Fun fact about me: I fucking love barbershops.
There's no great story to it, since I've never actually been inside of one. I have no beard that needs trimming, no sideburns that need sculpting, no nose hair that needs twizzling or evaporating or setting on fire (whatever it is that those scary motorised thingies do).
But during my long, boring days in London, the ones when I couldn't afford to do much of anything and all the people worth doing things with were at their respective places of work, I found myself creating my own entertainment in much the same way bored children do with a handful of rocks. Eating a bowl of bun cha in one of my favourite Vietnamese restaurants one slow early-winter afternoon, I realised I had a voyeur's ideal vantage point into the bustling barbershop across the road.
The seats sat on raised platforms that cast the customers like a spotlight-bathed thespian on a stage. They gazed lovingly into their own reflections as a kingdom of cuttings lay scattered at their ankles, oblivious to the queue of waiting patrons seated against the glass. On these pedestals, they afforded me the perfect vantage point of each snip and coif.
I watched as I chewed on my own rumination - Is it time I moved away again? Where would I go? What if I don't find what I'm looking for out there? My questions began to simmer, then still, as I found myself increasingly enchanted by the scene across the road. Though it was a day like (I presume) any other for them, I was seeing something entirely different altogether. All at once, the significance of barbershops in the lives of men made perfect sense to me: they were part necessity, part performance piece, and part bastion of vulnerability.
Yes, vulnerability. Because as I sat in that seat for over two hours with my noodles all but forgotten, subtle markers emerged. There's a surprisingly intimate quality to the way a man cocks his head back to reveal his throat to a stranger clutching a straight razor. But like contact sports and auto-erotic asphyxiation, a clean shave seems to be one of the few situations where people manually override their natural instinct to protect their pressure points in exchange for a payoff that, one would assume, outbalances the risk.
I've never met a man who didn't turn into a quivering kitten the moment I raked my fingernails through his hair. Given most girls seem to have the same opinion when it comes to their own - it's long and tangles easily, don't fucking mess with it - it's interesting to me that men seem to so love what I find stressful. When a barber rakes a fine-tooth comb through an inch or two of hair, I wonder: Does their scalp sing? Does it sizzle? Does it purr as that feline, limp-lipped, heavy-lidded stupor falls across the face of the customer?
I don't know. After all, I was creeping through two layers of glass and a four-lane highway. But when one of the barbers revealed one of those plush, round brushes and began dusting the stray hairs from a client's neck and shoulders (with me supplementing the floof! floof! floof! noises in my mind), I wondered if perhaps barbershops were one of the last bastions of heteronormative male-on-male intimacy.
Then I wondered why they had to be.
It's no secret that I find the concepts of masculinity and femininity fascinating, particularly when we critically analyse where the line is drawn between what is ingrained in us internally, and what we have been socialised to believe as fact. As the world increasingly develops a greater understanding of trans, queer, and non-normative identities, people are becoming more inclined to put what it means to be male, female, both, or neither beneath the microscope. We want to better understand ourselves, and others.
For a while, I held the belief that I was a tomboy growing up, but truth be told, I think I was just looking for some retroactive continuity. Whilst the days of finishing schools and stuffing oneself before a meal so as to give the illusion of a bird-like appetite are behind us, many of my major personality traits as a child (and, admittedly, now), are still considered abrasive in women: loud, cocky, cheeky, blunt. They may not be considered hallmarks of masculinity themselves, but they're definitely characterised positively in male leaders, and less so in female ones. So to paint myself as a tomboy was a way to justify this raw femininity within me - though, of course, I was no less feminine for it. I wonder what age I was when I felt I had to justify my so-called failure to be the Quintessential Little Girl.
And this fraught nature has not abated with time. I can only speak to my own experience, but assertiveness in women isn't often taken lightly. In my early twenties, I was awful at the dating game because I didn't know how to play-pretend at being pursued. I either stood my ground in a "try it and I'll bite your head off" defensive stance, or threw caution to the wind to do a little pursuing of my own. Supposedly, men resent the expectation to instigate romantic relationships, but I've met plenty who did not seem too chuffed about me doing it for them. My attempts to play up and play the game - equal-opportunity romantic that I am - has been known to have the opposite effect; it turns out that the thrill of the hunt only applies when you're not the prey. No wonder I've never been much of a sprinter.
So why is it that even against the backdrop of love, romance, and flings alike, my new benchmark for male vulnerability was set by a bunch of Shoreditch hipsters getting haircuts at 2 in the afternoon on a Wednesday, and not by any of the men who'd ever murmured "I love strong women" to me like this would be the Konami code to a feminist's underpants?
When it comes to dating, I hold the opinion that emasculation - like closure - is nonsense. Not that 'emasculation' doesn't exist, nor that people don't believe in it. But rather, it's something one does to oneself... Not something subjected upon an innocent man by a woman too bold, too brazen, too bossy, (too sure of herself?).
This is why male intimacy is a beautiful thing. Whether it's platonic or romantic, between men or towards women, male intimacy is a mechanism to remove the codification of a world along the lines of strength, and strength alone. It's necessary for connection, companionship, introspection, and to facilitate well-balanced mental health. But the notion of being a man is so intertwined with never seeming weak and never opening up emotionally. As such, many men seem to find the idea of being emotionally expressive or physically intimate with another man (and no, I'm not talking about sex) jarring, even frightening. I mean, damn, most men can't even stand side-by-side at urinals without being scared another dude might peek at their junk. (Meanwhile, drunk girls sardine-pile into nightclub toilets with their jeans around their ankles, determined that a full bladder won't derail good banter - but hey, that's another post in itself).
Toxic masculinity, so named for its pervasive harms, is an active killer of men. The data confirms that men who consider themselves "self-reliant" are more likely to confidentially report suffering from depression, suicidality, and other negative mental health markers, but are less likely to seek mental health support for fear of looking weak or feeling emasculated. What I appreciate about the concept of toxic masculinity is that it places male needs at the core of its definition: What is toxic about masculinity isn't being a man, but rather that the "brand" of being a man. Stoicism. Emotionally aloofness. Repression. Aggression. Toxic masculinity glorifies these characteristics despite the fact they are actively harmful. As a result, men suppress their emotions, rather than diffusing them through sharing; through vulnerability. Accordingly, men in droves appear to be self-selecting away from support networks, and it's reflected in the statistics of suicide.
I don't pretend to have a catch-all solution to ending toxic masculinity, but I think progress starts with extricating shame from emotions and asking ourselves tough questions. Why is gender such a loaded term - a source of salvation for some, and a prison for others? Why do we bemoan gender norms and then recoil from any attempt to subvert them? Why would some men rather die violently than confront their very real need for emotional support? Why ?
Short answer: I don't know. But I really wish I did. We've lost too many men already.
A real cultural shift will come when we can mainstream meaningful conversations and critical discussions of gender. But until then, for all of the men who are taking their journeys at their own pace - the ones who are suspicious of mental health support systems, and never let their mates see them cry - I hope that at least you're keeping on top of things. Eating right, exercising a bit, keeping clean. Whatever makes you feel good.
And I hope you're getting your hair cut in barbershops. I hope you know the guy who tapers your fade by first name. And I hope that when you walk out - even if you can't quite put your thumb on why - you feel a little better than you did before.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.