“Mid-fade to half, keep my sideburns, taper to zero at the neck, a bit off the top with some texture,” I tell my barber in the lingo it took me ten years to learn.
My eyes close as he pumps my chair, leans me back, and begins. I feel the electric purr of the clippers moving against my scalp and neck, cutting hair away down to the skin, clean. The controlled vibrations soothe like mini-massages all around my head. The barber adjusts the blades, switches the plastic guards that guide the length of the cut and protect the flesh from bloodletting bites. Clippers buzz around the bumps and contours of my skull like a lawnmower on a lumpy hill. He whips out the comb and shears to blend the sides perfectly until the fade looks finely airbrushed, and we’re both pleased with the results.
The barber sprinkles Clubman Pinaud, the musky smell-good powder “for men,” on a soft brush that he whisks lightly around my face and neckline, flicking away bits of shorn hair. I hear the automatic shave cream dispenser and a few seconds later, I get goosebumps when I feel my barber finger-paint shave cream on the skin around my ears and neckline. It feels good — the most pleasure I’d ever want from a man’s hands. The cool shock of the straight-edge razor cuts through the warm foam as he scrapes away, gently, at the edges of my hairline. I see the blade’s handle flash in my barber’s palm and my literature scholar brain goes right to the grim barber scene in Melville’s 1855 novella, Benito Cereno. In medieval times, my barber would have also been my surgeon. Blade to flesh.
It feels good, the most pleasure I’d ever want from a man’s hands. The cool shock of the straight-edge razor cuts through the warm foam as he scrapes away, gently, at the edges of my hairline.
“Your favorite part,” he says knowingly, snapping me from my bookish trance. My barber sprays lemongrass aftershave tonic on a hot white towel and hangs it in front of my face from behind, allowing the steam to waft around me. I inhale a deep breath and exhale slowly, enjoying the scented steam of the towel as he wraps it around my head, pressing softly on my forehead and cheekbones, skin tingling. After the hot towel comes the vintage massager, an old hand-held pulsating machine that he pushes up and down my neck and across my shoulders. Finally, the barber slides floral pomade into my hair and styles it into a perfect little bump of a pompadour. I’m set.
I feel like a new butch.
I didn’t always go to a barber or know how to ask one for the haircut I wanted. I didn’t know the cut I always wanted was called a “fade” until I started asking the dudes I knew who had one. A classic men’s barber cut since the 1950s, the fade started as a military cut. Hip hop culture stylized it in the early 1990s, giving us variations like Bobby Brown’s ‘Gumby’ look, while updated 1950s ‘Rockabilly’ styles remain popular with many Latinos in my area. The fade’s masculine form and versatility also make it a favorite hairstyle among many butch women: see Phranc, the self-described “Jewish lesbian folksinger,” Boo and Ruby Rose on Orange is the New Black, or Ser Anzoategui’s character “Eddy” on Vida.
Like a lot of baby butches, I was a tomboy who played sports and hated wearing dresses or anything girly. I grew up in a big Catholic Mexican American family scattered all over the suburbs of East Los Angeles. My aunties and cousins happily reinforced traditional “Latina” feminine norms for the girls: pierced ears at infancy; long hair in braids or ponytails with ribbons; frilly dresses and blouses; and later, lots of makeup, especially red lipstick. “One day, your boyfriend will like it,” the aunties would say. Except I never wanted to be a girl like that, and I didn’t want a boyfriend. I wanted to be the boyfriend: I wanted to be Danny Zuko, Sandy’s boyfriend in Grease. I wanted to wear shirts, jeans, boots, and cut my hair short, like Madonna would sing about many years later in her 2000 song, “What it Feels Like for a Girl.”
Except I never wanted to be a girl like that, and I didn’t want a boyfriend. I wanted to be the boyfriend: I wanted to be Danny Zuko, Sandy’s boyfriend in Grease.
When that song came out, I was twenty-six and confused, a graduate student in Bloomington, Indiana. A gay student in my cohort called me a “soft butch” because I looked like a P.E. teacher with a “hair situation.” I covered my bad hair with a baseball cap almost daily. There was no real shape or style to it, just an overgrown $10 mall-chain salon haircut. It was ‘short’ by my family’s standards. I yearned to go shorter, and cooler. I’d play Madonna’s song and fixate on her blithe observation that girls can cut their hair short because “it’s okay to be a boy.”
But is it okay to be a butch?
