Every week, faithful as a suitor, my husband calls Gene’s Barber Shop, desperate for their reopening. “There can’t be much profit margin,” Andrew tells me, brow furrowed. “I pay fifteen bucks, and that includes a two-buck tip.” I list other places he could go, but he shakes his head, says he will wait. “I want somebody who will listen, not cut my hair the way they ‘see’ it, or try to sell me product, or manscape me.”
I wait. There is obviously more to this.
“You have this affection for your barber,” he explains, foundering a bit. “You are tight. A barber is dealing with your hair, and even for someone like me, who doesn’t give a rat’s ass how I look, that’s still kind of intimate, in a way, and I don’t want just anyone to do it. I want somebody I trust.”
The vehemence is what surprises me. I was the one who used to fork over large sums of cash, desperate for some shape or substance that could work even temporary magic on my straight, fine hair. Andrew just trooped off to his barber.
Still curious, I probe until the depth charge explodes: “It’s yet another way that all that is most simple, straightforward, friendly, and affordable in American life gets glammed up or tossed aside,” he blurts. “If COVID-19 is the death blow for barbershops, it won’t just be an inconvenience, it will be a loss.”
At Betty’s Barber Shop, just up the road from us in Columbia, Illinois, the father of a boy with autism walked in the day before lockdown with a $250 check, saying, “You’re the only ones who have ever cut my son’s hair. We love you guys, and I want to make sure you’re okay.”
There is no need to remind him that set against years of preference and privilege, White men losing their barbers does not weigh heavy. He brings it up himself. “But for middle-aged White guys, who are getting crucified for being assholes and rightfully so, this is one of the few things that is not toxic,” he adds. “You know how Black barbershops become places where everybody hangs out and talks and laughs and swaps advice and feels better about themselves? I am willing to bet there is something similar in the psyche of the middle-aged, not-rich White guy. We just want a place where we feel comfortable.”
It occurs to me that the ease of manspreading, its confident claim of space, is deceptive. It has been a long time since these guys felt as comfortable as they look.
• • •
If anyone needed proof that barbers matter, the pandemic provided it. “In the next wave, can we all agree that they’re essential workers?” asked one internet meme. Another showed a woman in a short skirt bending close to a guy’s car window, saying, “For $50 I’ll do whatever you want.” His reply: “Do you know how to cut hair?”
In Texas (which has more barbers than any other state), protesters staged haircut demonstrations, and a state representative chose an illegal haircut as an act of civil disobedience. At Betty’s Barber Shop, just up the road from us in Columbia, Illinois, the father of a boy with autism walked in the day before lockdown with a $250 check, saying, “You’re the only ones who have ever cut my son’s hair. We love you guys, and I want to make sure you’re okay.”
When lockdown lifted, a haircut was often a man’s first venture into the world again. His first taste of normalcy. His first reassurance.
• • •
“All things change except barbers, the ways of barbers, and the surroundings of barbers. These never change. What one experiences in a barber’s shop the first time he enters one is what he always experiences in barbers’ shops afterwards till the end of his days.”
Mark Twain came close to being right. Barbers were snipping and trimming while men talked sports and politics beneath the olive trees of ancient Greece, and that dynamic lasted until the end of the twentieth century. Only then did a significant number of men reach what seemed like a spontaneous, collective decision: Barbershops were for old guys or children, too plain and cheap and chatty for professionals in their prime. Time to stride into a salon and style up.
The iconic American barbershop—second only to the corner bar as the clubhouse of men who could not afford a club—went into crisis. Between 1992 and 2012, the number of barbershops in the United States fell by 23 percent, and a lot of barbers went broke or died. Cheap unisex chains sprang up to offer a convenient compromise; soon there were more than 2,500 Great Clips scattered across the nation.
