Kelly Gonsalves

I Spent 24 Hours Watching Women Get Short Haircuts & It Changed The Way I Think About Hair

A brunette with hair past her shoulders walks in, speaks to the front desk, and takes a seat next to me in the designated waiting area. To our right, a row of four chairs occupied by other customers are lined with tables, each of them scattered with scissors, razors, hair dryers and other shiny metal tools of various sizes and shapes. Each chair is being tended to by a woman. When one of the chairs finally opens, the barber calls the brunette next to me over. Once seated and wrapped with a plain black cape, she’s asked what she wants for today.

“I want to go short,” she says without skipping a beat, the curl of a confident, excited grin tugging at the corner of her lips. “Real short.”

The barber smiles widely, the sign of an immediate understanding sparking between them. After ironing out the details and swiping through a few photos on a smartphone, the scissors come out. I watch as each clump of wispy brown strands drops to the floor at her feet. By the end of the appointment, her hair is trimmed snug against her head, the back of her neck exposed, her grin now spread wide across her face.

This happens over and over throughout the day: Woman after woman comes in with a heaping wave of hair, gets in one of the four seats and leaves with a sleek pixie, a chin-hugging bob or a clean buzzcut. Of course, this is exactly why I've decided to camp out here at Scissors and Clippers, a pop-up barbershop for women and gender non-conforming people — specifically, those who rock or want to rock short hair. The two-day event was held at the New Women Space in east Williamsburg as a preview for what's to come at You & Sundry, a new female and queer barbershop opening in New York City this summer. The pop-up offers $35 cuts from eight skilled female barbers from the tristate area, all of whom specialize in creating modish, short hairstyles.

There's plenty of activity in the shop to be distracted by. But, as I'm watching it all unfold, the weight of the black-brown curtain hanging over my shoulders — and what it means to me — starts to feel heavier and heavier.

Kelly Gonsalves

I don’t consider myself a big hair person. I’ve had the same mid-length, layered hair since grade school, cut by the same stylist each and every time, first in a small salon in deep suburban New Jersey and later in the comfort of the same woman’s living room. She charges me $20 for my standard ‘do, which is an irresistible steal — plus she knows exactly how my hair works and how I’ve worn it for the last 15 years.

If I’m being honest, my hair makes me feel feminine. It makes me feel pretty. That’s a tough admission: I hate reinforcing the beauty ideals that society says I should love and care about and strive for — things like long, beautiful, shimmering hair. As I watched people take the chair at this female-powered barbershop, I started to wonder: Why does our society tie this particular hairstyle so tightly to femininity anyway? And why has something as impermanent as hair come to be understood as such a definitive marker of gender?

The author in 2008 | Courtesy Kelly Gonsalves
The author now | Kelly Gonsalves

No one seems at Scissors & Clippers seems to share the same stresses I have about my hair. The room is not physically full, but the energy of the dozen or so people buzzing about the shop at any given hour throughout the day fills the space up completely with a kind of sparkling vivacity. The women walking in are bursting with excitement.

In this room, almost nobody’s hair hangs longer than their shoulders, and most don’t even pass their ears. Mine reaches down to my chest — before today, it’s never felt particularly long. But compared to the other clients in the room, it feels like I’ve got an inexcusably overgrown mop on my head.

Most of the women getting their haircut this weekend have already had short hair. They’re coming here for the second or third dramatic cut in their life, or they’re here for a trim.

“I feel rejuvenated,” Stephanie Pendleton, 28, tells me immediately following her chop, in which she shed her long, curly 'fro in favor of clean, shaved sides. “I feel lighter I guess. It’s not like my hair was weighing me down. It was just like what I’ve been through in the last couple years was weighing me down, so I cut it off just to restart my life. Like, reset.”

Stephanie Pendleton getting her haircut at Scissors & Clippers | Kelly Gonsalves

Several women I spoke with share Pendleton’s sentiment — chopping off all their hair is a way for them to start a fresh chapter and emerge a new person. Pendleton says she was re-inspired to go under the razor for a buzzed look when she heard about the event, which is being run by Kim Goulbourne, a bright, authoritative sort who sports a neatly shaved head with a poof of tamed black at the top.

