The end of Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice last semester culminated in a multi-week project about a subject of our choice. I chose hair, and started calling at barber shops and salons to see if they’d let me take pictures there. I learned a lot about hair, met a lot of cool hair stylists, and promised Richard Silvestro of Silvestro’s Barber Shop that when I cut all my hair off, I’d come back to his shop. Well, last week Silvestro shaved off two and a half years’ worth of my hair, and this week I’m posting all my hair pictures.
The buzz of clippers and snip of scissors fills the air. The smell of bleach wafts by. Music plays, people talk, and there are always more towels to be folded. At Jack and Jill in Lynn and Salon Bogart in Manchester-by-the-Sea, the customers are getting long layered cuts, dye jobs, perms, and blow-outs; at Silvestro’s Barber Shop in Medford, they get fades, head shaves, and beard line-ups. Some know the barbers or stylists by name and have been coming for years, while others are still shopping around to find a stylist they’d like. Whether they’re covering up their grays, adding a purple streak, or reshaping their hairline, they all have one thing in common: they’ve come here to get their hair done.
Depending on who you are, deciding to get your hair done is the most natural thing in the world — you look in the mirror, realize you’re getting a little shaggy, and head down to the nearest salon or barber shop to get a trim. But it’s not always so simple. Every step of the process, from deciding what you want your hair to look like to finding a place to make it happen, is weighted by who you are, where you are in life, and how others see you. If Amy, who works at Jack and Jill, walks into Silvestro’s and asks for a blow-out, Richard won’t be able to help her. And if Richard wants a hot shave with a straight razor, Jess and Lauren at Salon Bogart will have to send him somewhere else. Neither Amy nor Richard are people of color, but if they were, they’d have to seek out someone who specialized in their hair type. And even if Amy went to Silvestro’s looking for a skin fade, the barbers might feel uncomfortable giving her a haircut they’re used to giving to other men. The hair place is as raced, gendered, and classed as everything in our culture — something my black and brown, trans, non-binary, gender-nonconforming, and/or poor friends feel acutely whenever they look in the mirror and realize they’re getting a little shaggy.
Our hair says a lot about who we are. Some parts we have control over: We can choose to cut it short or let it grow long, to relax it or leave it natural, to spike it, wave it, or style it like Farrah Fawcett. Other parts, like the color or texture it grows in, or whether and where it grows at all, we have little to no say in. We can say something about ourselves by what we do with it, but it will always speak over the choices we put into it. And unless we can cut and dye it ourselves, those choices are mediated through others. Every time we sit down in the chair in a place like Jack and Jill, Bogart, or Silvestro’s, we’re handing control of our hair over to someone we may barely know but are going to have to trust. The men at Silvestro’s don’t seem too bothered by this. The range of cuts Silvestro’s offers is narrow, the small variety defined by “short on the sides and longer on top”. You go to Silvestro’s to get a men’s haircut, and that’s what the clientele is there for. There aren’t a lot of options, but men, so we’re told, don’t need a lot of options. The regulars at Jack and Jill and Salon Bogart are comfortable with their chosen stylists after spending so many afternoons with them, but their style motivations are often more complex than just wanting to look neat. They get highlights, all-over color, and perms, seeking volume, beauty, and youth. Many colors and lengths are available, but most of them go for a combination of blonde and brown, a length somewhere between earlobe and shoulder. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be beautiful, but it’s visible even through hair alone that Western beauty is biased, unbalanced, and limits every gender its own particular way.