For a lot of straight, middle-class, middle-of-the road White guys, the new mix was an epic fail. If you braved a salon, “you would never feel like it was your place,” a friend’s husband tells me. “You always felt you weren’t the primary customer.” In that swirl of chemical fumes, confessions, and schadenfreude, how could a man relax? And at the discount chains, he waited in dread, lest he draw the same person who had botched his head the last time.
The iconic American barbershop—second only to the corner bar as the clubhouse of men who could not afford a club—went into crisis. Between 1992 and 2012, the number of barbershops in the United States fell by 23 percent, and a lot of barbers went broke or died.
And so, the American barbershop returned. Not the iconic sort that Norman Rockwell painted (more than once); not the one-chair shop with a black-and-white checkerboard floor that you can still find on Main Street in Middle America. This was a new era, and barbershops were reimagining themselves in all sorts of ways—rock ’n’ roll, hipster, men’s spa, luxe indulgence—to match all the scattershot ways masculinity was being redefined.
The days of simple, codified ritual—No. 6 clippers, longer on the top—were over.
• • •
The appeal of an old-school barbershop is the plainness, familiarity, friendliness. Your barber is an unchanging fixture, like his spin-’er-up Koken chair, manufactured in St. Louis, and the black combs stuck in a glass of electric-blue Barbicide. You do not go there to reinvent yourself. Mainly, you want to look just like you looked last time. You sit down heavily in that old chair that has borne so much weight, and you let your guard drop. Let somebody else do the thinking for fifteen minutes; let somebody focus on you, clean you up for the world. You listen to the sure snips of the scissors or the clipper’s buzz, feel the talc fall softly on your neck. Men’s talk reminds you who you are in the world. You walk out a little taller.
• • •
In the 1940s, the barber in Sparta, Illinois, was also the baseball coach. The ball game was always on in his shop, and guys talked about hunting and fishing, and to Tub Pautler, it felt like heaven. He hung out there every day after school, waiting to walk his sister home. Only at his parents’ insistence did he finish high school before enrolling in barber college. He has been cutting hair in Sparta since 1962.
“Strictly walk-ins,” he stresses. “With appointments, you spend half your day on the telephone, writing in a ledger, and then they call that morning and reschedule. What you see is what you get.”
I ask if he adds any extras, like a hot towel to wipe the back of their neck.
This was a new era, and barbershops were reimagining themselves in all sorts of ways—rock ’n’ roll, hipster, men’s spa, luxe indulgence—to match all the scattershot ways masculinity was being redefined.
“No, no hot towel. I do have a hair vac that I bought in 1969. Parts are no longer available, so I keep rigging it.”
Pautler will be eighty in January, and his wife wants him to retire, but he is dragging his feet. Most of his customers are over fifty—“The younger kids go to places like Great Clips, more advertised places”—and he has known them for years. He only charges $8 for a haircut, but he has enough business to make a living, “and there’s as much friendship as there is work involved in it.”
People still come in to talk, he adds, but not the way they used to. Tub’s was a social hub for the town, and men would stop by every day, shoot the breeze for half an hour, then go on with their lives. “One old guy said, ‘I put you in my will,’” Pautler recalls. “I figured an old shotgun or a watch. He left me ten percent of his estate.”
• • •
I flip Freud’s question: What do men want? What makes them so loyal to whoever cuts their scant hair?
“This is before the COVID,” begins Monica Lanter, a licensed barber who took over Betty’s from her mother. “I had about five people lined up, and I just started cutting. The fifth guy sat down looking nervous and said, ‘Um … do you just cut everybody’s hair the way you want without asking?’” She chuckles. “I knew the first four, so I already knew what they wanted.”
In a 2015 poll by Modern Salon, sixty-seven percent of men said they rarely change style. They rarely change barbers, either.
“I used to go to Red’s in Clayton, and I still drove there when we moved to South County, which drove my wife crazy,” a friend says. “When I think logically about it, there’s nothing special about my hair that I couldn’t go anywhere. … ”
I flip Freud’s question: What do men want? What makes them so loyal to whoever cuts their scant hair?