“I’ve gone into traditional barbershops. I’ve got my haircut at salons,” Goulbourne tells me. “It’s always just been an uncomfortable experience for me. … Once I shaved off the sides, it just didn’t make sense to be paying a hundred dollars to just shave the sides, so that’s when I started going to barbershops. And I just realized that they’re such male-dominated spaces.”

Throughout history, the traditional barbershop has always been a definitively male service, according to Victoria Sherrow’s Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. In ancient Greek and Roman societies, men sometimes spent hours in barbershops being groomed. These Roman barbershops were some of the first to become “gathering places where men gossiped and exchanged news,” Sherrow writes, a tradition that has held strong through to the modern era. Additionally, by the 1600s, some women did work in barbershops in Europe, but styling women’s hair itself was primarily handled at home — most women simply allowed their hair to grow out anyway. Sherrow also shares that barbershops were briefly the go-to place for women in the '20s to get the coveted flapper bob, but these chops were often done in secret because of the lack of widespread acceptance for the unconventional look.

Today, the barbershop is still almost always positioned as a distinctly masculine environment, as epitomized in cult classic movies like the Barbershop series and Coming to America. And while this helps foster community among men, many women — particularly those seeking a shorter ‘do — find the macho atmosphere to be pretty off-putting.

A traditional barbershop in Texas in 1920 | Wikimedia Commons
Inside the Scissors & Clippers pop-up barbershop | Kelly Gonsalves

“Barbershops are scary,” Pendleton tells me. “I’ve had an undercut for a couple years, and I would have to go to a barbershop to go get it touched up or redone. And they just look at you like, you wanna do what? … It’s just weird to walk into a testosterone-filled environment, and they’re all staring at you. Like,why is this girl here?

Some women tell me some barbers have directly refused to cut their hair; while reporting this story, I also visited several barbershops throughout Brooklyn, and many of the most traditional ones sent me away. Pendleton says that even those who do accept her as a client can be really weird about actually taking scissors to her curls: They’ll be unnecessarily hesitant with handling them or rush through her appointment to get her back out the door as quickly as possible. She says the experience is just so awkward that it even deters her from getting the more frequent trims she’d otherwise want.

Bizarrely, the flipside of the hyper-masculine barbershop space isn’t any better.

“I definitely feel like I stick out really hard when I go into a salon,” says Sara Sandefur, a redheaded barber who works at a mostly old-school shop in Manhattan. “I’ve got tattoos, I have a tomboy style and I wear my hair short … [But] when I go into a salon and say I need a trim, they immediately want to make it very, very feminine.”

Sara Sandefur gives a young woman a dramatic chop | Kelly Gonsalves

There’s no middle ground, it seems, for the not-so-girly girls. Walk into a typical hair salon, and a bunch of glowy-haired vixens are trying to teach you how to be “pretty.” Walk into a barbershop, and you’re getting thrown out for not being a literal dude. Getting a fresh look is stressful enough as it is without worrying about walking into a shop where literally nobody wants you to be there.

“It really fucks people up to not just have a place where they’re [accepted],” Vivian Strosberg, another one of the barbers at the event, tells me between customers. “Rather than being gendered between a salon and a barbershop, it should be more based on length.”

As a very boring, feminine, cisgendered woman, I’ve never encountered any of these frustrating and awkward dilemmas over a trim. Plenty of salons are happy to cater to people like me, who express their gender the way our culture expects. It’s all the more reason why Goulbourne’s idea for You & Sundry is geniusly filling a pretty unoccupied space: Their tagline describes it as “a barbershop for everyone else.”

At the pop-up, there’s definitely a unique dynamic between the barbers and clients. Instead of the apprehension these women and queer folks usually face whenever they need a cut, they’re walking into a shop full of like-minded people who are actually encouraging them to go for a bold, heavily clipped ‘do. That atmosphere makes a huge difference: There’s no confusion, no assumptions, no judgment, no shame. After anyone gets up from the chair with their new crop, three other people around the room stop what they’re doing to gush over them loudly and cheer them on.

