I grew up in a big family. Haircuts were a utilitarian necessity, given in the kitchen, usually by our harried mother, one eye on the head being shaved, one on the rest of her kids. There was no defined style, no attention to shaping or detailing around the neckline, or tapering around the ears. We boys were called and buzzed, our sisters had their ends trimmed and evened out, hopefully. Sometimes their hair was cut crooked, and our mother, in a mad attempt to straighten it, ended up cutting off a lot more than she’d intended. It was five minutes and if it wasn’t done well, she’d fix it next time. Hair was an annoyance, something that kept growing, always seemed to need washing and brushing, no matter how short it had been cut. We weren’t cut to be stylish, we were cut to be neat and clean. My eldest sister once asked if she could cut her hair short, thinking it would save her time and be less hassle. The attempt at a pixie that our mother gave her was so disastrous, she ended up buzzing it off to fix it.
Somewhere in my teens, I took over clipper duty from my mother. With a rudimentary tool kit of drug store clippers, we started to notice that my siblings didn’t cringe when Mom announced it was haircut day, so long as it was me cutting. Cuts were still short and neat, but they now actually had something that resembled a style. For a group of kids who came into the world during the disco era, we stood out enough with our clipped-short hair. I tried to at least make us stand out for having it well cut. Our parents cringed at the idea of the punk-inspired eighties shaved styles that found their way into the mainstream, but with a bit of bravery, I could sneak a style onto one of my brothers that everyone liked. Buzzed and stylish, but not something that we’d see in a music video on a guy wearing black eyeliner and with piercings, screaming that he hated the government or something. I practiced and started trying taper cuts on my brothers, even layering my sisters’ hair. Eventually, Kelly got over her disastrous Mom Pixie and asked me to cut her hair short. She still liked the idea of short hair, she just needed a stylist who could cut it well. I didn’t want to mess it up, so I took out videos from the library to watch cutting techniques before I ever went near her with the scissors, slowly and carefully snipping her into a neat, Demi Moore-inspired Ghost cut, and she has never worn her hair long since. Kelly’s hair is thick and luscious. Her cheekbones and eyes are amazing. She just needed a short haircut that found and flattered them.
That was what made me decide I wanted to be a hairstylist. In the late eighties, a straight guy announcing he wanted to cut hair for a living was about as out-there as aliens, but even our conservative father admitted he preferred my kitchen cuts to his barber and certainly to Mom’s chaotic cuts. With a house full of siblings who would need college tuition, it also made sense that I did something that would quickly get me into a paying job, as my brother the welder had done before me.
I lived at home during hair school, paid for it with the money I’d earned at my part time jobs in high school, but never stopped hearing my teachers lamenting what a waste it was I was going into a “menial” service job, when I should be going to business school. The great thing about having a paying job after hair school was that I was able to do both- live at home, keep my family in trendy haircuts, work part time as a stylist, attend university. Cutting hair was a great way to pay for university, because a stylist’s hours tend to be nights and weekends anyway. People don’t take their kids out of school for a haircut, they don’t leave work in the middle of the day to get their roots done. Stylists work around your hours.
Maybe being from a big family didn’t put me off of serious relationships, because I married young, and wasn’t scared when we started our family right away. I was used to multitasking, to working more than one job, so cutting hair while taking up a nightshift factory job was what I expected of myself. It gave me the nest egg to open my own salon and not risk the house my growing young family was living in. What was a crappy old building downtown looked to me like cheap rent if I put the time into refurbishing it (enter a brother who is a plumber, and was able to do my sinks in exchange for free haircuts for life; and his contractor friends who made the old walls and tin ceiling look like new.) As it was downtown, my clientele quickly became busy professionals who were looking for a quick, functional haircut on their lunch hours. Men who didn’t want buzzcuts that looked like kitchen cuts, but still wanted short and neat hairstyles before they rushed off to court. Women who needed to nail the presentation or be respected in the boardroom, and didn’t have an hour to dry and style their hair every day, but certainly didn’t want to look like they’d given up.
“I want a change,” was the refrain I heard most often from new clients. “You’re the guy who cuts it short, so, here I am.” The first time I heard that, I was concerned that I had pigeon-holed myself with my office tower-area location, and actually stopped to ask myself how many long-haired clients I had. But I realized the new client was there because she wanted a short haircut, and her stylist wasn’t hearing her. Or maybe she worried she’d change her mind, and since I was “the guy who cuts it short,” she was less likely to change her mind in my chair, or have the chance to change her mind in my chair. Few people are ever really ready to go from long to short and they need a gentle push. Few people ever really regret going short once they’ve done it. When I thought about it, I really was “the guy who cuts it short.” I see clients who know that professional often equals short and neat, but that it needn’t be boring and can definitely still be feminine. So often, the woman who came for the short haircut was transformed from mousy office worker with dry, unflattering hair to take-charge office manager, by something as simple as a great haircut, finding her inner confidence. Yes, a great haircut often meant a short haircut. I cringed when I saw the evening news and a forty-ish woman with a messy bun read the news. Her colleague with the smooth bob and her other colleague with the preppy businessman’s cut both looked more credible giving the disasters of the day.