I grin, remembering how, when we married, my husband was still driving across the river to get his hair cut by Vern, who had been his barber since he was a kid and his dad’s barber before that. It was a forty-minute drive, and the signs of dementia were unmissable, but Andrew stuck it out until Vern closed up shop.
“I kept the same stylist for thirty-five years,” another man tells me, “and I felt like I was cheating when I searched for a closer location.”
Me, I beg my stylist to do something different every time, hope springing eternal and all that. For all but one of the thirty or so men I ask, though, consistency matters most. It comes before convenience, before price, before aesthetics. The haircut should be predictable and precise, its accompanying routine unvarying. They want, as lawyer Eddie Roth put it, “the refreshed cool of reestablishing an ordered appearance.” Nearly all of them use the phrase “getting cleaned up.” Even Sam Duffy, fourteen years old, says, “It just looks tidier, and I kind of feel refreshed, like, all right, I’ve got a new head of hair and I’m ready to take on the world.” All that organic, messy growth is again under control. Chaos and indeterminacy have been beaten back.
• • •
My mind flashes to a scene from at least one movie, if not a dozen: A powerful man is sitting in the barber’s chair being shaved, white cape covering his fancy necktie, foam on half his face, totally vulnerable. Somebody busts through the door with dangerous news, and as the shop buzzes with reaction and the man in the chair fumes and strategizes, the barber just keeps gliding that straight razor over his jugular.
In an establishing shot, we would have seen the spiraling helix of the barber pole outside the shop, symbolic for a reason nobody remembers. Those red stripes once promised that this particular barber would bleed you—not with a razor’s nick, but with leeches. The white stripes represented the bandages, and there was often a brass basin at the top (representing the one that held the leeches) and another at the bottom (the one that caught the blood). At the Council of Tours in 1163, the monks who cared for the sick had been forbidden to do bloodletting, so the barbers who had sometimes assisted them became the sole practitioners. Now barber-surgeons, they also learned to set bones, amputate, extract teeth, and give enemas, services you are best advised not to request from your barber today.
A haircut is already a sufficient act of trust.
The haircut should be predictable and precise, its accompanying routine unvarying. They want, as lawyer Eddie Roth put it, “the refreshed cool of reestablishing an ordered appearance.” Nearly all of them use the phrase “getting cleaned up.”
When Roth worked for a big law firm in New York, he went, on a lark, to an eighty-something barber in Albany who had cut the hair of every Democratic politician in living memory except Franklin Roosevelt. “He put his elbow on my shoulder to steady himself,” Roth recalls, “and he used a straight razor and gave me the big whitewalls, where they shave above your ear.” Roth glanced up at the first-aid kit on the shelf and steeled himself. This was a ritual with “not insignificant safety issues.”
The necessary trust encourages confidences, the kind women are better known for divulging. “It’s unreal how many younger people ask me for advice,” Pautler says. At Betty’s Barber Shop, guys pour out their problems “and then want a hug before they leave,” says Lanter.
But trust can sour, because hair is at once personal and social and symbolic. Class president in seventh grade, Steve Whyte was making straight As and sporting a Beatles mop when Sr. Mary Placida plucked him from the hallway, sat him down in her office, and took scissors to the bangs. At the time, barbers hated long-haired hippies almost as much as nuns did, so Whyte refused to let his dad’s barber fix the damage. The hair and the authoritarian barbering got tangled up with rebellion—he fought with his parents, let his grades tumble, and wound up kicked out of Catholic school the following year.
• • •
Listening to men talk about a haircut as either a trauma or a morale boost (seriously? when we are talking an inch max?), I return to psychoanalytic mode: What is really happening? Andrew certainly did not step more lightly after I trimmed his hair with the dog’s scissors. There does seem to be something restorative about a trip to the barber. Women call it getting pampered; men just call it relaxing.
