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Hayfaa Chalabi

Against the binary: Falling in love with cutting my own hair

Through their own hair clippers, our gender columnist finds comfort and freedom.

05 Sep 2022

The clippers feel almost like a palm cupping the side of my head. I love their hum and their sharp softness. I love what they enable me to do in half an hour – completely change my appearance, transform, and look back at myself not only with a new haircut but with a renewed sense of self, confidence, control and joy.

For so long, my hair was a battleground on which I fought for my gender. The first time I wanted short hair, aged 13, I was told ‘no’ by my parents. Many times after that, I was made to feel uncomfortable. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten a haircut and been met with signs of disappointment, both from loved ones and strangers. I’m reminded of this every time I hold a pair of clippers in my hand and just do whatever I want.

“For so long, my hair was a battleground on which I fought for my gender”

“But you’ll look like a boy,” was my parents’ response when I first said I wanted short hair. I remember thinking at the time, “so what?”

As a teenager, every time I went to get my hair cut, I was met with resistance and a reluctance to chop it all off. From the family friend, who would look to my mum nervously for permission, to the local hairdresser who would always lecture about how longer hair would be better. They always left it too long, despite my asking them not to. Nobody ever cut my hair how I wanted it, until I did.

It felt so good! I borrowed some clippers, and spent a good hour or so watching ‘men’s haircut’ videos on YouTube, some of which were done by professionals and others by amateurs. I was alone in the bathroom, nervous and full of adrenaline. When I was done, I looked in the mirror. I did a messy but powerful job. This was over 10 years ago, when I was 15, and I’ve only been to a handful of barbershops since. Open Barbers in London transformed my barbershop experience, and have done so for so many of us who don’t sit neatly within this bizarre world of hair policing based on what someone perceives your genitals to be.

I also want to shout out to the barber in Istanbul, who was so gentle and easy with me. It was the first time I went to a ‘regular’ barber or hairdresser in my adult life. It was a typical berber – a mirror along one wall, plush sheets and Turkish football playing on the telly. I was nervous, but he didn’t question me, and made me feel very welcome in his chair by acting as if I belonged there. Through him, I could be at home in my culture and my gender all at once. This uncle – amca – who I don’t know the name of, but am forever grateful for.

Although I have had some much nicer experiences at the barbers’ in my adult life, I still – like a lot of trans people I know – pretty much always cut my own hair. I fell in love with it. Taking the clippers into my own hands feels like a big ‘screw you’ to anyone who ever said I couldn’t do what I wanted to with my own body. And it feels relaxing, therapeutic even, like each time my hair falls and scatters to the ground I’m releasing silly expectations that people put on me. And with each cycle of hair that grows, I’m making space for my growth, for change. I get to lay my own path for the next cycle.

“And with each cycle of hair that grows, I’m making space for my growth, for change”

I really do believe in growth and change. Although my parents don’t get my gender, they got me some clippers for my birthday in my late teens. And I’m slowly having conversations with my mum about what it means to be trans.

I’ve loved seeing my friends grow too. A few years ago we hosted community L Word: Gen Q viewings, and I would cut my loved ones’ hair between episodes, heading upstairs to the bathroom as our makeshift barbers. In queer community, we transform from the isolated and fearful kids we once were into badass and powerful adults. We care for each other, celebrate each other and support each other’s healing. The buzz of the clippers has become a sound of comfort and reclamation for me. In each other’s arms, cutting each other’s hair, we are safe and we know how beautiful we are.

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