ON TENDERNESS

I cut off all my hair in high school. For years by then I’d been wearing clothes from the boys’ section, loose t-shirts and skateboard shoes, but until the day I hacked off the ropy ponytail I’d never let down, I was just a tomboy – still “girl.” In the small, white, rural town where I grew up, there were no words for what I was after; the language simply did not exist. To broaden the scope of my own private dictionary and pinpoint an entry where I could fit, I found myself scouring the three books the public library had tagged with round rainbow stickers, pulling out the terms that fascinated me – dyke, butch, boi – and collaging them secretly in the nest of my being like some kind of sexually confused magpie. I didn’t want to be a “lesbian,” as that word sounded like a disease and not a person, but I wasn’t allowed to be a “boy” if I wasn’t “trans,” and I wasn’t “trans,” not completely.

But where I grew up, it was simpler than I was making it. There was one word in the existing vernacular for people like me, who cut off their hair and wore cargo shorts, and for people like Connor, who filmed YouTube makeup tutorials, and for people like Mark, who had once kissed Connor: “faggot.” It was somewhat beautiful in its all-encompassing nature, perhaps, but I don’t think the people who hurled it around in the hallways knew the nuances of the slur; it was simply their term for “aberrant.” Despite the lack of comprehension surrounding me, I finally settled on “gay” and eventually came out as such, and yet, like the feminine fringe my hairdresser would always attempt to style out of the buzzed, masculine haircut I’d ask for, it never felt quite right. When I finally left the strange microcosm of high school for college, I realized two things. One: I didn’t want a new word; “boy” had always felt best, regardless of how “trans” I was, and two: I had to stop getting my hair cut at salons. In my first semester of college, I biked to a barbershop a little over a mile from campus, a real one with red-white-and-blue stripes snaking up the pole outside and noxious blue canisters of Barbicide squatting on the counters. There I discovered a realm with which I have since been fascinated. That space functioned for me both as a laboratory for a study of the male world, one in which I learned to discern and subsequently implement the patterns underlying the behaviors of men in their element, as well as a stunning, though often subtle showcase of the absurdities and contradictions in those men’s sense of traditional masculinity.

The old-fashioned Southern barbershop I frequent is the liminal space between performative masculinity and intimacy. The performance comes first: merely by pushing open the door to the peeling white walls and water-stained mirrors you have signed away your rights to weakness, announcing your participation in the set’s macho act. Women rarely, if ever, set foot in the place, wandering instead down the main street outside if accompanying a patron, and thus your manhood is tried by men alone. The door is sticky, the wood almost always swollen by humidity into its frame, and your entrance is accordingly forcible and loud; as such, you will already have an audience for the first steps of your role. How ready you are for the door to fight you and how easily you dominate it, forcing it to swing smoothly against its angry nature in a primal exhibition of strength – this is your first important scene.

It is, however, your entrance after opening the door that is most significant, and often this is all it takes for the men inside to decide upon your role and gauge your confidence there. If you have been here before, you will have already assessed whether your preferred barber of the three is occupied by glancing through the plate glass windows and, as he likely is, you will simply greet him and take a seat. The greeting is the crux of this scene. The simplest and most effective address is a slight nod, a stiff raising of your chin, baring your throat to the room. This is a primitive display like that of wolves, bodily announcing peaceable intentions. Indeed, there are many parallels between the behaviors of animals and of men among men, as open-mouthed smiles are considered extravagant here, almost like a baring of teeth; a tight-lipped, upward-turning of the mouth accompanying the nod is more acceptable. Waving is unnecessary, as the room is small and excessive limb movement can often be read as flamboyant or feminine. As a general rule, it is best to practice physical restraint; real men are moved to bodily displays only by extreme passions – anger, lust, excitement – and everyday interactions do not warrant such a garish occupation of space. This scene should take no more than a few seconds, as your barber, if already familiar with you, will not initiate any small talk at this time, and unless you’re a particularly gifted male conversationalist, well-informed regarding the weather or recent basketball scores, you should not attempt any, either, as this may be read as a feminine tendency to loquacity.