I take my question to former barbershop owner Warren Lincoln: Could it be that a haircut is one of the few times the American male receives tender care?
“We don’t get that at all, in any other part of our life,” he retorts. There is sex, which is so often problematic, or the pummeling of a masseuse if they will allow it, or a backslap on the playing field. But gentleness that is manly and socially acceptable and expects nothing but a tip in return? “Clients used to tell us this was the closest thing to pampering they had ever gotten,” Lincoln recalls. “They could come in, be vulnerable, and get exactly what they needed, and it was incredibly relaxing and soothing and satisfying. We have a soft touch; you’re not just jamming the clippers against someone’s head or scraping the razor. We handled ourselves like artists. Sometimes guys would fall asleep because it was the only time they could relax in their whole day. A guy who climbs ladders or delivers mail all day gets to come in where it’s air-conditioned and sit and talk and relax. … ”
There does seem to be something restorative about a trip to the barber. Women call it getting pampered; men just call it relaxing.
The scalp has more blood vessels than any other area of the body and more than 1,000 nerve endings per square inch.
“When you brush their hair, they say, ‘I will give you all day to do that,’” Lanter tells me. “They say, ‘You don’t know how relaxing it is.’”
Stolen bits of time, maybe twenty minutes a month. The rest of the time, they are on guard—a phrase used in sword-play and fisticuffs, representing vigilance, armor, self-protection.
• • •
In the mid-2000s, when barbershops first started to freshen up, they added wide-screen TVs (natch), motorized reclining chairs, and massage chairs, or they went rock ’n’ roll, like Lincoln’s American Classic Barbershop in South St. Louis. He had learned to cut hair in the Army, and by the time he went to barber college, he was one of the only White guys in his class. The others were all legacy, set to inherit their dad’s or grandpa’s shop. Lincoln wound up opening his own, and he set the decor in 1956.
“Happy Days,” he explains. “All the movies we saw growing up showed that as an idealistic time. It was affluent—at least psychologically affluent—and people were getting more adventurous about how they looked.”
He designed American Classic with chairs facing each other, and the result “was a big conversation, usually two or three going at once.” Now, he says, “people don’t interact personally like they used to. We are in a time where, whatever you need, you just want to go there, get your service, and get out. I’ll be honest, I like the idea, to a certain degree, of not having to interact if you don’t want to. Because you were kind of forced to, before.”
Yet a few minutes later, he tells me what he misses most since he sold his shop is the conversation.
As a kid, Dan Rather was entranced by “the boisterous banter of baseball, football and politics, the raw language and rawer jokes” at the Fourteenth Avenue Barbershop in Houston. Back then, barbershops played Twitter’s role, and stale news was brushed away with a dismissive “Every barber knows that.” The shop was a “bastion of masculinity,” Rather wrote in his autobiography, and its camaraderie coaxed his journalistic ambitions.
Black barbershops still hold the power to mentor, to reinforce masculinity, to draw the community together. They are social, the way White barbershops used to be.
These days, White guys just want silence.
A friend’s husband “goes to Great Clips because it is easy and he doesn’t have to talk to anyone.” A journalism professor says he goes to Great Clips “because it’s inexpensive and I don’t have to talk.” A psychotherapist chose a place “with private cubbies and no talking with other guys, unlike the barber shops of my youth.”
“Summer haircuts, there’s a meditative element to it,” Roth says, his voice drifting just a little, like a raft on a still day. “You are breaking away from your day, you’re in the cool air-conditioning, and you have your jacket off, and they put the paper over your collar and the reverse robe under it, so it should be kind of quiet.”
As a kid, Dan Rather was entranced by “the boisterous banter of baseball, football and politics, the raw language and rawer jokes” at the Fourteenth Avenue Barbershop in Houston. Back then, barbershops played Twitter’s role, and stale news was brushed away with a dismissive “Every barber knows that.”