“Whenever I say I want a short cut [at a salon], a lot of time the hair stylist will be like, ‘Well, let’s just go a little longer today just in case you don’t like it,’” Rachel Luba, 27, tells me after her haircut at Scissors & Clippers. “I feel like they really listen to me here because it’s in the context of women who have really awesome shaves and fades.”

Kelly Gonsalves

The experience at Scissors & Clippers was a stark reminder that our society still pushes so many stereotypes about the short-haired woman: She's damaged, she's aggressive, she's manly, she must be a lesbian. It feels like we attach so many parts of a person's identity — their sexuality, history, gender, and even personality — to something as simple as a hairstyle. We infer so much about a person from how they groom their head.

“Especially when women have short hair, buzzed hair, colored hair, people tend to think of that as almost like being political,” says Annie Ewbank, a 26-year-old food writer with short curls slinking around her ears after getting her hair cut. “Long hair has been associated with femininity for so long, so sometimes I feel like people think that if you cut off your hair, then … you’re trying to send a message about your femininity.”

Hair length is a “societally structured form of sexual dimorphism,” writes Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives. A sexual dimorphism is a physical trait differentiating the biological sexes other than genitalia. Although people of any sex or gender can grow any sort of mane on top of their heads, our western, cis- and heteronormative culture has created a norm associating certain hair shapes with certain genders. Men have short hair; women have long hair. There’s no real reason for these associations other than a societal need to organize people into certain, recognizable and controllable roles.

“Even though women have kind of had the ability to have short hair for like 90 or 100 years now, it’s still a little bit of a rebellion,” Ewbank says.

Sandefur, the redheaded barber, grew up in Tennessee and used to have locks past her shoulders. “I never saw a woman with a short haircut. I didn’t know you could do that,” Sandefur says. “That definitely influences how people feel about their hair. It’s just how you’re raised … It wasn’t until I was a relative adult where I was like, I can do whatever the heck I want. I’m gonna cut all my hair off.”

Hair is immensely symbolic. But it’s impossible to say that specific hairstyles correlate with specific identities. (“Every woman with a skin fade is a lesbian, is some butch dyke? Like, come on,” Strosberg scoffs. “She can be femme as fuck and rock a skin fade. It doesn’t mean anything except that you like the shape of it or it’s fun to twist in your hands or you like the breeze on your neck.”)

Rather than trying to pledge allegiance to this identity or that one, this ideology or another, perhaps a woman chopping off all her hair is just one way to say no. No to all of it.

For a woman, to shed your mane is to buck all the scripts, all the gendered expectations placed quite literally on top of our heads by a culture we were born into. To shed your hair is to show that playing the part of “woman,” “lover,” “sex object” or “mother” — none of it is a chief concern to you. It’s a form of release — an exorcism of sorts. Perhaps those priestly barbers of ancient times were onto something.

A woman in her 30-somethings just finished with her haircut explains to me: “In lieu of being able to control anything else in my life, I was like — well, I can control this.”

Kelly Gonsalves
A woman shows off her new look after her Scissors & Clippers appointment | Kelly Gonsalves

Toward the end of the day on Saturday, something is stirring within me.

“I think I want to get a cut,” I tell Goulbourne. I’m terrified by the very statement, but she hoots loudly in celebration.

When I sit down in the chair, everyone’s eyes fall on me — the girl with the long, voluminous waves who’s been hanging around all day watching other women get their hair scissored off. I wish I could say I took the plunge, but I didn’t: I ask for a few inches off the bottom and some refreshed layers throughout. The cut comes out shorter than I’d expected and shorter than I’ve had in a long time — but it's still significantly longer than basically everyone else’s at the shop. And yet later when I get home, I dramatically announce to my boyfriend, half proud and half panicked: “I’m a boy now!”

Gender conditioning isn't easy to shake.

Still, I'm trying not to be too hard on myself. At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with me enjoying the shape, texture and length of my hair and seeing an authentic presentation of my femininity expressed through it. I like being "feminine," whatever that means, and that's OK.

At the same time, there’s something wildly empowering about watching other women and people shed those expectations off the top of their heads. Because the truth is, no one hairstyle actually corresponds to any specific gender. So bring on the female barbershops, the queer salons, the buzzed-headed ladies, the long-haired whoevers — it all deserves to make the cut.