Butch is a vernacular term for a lesbian who identifies as a woman, but whose sense of self is deeply rooted in masculinity. These include “masculine accouterments such as clothing and hairstyle,” says to the anthropologist Gayle Rubin. For most of my life, and especially post-coming out at age twenty-two, clothing was easy. A former athlete, I had a stockpile of shorts, T-shirts, and other Sporty-Spice duds at my disposal. I shopped in men’s departments for ‘dressy’ clothes and underwear when I swapped sports bras and ladies’ briefs for A-shirts and boxers. But all through my twenties until my mid-thirties, my hair was the last battleground of my self-styling, as it is for many masculine-of-center women of color, like Lena Waithe. I realize now that much of the struggle over my hair was largely a struggle to accept myself as a Chicana butch.
Butch is a vernacular term for a lesbian who identifies as a woman, but whose sense of self is deeply rooted in masculinity.
August, 1993. Alone in my dorm room, I tear off the plastic and behold the sizzling Vanity Fair cover: k.d. lang in a barber chair straddled by a hot femme, supermodel Cindy Crawford. At the time, I was in the midst of my own gender and sexual identity crises. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college, not yet out, but I knew full well I liked women. I was in a feminine phase: I wore my hair in a sharp blunt cut shaved underneath in the back, Siouxsie-Sioux style. I painted my fingernails, tweezed my eyebrows, wore makeup and lipstick like the self-respecting “alternative” Latina I thought I was. Then that Vanity Fair cover happened.
lang’s hair isn’t even the center of attention. Cindy Crawford isn’t holding clippers, and k.d. isn’t getting a fade. She’s getting a shave for a beard she doesn’t have, but that didn’t matter to me. It meant something edgy and even forbidden to see this campy, queer barber scene — though I didn’t have the language to call it such. I fancied myself as k.d. lang in that scenario, the butch in the barber chair, lathered up in cream and waiting for my diva-licious femme to come over and straddle me, too.
In 2009, I finally went to an L.A. barbershop for a fade. I described what I wanted: “Shaved on the sides but also longer on top, somewhere between Ricky Martin and Morrissey,” I said. The gay Latino barber knew exactly what I meant and went to work. I surged with excitement. When he was done, he handed me the mirror. There I was. I finally had the hair I’d wanted since I was five years old and put water in my long bangs to comb them back like Danny Zuko. At thirty-five, I finally had my first butch haircut. It felt wonderful.
Scholar and author Jack Halberstam reminds us that “butches manage to affirm their masculinity despite the multiple sites in which that masculinity is challenged, denied, threatened, and violated.” I have experienced the barbershop as both such sites, first as one where my masculinity has been challenged and denied, often in jarring ways. Walking into a barbershop in this body means I have to be prepared to negotiate the cultural politics of a space historically tied to the maintenance and upkeep of “gentlemen’s” beards and personal grooming — no “ladies” allowed. I’ve had to search far and wide, sometimes to no avail, for a non-prohibitive space in the predominantly heteronormative, if not traditionally misogynistic and homophobic, environment of the barbershop.
And yet, like many other butch women, I choose the barbershop over the “unisex” salon or other such hairstyling places precisely because of the particular affirmation of masculinity that the barber experience can avail. The boy-bonding with my barber over smells of pomade and aftershave, the banter and sports-talk, the sounds of shears and clippers over TV voices and rock music, the can of Tecate at 11am, all contribute to the uniquely masculine experience of getting a haircut at the barbershop.
When done well, the barbershop haircut is a thoroughly sensual and pleasurable experience that is central to my practice of the butch self-care which took me over twenty years to cultivate. On the good days, I fit right in. I’m lucky to have two barbers, both skilled, warm, kind, and handsome men who welcome me in their chairs. On the good days, I feel like that badass Chicana lesbian activist and outlaw Jeanne Córdova, who describes combing her hair back and strutting out the front door: “being butch is my hallelujah,” she says.
For this butch, nothing beats the affirmation that a good barber visit brings to my sense of self-love, not to mention the love of my femme. When I come home fresh, smelling good and feeling soft from the warm towel and shave cream, my femme runs her hand along the nape of my neck. It feels like velvet to her manicured fingers. “Looks good, baby,” she purrs with a smile and a sparkle in her eye. She takes a whiff of my neck. Femme aphrodisiac.
That’s the real feeling of my butch barber pleasure. My butch hallelujah.