Todd Vasel’s grandpa was a barber, and after he retired, he continued to cut hair in his damp basement, mothballs interrupting the woody, aromatic scent of hair tonic. “I was not to join in,” Vasel says, “but from the backyard I could hear laughter, sports talk, and a bit of salty language … a ritual that I still find appealing.” And now? “Now I just close my eyes and doze. I’m not a huge chatter.”
“I’ve never really talked to another guy at a salon,” another man tells me, “’cause it’s just not a guy thing to do.”
A writer for MEL Magazine notes that in contemporary men’s salons, “the presence of other well-to-do white men is important to their identities, but they do not need to fraternize with these men to feel masculine.” The all-male salon is “the ideal site for rejuvenating one’s masculinity in an environment in which other men can be mostly ignored.”
• • •
“Going to the barbershop was the first commercial transaction I was entirely trusted to complete,” Roth realizes as we talk. “My mother gave me money for a cut and a tip when I was five, and I would walk to the barbershop by myself. She told me what a tip was and how I was supposed to give it separately, and she put the money in a folded-over envelope.
“You would just walk in on a Saturday and take a seat and wait your turn,” he continues. “They had Sgt. Rock comic books, and for the men there were Playboy magazines back in the corner. No kid ever dared look at one. Oh, and the older guys would get manicures.” The memory snaps him back into the present, and he chuckles. “I would never get a manicure. I don’t need somebody holding my hand, and I can take care of my own nails. We used to kid that a manicure was a Jewish man’s affair.”
When he moved back to St. Louis as an adult, he got his hair cut anyplace convenient, and when he grew weary of salons and chains, he walked into the Men’s Athletic Club downtown, climbed the stairs to the mezzanine, and asked if he could get a haircut in their barbershop. “Burgundy leather seats,” he says happily, “and maybe five chairs, only two of which I’ve ever seen in operation.” When he closes his eyes, he can still smell the old cigar smoke: “The place is a movie set; you could stage a mob assassination in there.” Yet he finds it easy on the nerves.
It recalls a time when men knew exactly what was expected of them.
• • •
“Barber services are one of the top services that men say they’re looking to try next,” notes a 2019 MINDBODY industry research report. “And with numbers and momentum like that, barbering has now become the fastest-growing profession in the U.S. … The main reason barbershops have taken the industry by storm is due to men focusing on establishing a strong identity and sense of masculinity through professional grooming.”
The National Association of Barbers tells its members that they are “offering a lifestyle,” and that the barbershop is now a place for men to “define masculinity on a personal level.”
Before COVID-19 hit, men’s grooming was slated to become a $26 billion industry in 2020. TrendHunter characterizes the market as a mix of blunt, macho aesthetics and luxurious, indulgent experience.
In other words, masculinity remains a paradox.
“Western culture has a double expectation of men,” notes John Harvey, a reader in literature and visual culture at the University of Cambridge. “It wants them to be at ease and unbuttoned, not rigid and frigid like tight-wrapped Puritans. And it expects their bodies to wear at least two layers of covering. If a man wore to a formal event a garment exposing his skin in the way that a woman’s skin is exposed, we would all be disoriented, even shocked.”
Will that change next? Maybe the explosion in men’s grooming is the beginning of a power shift, a sign that we now expect heterosexual men to be the decorative ones, conforming to certain visual standards of beauty and style, hanging on to youth in ways far subtler than Grecian Formula …
Or maybe this is not such a sea change. Maybe it is just permission for them to admit what they have felt all along.
