Why I stopped going to the barber shop
9th August 2022

When I was kid, Mum used to take me to Con’s barber shop – the type of place run by a persevering immigrant for decades – to have my hair cut. I’d sit in the chair after he slotted in the booster, and Mum would tell Con what to do. Then she’d leave me among the timber-panelled walls, the ’70s posters of dapper men and the sounds of the Greek radio station, and go off to the bank or the deli.

Con was lovely, a strong man with sideburns down to his jaw and a thick smile. I didn’t spend much time around men growing up so I always felt intimidated by them, which is why Mum would have to relay to Con how I wanted my hair cut after I’d whispered it to her outside the shop.

George Haddad: “For much of my childhood, I didn’t know how to be around men… and, increasingly, I felt this way in barber shops, too.”Credit:UQP

I have five sisters, a mum and a dad, and we all lived in the same house. While my dad has been present my whole life, I naturally gravitated towards the women in my family – primarily my mum, who even when I didn’t let her nap for fear of being alone, never made me feel like a nuisance. And still, she is the only person I can safely say I don’t annoy.

Sometimes, if Con’s was closed or if Mum was getting her own hair done, I would get a haircut at Maria’s salon next door to the post office. The posters in there were from the ’80s, the decor pink and grey, and it had that typical hairdresser smell I can never quite describe. I loved being inside the tiny salon, watching the women have fascinating things done to their hair and face and legs, hearing them yarn and laugh and seeing them soften in each other’s company. Even I was softer in there and felt confident enough to tell Maria, using my own voice, how I wanted my hair cut.

For much of my childhood and adolescence, I didn’t know how to be around men: how to sit, how to speak, what to say, where to look. And, increasingly, I felt this way in barber shops too, which are small rooms packed with men and, which I have come to realise, are a microcosm of consecrated masculinity.

Losing Face by George Haddad.

In barber shops, men are relaxed and uninhibited. That might sound like a good thing, but it’s not in the loving and safe way that the women at Maria’s salon were relaxed. It’s in a way that celebrates problematic behaviour and peddles the tired performances that men don’t often realise they are slave to. I don’t doubt that many people have good experiences in barber shops, but something about my disposition, my history, my take on the world kept culminating in pain.

There is nothing about me physically that signals to people that I am queer. At the barber, I am just another bearded client, so they assume I’m straight. What’s worse is that because I look typically masculine, the men in barber shops also assume our thoughts on gender and sexuality are aligned. Through all my years of visiting the barber, I became privy to the poisonous things that men only hissed around each other.

There was one particular shop that undid it all for me. I lived close to Marrickville Metro for some years and would walk to one of the barber’s in the shopping centre for a haircut every two or three weeks. Whenever I was in there, I experienced abhorrent behaviour and nauseating things said about women, queer people, other cultures and ethnicities. The barbers were all Arab at the time. I speak Arabic and so, unfortunately, I was able to understand them in two languages.

The babbling mess of a barber who often cut my hair would just talk and talk right into my ear – tell me about how his ex-wife was the devil, how all women were sluts, how gay people were hung where he came from. He’d even give me terrible investment tips. The other barbers were no different. If a woman or a proudly queer person or an Asian man came in, they would switch to Arabic and the ridicule would begin. (This is not a slight on Arab men in general; this is a slight on these men who happened to have being Arab in common). The situation always silenced me. I am embarrassed and ashamed that I never said anything to them in either language. I thought that as I grew older I would have more agency, but that’s not always the case.

Every time I walked out of the shop I’d feel the panic rising, but because it was only a short walk from home I’d feel safe and sound before it boiled over. Yet still, I kept going to the same shop and I could never really tell why. Now when I look at my research and the things I write about, it makes more sense.

Then one time, the last time, there was a new barber, a non-Arab barber, and get this: a queer barber! When I walked in, we gave each other the look of recognition that queers do and then I noticed that the regular barber had clocked the look. I sat, awkward and confused, the shop uncannily quiet. My turn ended up being with the regular barber who didn’t say anything for a while and I thought, this is great: this queer barber has silenced them all, something I could never manage.

But that was wishful thinking, because halfway through the haircut, the barber put his lips real close to me and said in Arabic, while side-eyeing me in the reflection of the mirror, “You know, this one takes it up his arse”, as if he was taunting me, testing me to come out. I ripped the cloak off from around my neck and almost knocked him over on the way out.

It’s been years since, and I’ve never been back to a barber shop. I didn’t realise how much relief I would feel at not willingly placing myself in those situations anymore. A great thing to come out of lockdown was that my partner became very good at haircutting, so I now have loving haircuts at home where the conversation is always wholesome.

George Haddad is the author of Losing Face (UQP).

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