I admit it, I love short hair. I love a woman who has the confidence to show her face to the world, and shed the shield of a mop of dirty or dry hair. I love seeing a woman bite her lip in anticipation when I make that first long-to-short snip and watch as she becomes a new person in my chair. That bitten lip turns into a radiant smile, a smile that you can see, after the hair has been cut away. She’s also placing a lot of trust in a stylist when she asks for that first short cut, so it was a compliment to see a woman with long hair in my chair saying “You’re the short cut guy, and I want to go shorter.” Once they go short, they rarely bother to grow it back when it is so easy to make changes to short hair without the commitment of years of growing time.
So, I’m the guy who cuts it short. My boys would agree, having been subjected to many a close shave at their father’s hand (or clipper, as is the case for them.) I will cut their hair into almost any style they choose (European soccer star seems to be one of their favourites lately;) as long as it’s kept short and maintained. They know not to argue with me, as we’re just going to go through this again in another month when it’s time for a trim. The house rule is that I always see ears, collars and eyebrows. Beyond that, they get a say in the style itself. That’s more than my brothers or I ever got when we were given our monthly kitchen buzzes.
As much as I wanted my business to be a success, I was still the kid who had kitchen haircuts because our family couldn’t afford the high prices of a family day at the salon or barbershop, so I started a carte-blanche teaching day each month. Anyone brave enough to show up and not know how their hair will be cut is welcome to book an appointment and get a free haircut, stylist’s choice, at my salon on that day. Some of my best hair models have been snipped in my chair with only their blind faith in my scissors or clippers and their belief that I would never choose an ugly style for them, but rather one that makes the “after” picture in a makeover feature. Many of them were simply budget-conscious moms who were willing to risk a bad haircut if it was free, then loved their new short hair so much, I could see them working out how to get it maintained at a Supercuts for less money. I give them the option of coming back for maintenance cuts so long as our salon still has carte blanche on the cut and colour. They get to be the woman whose haircut is in magazines, and on the salon’s web gallery. As we’ve grown, all of our stylists now participate in the carte-blanche free haircut day. Some of those budget-conscious women have moved up the corporate ladder since their early days of office worker with long, dry hair and they are now paying clients with standing trimming appointments.
After I was widowed, taking care of my boys and running my shop were pretty much all I had time for. Dating websites were awful, and “single male hairdresser” usually meant I got requests from guys to go on dates, but few women. Most of them wanted hair advice. I pretty much gave up on that scene before I really started in it. But when one of my favourite clients (a tightly snipped, shaved-back-and-sides red pixie) suggested she had a single friend, and nagged me every four weeks at her trim until I relented, I met her. I should say I met Her.
Mandy was funny and kind, a busy surgeon who had no time to date, either. She was, in short, exactly the woman I would have set myself up with. She also had long, ignored, somewhat mousy hair that she tied into a twist at the back of her head and ignored. Spending the day under surgical caps, she simply wanted it out of her way, and didn’t have the time to fuss with curling irons, braiding, etc., only to hide it all day. She was beautiful, but her hairstyle did nothing for her. She was simply another pretty girl in a sea of pretty girls, except her hair always looked sort of overlooked. She’d jump out of the shower in the morning and let her hair air dry while she drove to work, then sweep it up under her surgical cap, or twist it into a clip if it was an office hours day. I wanted to give her a short haircut the first night I met her, but there really is no way to suggest to a woman you’re dating that you’d like to give her a makeover haircut without insulting her. I doubt I would have gotten a second date.
She made an effort, applying lipstick in the car on the way to meeting me for dinner, brushing her hair, but who had time to sit in a salon for two hours only to have the hair still just kind of hang there, she asked me one night, when I met her at the hospital to take her out for a late movie. “What would you do if I was one of your carte blanche clients?” she asked, as we walked to the parking lot. I’d cut it all off, I replied, before I had the chance to censor myself. Mandy grinned then and said “How about Saturday after you close your shop, you do just that?”
Yet I didn’t take her up on it. Let’s do it in stages, I hedged, not sure why. It was then that I realized I was going to love cutting Mandy’s hair short, almost as much as she was going to love having it cut. But it was going to be her idea by the time we were finished, and I was going to have a girlfriend whose hair I cut with my very unforgiving and no-nonsense Andis clippers. She would beg for that final shaving and she would never want to grow it long again. But first we were going to have some fun with different styles, and when she was shaved, it would be because she wanted to go that short, not because she felt like I’d pressured her.