Monks were once tonsured near-bald, that empty circle of fringe a deliberate attempt to humble them. In the secular world, a man’s hair nearly always reads as virility. Samson drew raw power from his unshorn locks. The Roman senate allowed Julius Caesar to wear a laurel crown over his receding hairline, and when the disguise proved insufficient, he donned a toupée. Bald at seventeen, King Louis XIII wore a wig, as did his son and all their courtiers, and it was soon a status symbol (also convenient camo for the hair loss of syphilis). Back when Rogaine was first formulated, my boss smeared the stuff all over his balding pate several times a day. A brave coworker compared the mossy sprouts to Chia Pet seedlings, but our boss was so eager for hair, he endured the ribbing. Today, bald can be gangsta tough (hell, Mr. Clean used to scare me). And the “high and tight” cut of Marines; the bland, clean cut of FBI agents; the tough bristle of the street cop are all signifiers, guaranteeing conformity and power as surely as Beat and hippie tresses guaranteed rebellion.
• • •
Tom Twellman Sr. opened his first Hair Saloon in 1997, intending the place to matter to men the way a saloon mattered to a cowboy. The Hair Saloon would be “a place for men who remember tradition and integrity,” the marketing materials promised. Haircuts there would be “an experience, not just an errand.” After all, “the man everyone depends on needs a place of his own to depend on…. While the world may take him for granted, eroding away at his ideals, we give him a few minutes to feel strong again… to get him ready for what’s next. To rise up for whatever the day may bring.”
Most of the Hair Saloon staff are female—they are called PHDs, professional hair designers—and out of courtesy, no copies of Playboy speed the wait. Often dads come with their sons, drink a free Coke, play checkers or use the putting green (“nothing special, a piece of carpet with a hole in it,” says one customer, and I can tell he is glad). Haircuts are done in alcoves, discouraging cross-chat. “It’s not communal, more of a one-on-one,” says Tom Twellman Jr., who has taken the reins from his dad. “The idea is to come in and disconnect. It’s an opportunity to step back from the noise of the world.” You can get your shoes shined or your scalp and neck massaged, and at the end of a haircut, a hot towel is draped on your neck, and you get a mint. Every single client I talk to mentions that hot towel and mint.
Now in eighteen locations, the company is franchised and has spread to Texas and the East Coast. It even has its own product, gels and suds and unguents with names like Saloon Black. The walls are hung with black-and-white historic photos of famous athletes. “It feels,” one regular emphasizes, “like a place for men.”
• • •
Hybrids like The Hair Saloon do not reverberate with the bass rumble of barbershop chat. They are quiet and professional and drenched in what sociologist Kristen Barber calls “nostalgic masculinity,” with elk antlers on a log wall or old sports photos or vintage Maine cabin décor.
In 2015, an “authentic” barbershop (indie and cool but still, I decide, in need of quotation marks) opened in St. Louis’s version of the French Quarter. Housed in a historic brick building, Union Barber Shop is, as one reviewer notes, “every inch Instagrammable.” Hipster, high style, handcrafted, and almost four times the price of the $7.75 cut at the old Soulard Barber Shop nearby, Union offers a chill atmosphere, beer and a pool table, a straight-razor shave, maybe a pompadour or a hard part.
Lincoln swears the amenities and price are the only real difference: “We finished every haircut with hot lather and a straight razor. These new places do that and call it a ‘service.’ We’re not servicing you, we’re giving you a haircut!”
In 2015, an “authentic” barbershop (indie and cool but still, I decide, in need of quotation marks) opened in St. Louis’s version of the French Quarter. Housed in a historic brick building, Union Barber Shop is, as one reviewer notes, “every inch Instagrammable.”
I tell him to check out the places a few socioeconomic notches higher: the “malexclusive” salons and spas, where men can get their hair colored or “manlighted,” get a mani or a pedi, and get waxed … anywhere. The aestheticians are female and, as sociologist Kristen Barber hints in Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, they are expected to act as Sherpas, guiding men through these traditionally female offerings while reiterating just how manly they are.
Such places are careful not to call themselves salons, Barber adds: “They call themselves maybe ‘grooming environments’ … One of the salons I studied redefined manicures as hand detailing.”
