CW: mental health, violence.
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 (or 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. From their pedestals, I had a perfect view of each snip and coif, 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 became increasingly enchanted by the scene across the road. Though it was a day like (I presume) any other in the barbershop, I was seeing something entirely different altogether. The importance of these stores in the lives of men made an abrupt and 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 of it began to show. 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 times that people can justify manually overriding their natural instinct to protect their pressure points in exchange for a payoff that, one would assume, outbalances the risk.
I've never been with a man who didn't turn into a quivering kitten the moment I raked my fingernails through his hair. Given many of my girlfriends seem to have the same opinion as I do when it comes to my own - it's long and tangles easily, don't fucking mess with it - it's interesting to me that the majority of the men I've felt comfortable enough with to head-scratch have had almost the exact opposite reaction to how I'd have responded. But 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 brush 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 to better understand ourselves, and others.
For a while, I held the belief that I was a tomboy growing up, but these days, I think I was 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 when embodied by somebody with female anatomy: loud, cocky, cheeky, blunt... All of which are are, traditionally, not only associated with masculinity, but considered reflective of great male leaders. So to paint myself as a tomboy justified this raw femininity within me - though, of course, I was no less feminine for it. I wonder now at what age I was when I felt like I had to justify my 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 I'll openly admit that being an assertive woman doesn't always greatly endear me to people. I'm awful at the dating game because I don't know how to play-pretend at being pursued. I either seem to stand my ground in a "try it and I'll bite your head off" stance, or I'll throw caution to the wind and do a little pursuing of my own. Supposedly, men resent the pressure of feeling an obligation to constantly drive the momentum of romantic relationships, but I've never been interested in a guy who seemed too chuffed about me doing it for them. My attempts to play up and play the game usually have the opposite effect from my intention; 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 with a measured curiosity as to whether this refrain was, in fact, the Konami code to getting into a feminist's panties?
When it comes to dating, I hold the opinion that emasculation - like closure - is nonsense. Not that it doesn't exist, nor that people don't believe in it. Instead, let me put it like this: I know myself well enough to know that I'd struggle to date a guy who believed that if I were too bold, too brazen, too bossy, too me, that he'd somehow be made less of a man. Because at a certain point, a man who believes he can be emasculated by his girlfriend will inevitably have it comes to pass. I'd never want to be with someone who needed to me to compromise who I am to wrap his masculinity in bubble wrap. Though this is the origin of the term "masculinity, so fragile", gender doesn't even have to be the justification for it: I simply don't have the patience to coddle an insecure partner.
But male intimacy is a beautiful thing, whether it's platonic or romantic, or between men or towards women. It's necessary for connection, companionship, introspection, and even to facilitate well-balanced mental health. But because the notion of being a man is so intertwined with never seeming weak and never opening up, 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) so jarring that it borders on 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, just to ensure a drained bladder doesn't derail a good banter - but hey, that's another post in itself).
Toxic masculinity, so named for its pervasive harms, isn't just some pet peeve of mine; it's 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 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 that someone is a man, but rather that the "brand" of being a man carries an often-unchallenged social expectation to be stoic, emotionally distant, and quote-unquote "strong", even though it's been proven time and time again that these characteristics are categorically harmful. Toxic masculinity pressures men to suppress any emotions that may make them appear vulnerable to others, instead of diffusing them by sharing. Accordingly, men in droves appear to be self-selecting away from support networks, and it's reflected in the statistics of suicide.
I've seen a harrowing number of amazing men lost to suicide, though it doesn't have to be that way. I don't pretend to have a catch-all solution for a complex issue, but I think it at least starts with letting go of the idea that emotions are shameful. As wild a fantasy as it would be if think-piece writers could reshape the world with a compelling-enough argument, masculinity is so much more nebulous than the surface level to which I've been able to scrape here. 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.
Until that day comes, there's not much to do but try to generate meaningful conversations and encourage critique. But 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, 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.