CS: queer & LGBTQ+ community talk, talking about ageism, body shame, personal stories of nonbinary gender exploration, stories about discouraging parents, masculine barbershop culture, interview by nonbinary client with a cis-woman barber.
I’ve been going to the Crows Nest Barbershop to get my haircut for the last year and a half, but I was really anxious to go the first time. I was worried I wouldn’t be enough of a guy for such a boys club. I feel like next to men I’m not very masculine, and next to women I’m not very feminine. Salons, for all their hyperfemininity, have always made me feel deeply out of place, judged, and uncomfortable. I felt like every woman in the salon “just knew” something was “wrong” with me. At the time, I didn’t have they/them language or concepts like nonbinary, agender, or gender queer to help explain some of my feelings. Most of the time, in very feminine spaces I had intense imposter syndrome and sometimes felt straight-up creepy. Salons always made me feel like I was failing as a woman.
Barbershops posed a similar problem in the opposite direction. I don’t identify as a trans man and I’m certainly not a cis-man. Failing at being a “man” has never concerned me, but I genuinely thought a barbershop just wouldn’t know what to do with me. Then I met Stella Oram.
I don’t think I would have taken the leap into the barbershop scene if I hadn’t seen a barber by the name of Stella on the online appointment form. I thought, “yes, I can do this. If women can be barbers, maybe I don’t have to be a manly man to go in.”
Over the past year Stella and I have gotten to know each other (despite the first two haircuts being almost completely silent. I was so nervous). It turns out Stella has been cutting hair for queer and trans folks for a while now.
When she first started doing hair she worked at a gay bar and she had a lot of friends who wanted more gender neutral haircuts. “People started gravitating towards me for cutting hair because they were getting that more edgy or masculine haircut,” she explains.
Stella started getting calls from clientele, like myself, who wanted to go to a barber but were intimidated by the barbershop environment. Stella, being a woman, was a more approachable first point of contact for a lot of queer and trans folks. Stella explains, “I think the barbershop can be intimidating for people who are transitioning because they want to be seen as a man and when you’re in such a strong male environment… it’s hyper masculine… unfortunately for those people going into a hyper masculine environment can almost make them feel they aren’t as masculine as they want to be or need to be, and you know, these things take time with T and hormones and living as a different sex and being in those first months of transitioning.”
Stella has also experimented with her own hair, “I’ve had a shaved head, I’ve had chelsea’s, some of them were more feminine some of them were more masculine… I think hair is a really good form of self-expression.”
I have to admit… I feel like my identity hinges on my haircut, which almost sounds too profound. But because I’m so in the middle, I feel like I could be easily pushed in either direction of my gender expression. Hair is a really concrete way to play with gender expression in our culture that looks to those kind of visual cues. As Stella puts it, “society puts all these weird labels on people because of their haircut. How does that have anything to do with… it’s a haircut. But unfortunately those labels really impact people.”
Stella has also seen a lot of young women at Crows Nest, too, “a lot of times when a young woman comes in for a shorter haircut I almost end up having a therapy session with them because a lot of the times their parents are saying stuff to them like, ‘oh, you’re cutting off all your long hair. You’re not my little girl anymore.’ Whatever. And their parents have a lot of hang-ups about it. The things that their parents say to them- I don’t think [the parents] understand how that impacts [their children] and makes them feel, ya know, feel kind of bad about doing something that they want to do and looking the way they want to look on the outside. And you’d think their parents would support them in their decision, especially in something as small as a hair cut. But it can make someone feel so happy to look in the mirror and feel masculine and look the way they see themselves on the inside… it’s just so hard… I think it’s almost a form of body shaming.”
Stella describes cutting her hair short in grade 5 and then performing in a school play when an adult man said, “‘What’s that little boy doing in a dress?’ And I’ll never forget it. It broke my heart. I thought I looked so cool with my low western boots and my short haircut… I thought I was too cool for school… and some guy is bashing me? What the hell is that?”
Stella also notes how the barbershop scene’s hypermasculinity has impacted her own career, “I feel that a lot of barbershops alienate people, even just in their titles… where’s the room for the rest of us in these environments? It’s 2017, when are things going to change?… When am I going to get the same respect as my male colleague?… Being a female barber, now what if I was to have a child? There’s no maternity leave for me on top of that, if I was to leave my job for a year, I’d be giving up the clientele that took me 6 years to build… It’s a struggle at times, but I would never ever let the struggle take my career away.”
Stella also describes being very heavy chested and wearing extremely baggy cloths in the shop because she doesn’t want people looking at her “that way,” so she can get some respect in a male-dominated environment. But she adds that it makes her feel really sad. Not that she doesn’t enjoy wearing men’s clothes, but the idea (or rather the reality) that she has to hide her femininity in order to gain respect is disheartening. Men have even said, “what’s going on in this place? Is it turning into a salon or something?” or “Is there a guy here or something [to cut my hair]?”
Stella is looking to change all that. Touched by her clientele’s stories mixed with her own personal experiences with the barbershop world, Stella has a passion project to support the trans community with their new or desired hair. The idea would be to provide a safe space for people to get together and talk gender and hair. To learn about how to sculpt their facial hair if they’ve never had any experience with that before, or even just a safe space for folks to support each other in decisions like growing out their hair to present more feminine. Stella also has a background in makeup artistry and she’d love to do workshops on things like face contouring to show-off a more feminine or masculine look.
Stella also notes that when folks are in transition, finding good employment can be difficult and hitting up against depression is understandably common. There is a strong sense from Stella that she wants to create a space where the practicalities of hair can be learned, while at the same time the psychological and emotional pieces of transitioning can be freely expressed and acknowledged. “How can you make this really heavy situation light? and fun? and supportive?”
Stella explains, “after looking at my client base I realized that there’s a lot of people that I work with that are even years older than me… there are people that I see that are in their 40s, 50s, 60s, that are now shaving their hair off after having had kids, and decide, ‘no, I want to be with a woman,’ or ‘I have always seen myself as a man from the inside,’ and finally, I think, as they get older they have the strength and the courage to make these changes. So I think the support group is important for people of all ages who are changing the way their hair looks or their gender identity.”
In my own experience of attending support groups, I’ve found there’s something about coming together and being vulnerable that dissolves the age-divide. Agism is an all too common obstacle in many queer spaces. Envisioning her own shop one day, Stella imagines, “a big huge photo looking really happy, all different genders, and [with] a sign that says, ‘Join our family!’”
In the meantime, Stella started a program called Cut Yourself Free: a trans & LGBTQ+ centred free haircutting event. The next event is happening on Monday, Dec 4 from 3:00-7:00PM at Crows Nest Barbershop in Kensington Market. For more details contact Stella at email@example.com or DM her on instagram at Cut Yourself Free.
As we’re winding down the interview, Stella reflects on her work as a barber, “you’re in someone’s personal space when you’re providing this service. You’re touching somebody’s body. I don’t want just anybody touching my body. I feel very blessed that my clients want to come to me… I feel like they have a sigh of relief when they sit down in my chair. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about that that heals people to a certain degree and feels really good… I always felt like cutting people’s hair is like healing people.”
That might sound a little over-the-top if you’ve never been obsessive about your hair. But I can honestly say, as one of Stella’s nonbinary clients, it’s right on the nose. Or on the hair, in this case.