Though I groan, the idea of nails buffed clean and smooth does not repel me. What does is the newer trend: color cosmetics. Shisheido has just created a facial map to help men learn how to use make-up. I shudder. What is sexy about a man preening in front of a mirror? I hoped quarantine casualness would ease women away from all the extra, the fuss and paint and appliqué. Now it looks as though the cisgendered are simply changing places.
Or is this happening because we have changed places? Physical strength matters less in an abstract high-tech world, manual labor has been consigned to the robots, and men are thwarted in their old role of protecting (how do you keep your family safe from a terrorist bombing or a pandemic?) and providing (as many wives earn more their husbands).
The other possibility is that men are trapped between worlds, as stressed out as women but without their bubblebaths, me-time, book-and-wine clubs, and bitch sessions. Told for years to get in touch with their feelings, a lot of men have not quite figured out how, and with old male bonding rituals fading away, there are fewer ways to blow steam, and they are lonely.
Researching her book, Barber found that for White men with financial means, a men’s salon offering all these services is “an important place where they can purchase the sense of connection they may otherwise be missing.”
This strikes me as unbearably sad. What about retail therapy, a small voice whispers. What about all the times you streaked your hair and bought a new dress to feel a little more confident? Yes, yes, and that depresses me, too. Consumerism has a way of pretending it can solve problems when really it created them. But I do not buy a sense of connection with my cash. I do not even buy femininity. Mainly, I just want to make sure people with a refined aesthetic sensibility do not avert their eyes in horror.
Men, though. Theirs is a different quandary, connection harder to achieve and gender harder to prove. They can no longer sail away on a quest, fell a giant oak, or fight a duel to prove their masculinity. Instead, we are telling them to buy it.
Honestly? I preferred it when men made a show of despising fuss. Lincoln shrugs off the explosion in guy products as niche: “I use Irish Spring soap, and the gel I use is from Walmart. But for as long as guys are out there who want vegan products made with flower oils ….”
Yet even he, a former punk rocker who is now a firefighter, feels the sting of the new body consciousness. When his little boy pointed to an actor and said, “He looks like you, Daddy!” all Lincoln saw, with a wince, was the guy’s six-pack. “We are inundated with the visual,” he points out. “Men see guys on tv or the internet and think that’s how they are supposed to look.”
Theirs [men’s] is a different quandary, connection harder to achieve and gender harder to prove. They can no longer sail away on a quest, fell a giant oak, or fight a duel to prove their masculinity. Instead, we are telling them to buy it.
Which flashes me right back to all the runway models and magazine ads that made teenage girls risk their lives to be skinny.
I could be overreacting. For grown men, maybe this is a healthy new freedom, a chance to finally indulge themselves a little without fear of being branded weak. It can be restorative to get fussed over, tended to, and soothed by someone who will not expect you to return the favor. Maybe it is even therapeutic to fork over cash for all this grooming, thereby demonstrating that, as the ads say, you are worth it. If, that is, you can afford to pay for what you are worth. But what about budget-class masculinity? Barbershops and poker nights and moose-or-elk lodges once filled that need. What we see in their wake is often a raw insecurity, created by social shifts and media and exacerbated by marketers who have been perfecting their skills on women for centuries.
• • •
I tell Andrew about Betty’s Barber Shop. How Betty Jackson braved barber college before most women would. How she came up with the Sweet Betty Fade years ago to style up the teenage boys who only knew to ask for buzzcuts; how they hung out on her sofa and raided the salon fridge for pickles. I tell him about the kid so distraught over a bad haircut from a discount chain that he was threatening to shave his head, and how his brother-in-law shooed him to Betty’s, where her daughter fixed his hair and refused to take money, “because he’d already spent twenty dollars!” I tell him how people honk hello when they drive by, and the customers know each other well enough to argue politics and still leave laughing. Simple human connection, above and beyond the commodity exchange—and a simple way of being a guy.
He nods. It could work. “No product?”
He nods again. But he is still holding out hope for Gene’s.