Haircut Number 1- The Punishment Cut Becomes a Transformative Donation; Mandy’s Flirty Flip
We agreed that Mandy would hang out in my shop on a Saturday. The vibe in the salon is different on weekends. The women aren’t rushing back to work, the men aren’t rushing to get their dry-cleaning. Saturdays are guys who are getting married that day, moms getting trimmed up between soccer and dinner at Grandma’s, daughters getting their short hair trimmed or getting their first short cut, sons getting their short haircuts maintained with Dad. It’s my professional clients with their mostly closely-snipped children, when they have time for two-step colours to process, or want a few hours alone with their kids. There are four other stylists in my shop, so there was plenty for Mandy to watch. She spent the day buried in magazines, watching the natural rhythm of the day play out. She watched me shave down one of my businessman clients before he left for two weeks on the road, so his hair would cooperate while he travelled. She watched his son get the usual tightly tapered clipper cut that worked for his student athlete lifestyle. She watched one of my fearless clients have her shaved sides trimmed, and her nape buzzed close. She watched a stepfather take his teenaged son for what I can only think of as a punishment clippercut.
That one hurt me, because I don’t like to think of a haircut as punishment. A good haircut is a revelation, a treat. In our salon, a short haircut is not a sign that you couldn’t be bothered with your hair, but the exact opposite. It shows that you take the time to groom yourself and put effort into your appearance. It is definitely not a punishment. Having long hair cut should be fun, liberating; it is not a penalty. I hate that scene in Boyhood where the stepfather taunts his stepson while he has his head shaved. In my salon, whatever it was this boy had done, his stepfather wanted his hair clipped off, and when he muttered “I can’t believe you’re making me do this,” the response was “One more word and you’ll be shaved clean. Are we clear?” I still couldn’t make it devastating for this kid, though, no matter what he had done. His hair was blunt cut, longer and healthy. So, I took my ruler and measured. It was so close. “What are you doing?” his stepfather asked me tersely. He was pissed at this kid; whatever he had done was not up for discussion. I explained that the hair was very healthy and would require the barest of end trims to neaten it up. He could donate it to charity, but that would mean going almost bald to be long enough to donate. I almost didn’t want to say it, because I feared the stepfather would take me up on it, but the boy in the chair looked up and asked “How short are we talking?”
You’ll see skin under what’s left, I admitted. It will be a month before you can call it finger-length. “Do it,” he said, pondering in the mirror what that might look like. “Just be quick, okay?” So, I trimmed his ends, gathered his dry hair into an elastic at the back of his head, then shaved. It was the only way to ensure that what we cut off was long enough to donate. I then took my clipper and shaved the back closer, tilted his head to the side and shaved up the sides, then added a blade guard to leave him just enough on top that he wouldn’t get a sunburn. He looked at his hair in tiny bits around his feet, and at the ponytail in a Ziploc bag, before he looked at his new cut. I left him a bit more length on top than he was expecting, and cleaned up his nape and sides. He could have been one of the soccer stars my sons always try to emulate, except maybe on his way to teach Sunday School. “I’m afraid to tell you I like it for fear that he’ll make me keep it this way,” he admitted when he saw the mirror held to the back, rubbing at the peach-fuzz feel of freshly buzzed, soft hair, ground to 1/32” at the back and 1/16th on top. He was expecting something embarrassing, and he instead got a nice haircut. (Side note: whatever it was he’d done, he and his stepdad have worked it out. They come for their maintenance clips together and he does keep his hair shaved close. By choice now.)
When I closed the shop, I asked Mandy to tell me what she’d liked that day, so I could give her the first cut in her journey toward supershort. “I liked that one who shaved it and leaves the top so it sort of looks professional, but she can punk it up,” Mandy suggested, sitting down in the chair eagerly. We can get to that, I cautioned, brushing her long hair for the last time, gathering it into a low ponytail at her nape. It was healthy hair, and we could donate it. “You ready?” I asked her, scissors in hand. She was ready. I snipped off the ponytail in three quick cuts, and placed it into a plastic bag. I rubbed her newly shorn nape and saw the smile. Oh, yes, Mandy was going to love having short hair. A shorn, clippered nape would be one of her final cuts.
But not just yet. A woman’s nape is one of the most erotic parts of her body. This is why long haired women look so gorgeous in updos, why men love to help you put on a necklace. When it is snipped short and close, there is nothing like it. I led Mandy to the sink and washed her hair, then back to my chair for the cut. I was not going to snip it too short the first time, as I didn’t want her to regret it. Many women who go from long to supershort in one step end up with buyer’s remorse at first, even if they admit later that they’re glad they did it, now that they’ve gotten used to it. You can always cut shorter, but you can’t glue hair back on. I ended just above the collarbone, with an outward flick and layered it. It took ten years off her, but she still had some hair to toss and flip, something she often did when she was nervous, or thinking. I didn’t want to take that all away at once. “It’s not as short as I thought you would go,” she suggested, shaking it and watching the sides follow her. But I want you to enjoy that for a week or two before you go shorter, I insisted. “Good thing I know a hairstylist,” she grinned. A wide, happy, “I just cut my hair short and I love it!” grin.