner circle, so you can speak freely and they can offer unbiased advice. Or just listen. There’s something about the comforting distance provided by speaking to them through the mirror that diminishes the intensity of a head-on encounter.

It’s here where barbers, especially, have a potentially pivotal role in encouraging otherwise stoic “blokes” – those often dissuaded from sharing their feelings – to open up. That barber’s mirror can reflect you back to yourself in a way you might not have otherwise seen. It’s an intimate space, but a safe one.

Last month, a savvy barbershop in Tasmania trained its staff in mental health first aid. “We see ourselves as a bit on the forefront in the mental health battle,” barber Alex Toscan said, following the suicide in the previous year of five former clients.

It’s stories like this that made me realise my error of judgement about barbers. The first time I bit the bullet was immediately after lockdown. With all the fussy salons booked out, my last resort was a walk-in barbers.

I’d also pre-judged barbers as inferior hairdressers, places that butchered men’s hair with shears and a short back and sides, in and out in minutes, for men who got their hair shaved, not styled. How very wrong I was. I now know a barber understands a man’s hair and head better: where the crown should sit; at which length to graduate the fade.

I’ve since toured London barbers and have been genuinely moved by the tenderness with which they trim my thick, bushy ginger beard, and their intimate stories of family life. There was the barber who confessed that he worries about not being good enough for his wife, and that he was considering leaving her out of the fear of disappointing her.

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I know what I wanted to say at that moment: that, if he was as vulnerable with her as he’d been with me, his relationship would surely endure, because true intimacy comes directly from vulnerability. Instead I said nothing. Sometimes people aren’t asking for your advice. They just want to be heard.

And that led to my final epiphany on the hirsute path to barbershop enlightenment. It wasn’t just barbers I’d judged too hastily. It was straight men.

Once I allowed them an opportunity to show me who they were, I broadened my perspective of what a man – even a blokey one – could look like in 2022.

Of course, not all barbers are straight – something else I’d misjudged! But now whenever I see that spinning red, white and sometimes blue pole, the red that once signified the barber also performed blood-inducing operations like tooth extractions, now represents to me a sanguine stamp of new-found quality and care.

It’s the spinning invitation of a helter skelter: come, climb the trickier parts with me, for the resulting descent will thrill you.

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