Walking The Line
When did the barber’s chair become a hot seat of anxiety? Our columnist ponders this question while having a radical, unsolicited haircut.
You vaant I cut line?”
My regular barber is on holiday this week and, in a move that I expect I will soon come to regret, I have ventured into the local barbershop around the corner from my house. Having just given me an aggressive short back and sides that took all of 30 seconds, Yelena – I read her name from a frame on the wall displaying a New York State barber’s licence, issued in 2001 – is now holding a razor blade to the side of my head. She repeats herself, more slowly this time. “You vaant I cut line? Ees fashion.”
I don’t consider myself a world expert on the topic, but I think I know enough about fashion to take this statement with a pinch of salt. Yelena has this post-ironic, first-year art-student thing going on – half thrift store, half vintage designer – that ticks all the boxes but feels a little incongruous on a woman who claims to have received her barber’s licence back in ’01. She’s wearing an old Burberry checked shirt, skinny jeans and leopard-print brothel creepers, her red lipstick and over-plucked eyebrows make her look a little like Ms Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, and her own hair is bleached white and shaved into a faux widow’s peak.
None of these, in isolation, is a bad thing. Leopard-print brothel creepers? So Saint Laurent. The ironic reappropriation of pre-Mr Christopher Bailey Burberry? So 2015. Ms Faye Dunaway in Chinatown? She was my second-ever crush (after Ms Salma Hayek in From Dusk Till Dawn). But the overall effect, as you can imagine, is jarring, and leaves me wondering whether I can trust Yelena’s opinion on what ees and eesn’t fashion. Especially when what she’s suggesting – the “hard parting” – seems certain to leave me looking like an ageing Premier League footballer.
All things considered, what comes out of my mouth next surprises me as much as it surprises her.
“Sure,” I say. “You go for it, Yelena.”
It’s funny the things you’ll say when you’ve got a blade pointed at your head.
The last time I walked into a barbershop with a picture of a footballer and a request to “make me look like this”, it was 2008 and I was 22 years old. The picture was of David Beckham, who at the time was sporting a G.I. Joe-style buzz cut. In hindsight, it was like handing Michelangelo a lump of Play-Doh and asking him to recreate the statue of David. I walked out of there looking like a meth dealer, having finally learned the true meaning of a phrase that I’d known for years but never fully understood: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
Never again, I said, and for seven years I was true to my word. I still visited the barber as regularly as ever, but instead of asking him to “make me look like this”, I just asked him to “please, for the love of God, make this look OK”. Disappointed but not in despair, I resigned myself to the everyman fate of just not having particularly good hair. No big deal, I thought. Nobody’s perfect. Looking back now at pictures of my 22-year-old, ridiculously youthful self, I can only shake my head. I didn’t realise it at the time, but things were only destined to go downhill from there.
I used to think there were two kinds of men in the world: those with good hair, the sort you see on adverts and in Hollywood movies, and those with hair like mine – fine, flyaway, generally good for nothing. The third category of men – those with no hair at all – hadn’t even occurred to me. Which is strange, for two reasons. First, because they’re everywhere (seriously, stand in the aisle of a commuter train and look down, and you’ll find yourself floating above a sea of bald heads as far as the eye can see). Second, because I might one day become one of them.
The evidence has been staring me in the face my entire life. All I’d needed to do was gaze at my father’s head – gaze into it like a crystal ball, all shiny on top – to catch a glimpse of my own future. When we were young, my sisters and I used to call him “M-Head”, on account of the fact that his hairline looked like the McDonald’s logo. And yet it was with shock and disbelief that I witnessed my own hair begin to adopt those all-too-familiar, not-so-golden arches. I know that we all turn into our dads, but for some reason this wasn’t what I had in mind.
When you’re young – and I mean really, blithely young – imagining yourself as an older man is a bit like trying to picture the fourth dimension: possible in theory, but too abstract in practice to mentally compute. As for the idea that you might be robbed of that symbol of youth and virility that is your hair, well… For most young, red-blooded males it just doesn’t bear thinking about. One colleague, on finding three stray hairs in his beanie hat, turned to me recently in a panic. “I’m losing my hair, Chris,” he said. “I need to find a wife.” The fact that he has more hair than the rest of the guys on the team combined is irrelevant. The fear can strike us all.
We men attach a great deal of significance to the hair on our heads and, like most things, it comes down to sex. Before taking a vow of celibacy, monks would historically shave the tops of their heads in a practice known as “tonsuring”. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, picture Friar Tuck, the monk from Robin Hood. It’s not a good look, and that’s kind of the point. It’s their way of saying to the world, “Behold! I am no longer a sexual object.” Men who lose their hair often feel the same, the only difference being that they didn’t choose to do it. It’s a genetic coin toss: heads you win, tails you lose. And short of resorting to libido-threatening medication or celebrity-inspired transplants, there’s nothing much you can do about it.
But hey, at least you’re in good company. Here’s to Messrs Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, Mark Strong, Taye Diggs, Kelly Slater, J.K. Simmons, Stanley Tucci and all of the other chrome domes. Here’s to every guy on that commuter train who still manages to get on with his life, regardless of how much hair he has on his head. Here’s to embracing our certain fate. And here’s to getting ill-advised, footballer-style haircuts while we can still (just about) get away with it.
Speaking of which, I happened to bump into a friend just as I was leaving the barbershop. “Hey,” he said. “New haircut?”
“Yeah,” I replied, turning my head to proudly reveal my new razor-cut parting. “What do you think?”
“Hmm. It’s cool. Not very… you.”
“Well, it’s a funny story. I didn’t really ask for it. She just sort of came at me with a razor blade.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, it’ll grow back.”
And for once, I took that as a compliment.
Illustrations by Mr Giacomo Bagnara