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Those who serve: Cutters of hair

Yesterday, I got a haircut. More precisely, I got many hairs cut. My hair was several inches past my shoulders, long enough to make my neck hot and sweaty at work if I forgot to bring a band to tie it up. My hair is fine and thin and does not look its best tied up in a bun, and due to the length, my hair ended up in a bun more often than not. My decision to get it cut was less about vanity and more about physical comfort, but I’d be lying if I said that vanity wasn’t a consideration.

More important than vanity or comfort was ritual. I let my hair grow for close to a year then have a most it chopped off. I will grow this cut out, getting a couple of hair cuts over the next year, and then the following year, I will let it grow long again. The cycle runs two to three years. Sometimes, at the end of a cycle, I shave my head. Cutting off significant length is cathartic.

Hair stylists enjoy cutting my hair because I have no qualms about losing over six inches in length and generally ask for something daring. I am a fun cut. They also tend to like me because while I chit chat a bit, I also will be quiet for long chunks of time savoring the experience. This allows them to be quiet. To not chat me up. To focus on the work at hand, my head of hair.

As I sat in the chair with my chin tilted down toward my collarbone, listening to the sounds of scissors clipping and driers blowing and the mummer of salon chit chat from numerous stations, I thought about how much time hair stylists (barbers, weavers, etc) spend on their feet with their hands on people.

We pay them for an intimate service, a service that engages their bodies with our bodies. It is not sexual, at least not most of time, but it is sensual, erotic. It is comforting. We pay them for primate grooming. The comb pulled through our hair is like a chimp looking for nits and is a wee bit reminiscent of our parents looking for lice.

We are meant to be touched, touched in all sorts of ways. Our culture is uncomfortable with intimate touch, presuming that it is sexual. When I was in high school, I shocked a fellow student when I told her that on many Saturday mornings, I watched Style with Elsa Klench followed by This Old House with my father and while watching, I often rested my feet in his lap. He would tsk about how long my toe nails had gotten and go get some clippers and trim them. She could not imagine putting her feet in her father’s lap; it was taboo in her family. She could not imagine her father grooming her, which would have been seen as sexual in her family.

When I have told people this story, they tend to agree that it illustrates something important about how too many kinds touch are sexualized too much of the time. It is not that feet in lap should never be sexualized, but that feet in lap should not always be sexualized. These same people have a hard time when I tell them that I have, sometime in the past few years, put my feet in my father’s lap, and he has trimmed my toe nails. The image of a woman in her late 30’s putting her feet in her father’s lap is unsettling to many, though personally I find it comforting.

In our culture, one of the ways we separate childhood from adulthood is the amount of distance between bodies. Children are touched more; children touch more. Adults are touched less; adults touch less. Not all of this bad. When we are children adults touch us to stop us from doing things, to keep us from falling, to redirect us from grabbing something we shouldn’t. As adults, others touching us in this way would signal to ourselves and others that we are not able to redirect ourselves, that we are unable to keep ourselves from falling. Others not touching us is a signal that we are competent adults.

We pay hair stylists for the hair cut, yet what they do is more significant than a stylish new do. People who cut our hair provide us with intimate, not sexual touch. Their hands on our heads soothe us. Their hands comfort us. We leave the salon or the barber shop with a lift in our step. I would argue it has more to do with how we feel after a session of primate grooming than how we look.

Today, I ask that your give hair cutters their due for what they do when they give you a do. Until next time, ado.

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