This, however, is not to suggest that masculinity is an act of confinement; on the contrary, your presence should take up significantly more space than your body, especially if you are small. When you take your seat, spread your legs. Use both armrests. Avoid any sort of apologetic movement at all costs; if you have to get up to use the bathroom while you’re waiting, do so decisively, with long, heavy strides and raised chin.

These rules and others of heightened masculinity are evocative of a wilder, hungrier human past. In the societies of many primates with whom we share ancestry, young males will emigrate to a different group than that of their kin at adolescence. New males who display either too much or not enough aggression will be rejected by the group; even upon acceptance, a new male must maintain enough hostility to avoid losing social status without encroaching upon the authority of the dominant males of the group. Similarly, the barbershop embodies an unstable hierarchy in which each individual must prove his gender upon entering in order to belong without making his behavior seem like the performance it absolutely is. While cisgender men can accomplish this fairly easily almost entirely by nature of their bodies alone, they must still play into standardized Southern masculine roles, however unconsciously. Take, for example, their speech: the cis-male client’s voice lowers noticeably in pitch when he is addressing his barber, and even if that client’s inflection is typically a more neutral “how’s it goin?’” brand of Southern, when his barber greets him with the more intense, free-flowing “how’re y’ doon today?” the customer’s mouth will go oval around his response as if holding an egg in one cheek, tongue relaxed, in an exaggeration of his own accent to match.

The performance is not limited to patrons, however. The barbers shuffle around the leather-backed chairs in heavy boots and starched blue button-downs, silent or mumbling in gravelly Southern tones about that week’s game, occupying the most space of anyone in the room with motion alone. Indeed, their performance is the standard by which all patrons must base their own and, in this particular establishment, the standard is, in fact, standard – a highly traditional, quiet Southern masculinity, albeit with just-discernible traces of regional liberalism that can be gleaned from a “fuck Trump” postcard tacked to the back wall. This postcard is crowded among countless testaments to their particular brand of masculinity: various college sports schedules, Polaroids from hunting trips, a local cheerleading squad’s calendar from 2009 perpetually hanging open to July because that month was blonde and particularly busty. However casual it may seem, this set is part of the performance.

The barber himself offers no superfluous conversation; his very demeanor discourages any excessively emotional displays, as his eyes are almost always glazed over, drifting with the movements of clippers and comb over heads that may as well be disembodied. This is not to say that conversation is non-existent; it is simply, for the most part, one-sided. Some men, usually older, talk a great deal in the chair, pontificating on the unbelievable shopping habits of now-ex-wives and the ungratefulness of children who never listen. In response, the barber may offer as little as a grunt, repeated as often as deemed necessary. This is not a note of displeasure, however, and the lopsidedness of the conversation does not indicate a lack of meaningful communication; the barber’s grunt of response is a brief yet rich vibration, its resonance rugged and porous like volcanic rock, and it relays the sympathy and interest the man in the chair needs to hear as punctuation to his outpouring. Indeed, this sound is almost as important to the barber’s vocation as is his craft with clippers and comb, as it can convey the affirmation that men are not taught how to ask for. The whittling-down of great hardships into misogynistic sound bites, the gruff plainness of the barber’s response – these are just some aspects of the haircut that hint at the edges of something unbearably tender.

It is exceedingly rare to hear a man ask outright for an adjustment of his haircut; if the barber asks “how’s this look so far,” the response is almost always an immediate “just fine,” often before the customer has even been turned around to face the mirror. Suggestions are seen as nitpicking, a feminine trait often bemoaned by the older men who like to complain about their wives while in the chair. Desires for adjustments are most easily expressed in response to the final two of the barber’s three-question script whose questions are as follows: what can I do for you? Back tapered or blocked? Want your sideburns cleaned up? Only in response to one of these questions is it acceptable to suggest an addendum such as “can we also do a hard part?” or “maybe a little more off the top” to your original request. It is fascinating to witness the anxiety audibly apparent in men asking for something other or more than what’s already been done to them; the customer’s macho façade slips slightly with uncertainty, his voice rising in pitch and lowering in volume. It is an unbecoming vocalization in this establishment, demonstrating a feminine tendency towards apology in the questioning, upwards swoop in pitch. Perhaps the key to this scene is the simple yet powerful fact that the haircut is being done to him, by another man – he is the object and not the subject in getting what he wants. If mined a little further, these scenes can be read as indicative of a greater societal, gendered ill: men are traditionally so conditioned to act unthinkingly on their desires that, when forced into a passive role, they are exposed as unable to explicitly communicate.

The performances given in the barbershop are not typical displays of masculinity, per se. They may be based on a widely accepted model of the gender but their execution in the establishment is exaggerated to the point of absurdity. It is almost campy, like a drag king showcase – men swaggering to the chairs, communicating confidently in the staccato vernacular of the barbershop, oversimplifying their needs with “justs” – “just a two on the sides and a three up top,” “just tapered is fine,” “just a beard trim is all” – as a way of emphasizing the rustic, salt-of-the-earth overtones in their performance.

And yet, despite the hypermasculinity inherent to the establishment, you get the sense that men are at some version of their most vulnerable here. Perhaps it is the act of sitting in a chair under the hands of another man, arms symbolically restrained by the cape cinched around your neck, the barber looming behind you with blades of all sizes as you assume a position of submission, of object – perhaps this drives the subtle but powerful duality behind the haircut. The beauty of the experience lies in that duality of the exaggerated grittiness of everyone’s performances and the intense tenderness of what they came here for.

The haircut as a whole can sometimes be emotionally vulnerable, as some men do confide in their barbers in ways they don’t do elsewhere, yet even more striking is the physicality of the experience. The act of cutting someone else’s close-cropped hair is inescapably intimate. The barber has one hand directly on your skull for almost the entire duration of the cut, his fingers gently pressing into your scalp, angling and steadying your head as he glides the clippers over your ears. His thumb rests on the angle of your jaw when he folds your ear back; his whole calloused palm lies across the crown of your head as he carefully shaves a narrow line where your hair naturally parts. He often faces you directly, his breath brushing your forehead as he runs his fingers through your hair to gauge the evenness of his progress. The physical experience of the haircut is remarkably gentle and intimate and yet its very nature, in the context of a proper, old-fashioned barbershop, is still distinctly masculine. For most men, it is simply a haircut; for those who have had to learn to pay attention, it contradicts the very essence of socially-accepted conceptions of masculinity, embodying in its duality the conflict that is inherent to these artificial gender norms.

For me, the most affecting scene of my haircut is that last question of the barber’s script: want your sideburns cleaned up? I’ve been going to the same barber at the same shop for years now; I’ve learned the difference between blocked and tapered; I know what a “two on the sides” is. Most importantly, I have learned that while masculinity is a nebulous concept, mostly artificial and in many ways toxic, I have never felt more affirmed in mine than when, after I’ve said “yes,” my barber picks up the clippers, holds the soft skin of my feminine face taut, and shaves my cheek in that classically male parabola, buzzing up from the angle of my jaw to the base of my sideburns. In my case, this is a symbolic gesture, not a formality, and it always pushes me close to tears, my heart swelling with puffed-chest, little-boy pride. There is hardly anything you could call true hair on my face; he knows I can’t grow a beard. Though the words may be identical to those of every other man’s haircut, his question, my response – they don’t really belong to the barbershop’s script. They indicate instead his quiet participation in my private, queer performance, that which keeps me upright in my body, demonstrated by gentle, intimate contact in one of the most masculine spaces in existence.

Rowan Chand is a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where they received a B.S. in Biology. Their work tends to focus on the complexities of masculinity and gender as they intertwine with queer/trans POC identity, second-generation immigrant experience, and the American South which they call home. Currently they live and work in Kathmandu, Nepal.