One of my most prominent memories of masculinity from childhood would have to be the barber shop. My dad would take me (and sometimes my brother) to have our hair cut at Mike’s Barber Shop. Mike was an old school barber, an immigrant from Italy (though for the longest time, with the persnicketyness often found in children, I would only allow his partner Peter to cut my hair). I have fond memories of that barber shop, of the ritual of having someone groom me. In general, I am touch averse—I do not like to be touched casually without my consent, nor am I much of a cuddler. I make an exception for haircare, however. It is, by and large, soothing. When I moved to England, I made it a point to seek out a traditional men’s barber shop rather than have my hair cut in a unisex salon, and after I had moved back here and Mike retired, I sought out another. For thirty years, I had my hair cropped quite short, because I didn’t much care to think about it or maintain it.
Our relationship with our hair is an extremely personal thing. The way we wear our hair is a form of self-expression, from affirmation to rebellion. It is also often cultural. I was inspired to write this reflective post after reading Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri, a Black Irish journalist who discusses the history of Black hair and hairstyles (especially located within her Yoruban heritage). I had a lot of thoughts about my own relationship with hair that didn’t belong in my review for the book, so I’m sharing them here!
I’m going to talk about my body hair first, then the hair on my head, describing in turn my relationship with each type of hair pre- and post-transition.
Body Hair Blues
I often say that I didn’t experience a lot of gender dysphoria prior to realizing I am trans. However, this is only true in a very limited sense—I didn’t experience a lot of gender distress or body hatred, but I definitely felt the incongruence between how my body was changing and how I wanted it to be. Looking back at the evolution of my gender identity, body hair was an area in which my gender incongruence manifested early and consistently. It peaked in my mid-twenties, when hormonal changes meant that I started growing more body hair than I had been used to up until that point.
So I started experimenting with types of hair removal in various places. Some of the hair removal I did very infrequently, mostly because I found it taxing (at 6 feet, 4 inches or 192 cm, I have a lot of leg to shave, ok?). Some of it I turned into a habit, such as epilating my armpits. This process was less about getting rid of the hair to feel more feminine and more about exerting control over an aspect of my body that troubled me. I don’t think it is a coincidence that my urge to shave my legs, despite the time it took, increased dramatically in the months leading up to my final epiphany that I’m trans. Despite the suddenness of that epiphany, my subconscious had long been mulling over questions about my gender, my identity, my expression, before the floodgates of understanding finally burst open.
Since transitioning, my relationship with my body hair has been both more and less chill. (Ah, paradoxes!)
On the one hand, a part of me felt like further removing body hair would help not only with my sense of incongruence but with feeling closer to passing. While completely passing has never felt realistic or desirable to me, I have as much internalized misogyny around body hair as the next woman, cis or trans. I experimented with things like shaving my arms, because I felt like when I was going sleeveless that hair was particularly visible, and even consulted on getting laser hair removal on my arms.
But always, always it was a battle between “does this actually make me feel better?” and “how much of my time is this grooming worth?” As I became more comfortable in myself, in presenting as the woman I am and wearing the clothes and makeup I want to wear, body hair felt like less of an issue. Now, I still epilate my underarms and shave my legs, and if I ever decide I’m comfortable enough to wear a bikini I will do something about that area as well—my nonchalance has its limits! Nevertheless, I believe firmly that as much as I am happy to change my body (more on that in a bit) with medical and cosmetic interventions, my transition is also about accepting my body and its quirks.
I suppose in an ironic way that this ambivalence and worry about my body hair is a sign I have “made it” into femininity—that is, both trans women and cis women struggle with body hair for reasons entirely down to patriarchal ideals of feminine beauty. Indeed, many a cis female friend has tried to reassure me, “Lots of cis women are hairy too.” I know this, of course—but this statement of solidarity rings slightly hollow given the extent to which even cis women often succumb to products and services meant to remove all that unsightly hair. Is it any wonder we trans women share in this struggle?
So like many women I will continue to feel ambivalent, to vacillate and experiment, and to find new balances as my feelings about my body evolve. Such is embodied life!
As I mentioned in my introduction, I had always worn my hair short prior to my transition. Thanks to the genetic lottery, my hairline was beginning to recede in by my early twenties, and by thirty I had quite a nice nascent bald spot at the top of my head. This bothered me in a way that seemed to extend beyond simple vanity.
So even once I started my transition, I could have kept wearing my hair short. But part of my epiphany that I am trans included accepting that, for a rather long time, I had wanted to present in a far more femme way but just never really envisioned it as possible. Having accepted I was a girl, I had a kind of idea in my head of what I wanted to look like to present myself this way, and it included long hair.
As with removing my body hair, there is an element of pragmatism to this choice. The way that our society (mostly) associates long hair with femininity certainly has an impact on how I choose to present myself. Growing out my hair, combined with halting the androgenic hair loss through an anti-androgen, would alleviate some of the dysphoria I felt around my receding hairline/bald spot. As with my body hair, it went from a sign of maleness to something much closer to what many cis women deal with when it comes to thinning and bald patches.
What I didn’t expect, and what reading Don’t Touch My Hair solidifed for me, was that my relationship to my hair would change as I grew it out. Prior to my transition, my hair was just something on my head to be brushed daily, washed weekly, trimmed regularly. Not a big deal. As anyone, of any gender, who decides to grow out their hair will tell you, longer hair is a much bigger deal in terms of the maintenance is requires to stay healthy, untangled, and be styled the way one likes. As my hair has grown over the past two years, so too has my appreciation for the effort involved in caring for it.
I actually love all the effort, by the way. I love washing and conditioning my hair. It’s now long enough that I can use a curling wand, something I did for the first time over the Christmas holidays and which is now giving me so much euphoria and making look so freaking good several work days of the week. I’m experimenting with putting it into braids (very simple ones for now), and soon I will begin playing with sock buns and bobby pins and all sorts of other funky and fancy techniques for styling and shaping my coiffure. Much like my odyssey with makeup, this is a learning journey that is putting me in touch with the feminine part of me that was long suppressed.
(Seriously, I don’t think I will ever stop talking about how much more confident I feel now that I can curl my hair!)
Some common questions I get include how long do I want my hair to be, and will I ever dye it? My answer to the first question varies; sometimes I say “longer,” and sometimes if I am feeling cheeky I like to say something like “modesty hair” (i.e., covers up the nips if I am topless, lol). As for dying … at the moment I remain quite firmly convinced that is not for me. I reserve the right, always, to change my mind, so I’m not saying never.
The whole idea of body modification (dying my hair, piercing my ears, getting tattoos) is such an interesting paradox to me. Of course, in one way I am modifying my body quite extensively given that I am using hormone therapy to redistribute fat and grow breasts. Why wouldn’t I extend that to a cute tattoo or a different hair colour? I can’t explain it rationally. I just know that the changes provoked by hormones feel right to me, yet I feel no corresponding urge or sense of euphoria when I ponder those other things. So that’s how I know that, for now at least, they are not for me!
What is for me is using how I style my hair to express myself. Just let it down with a headband or some barrettes? Put it in braids? Give it some waves? A bun or ponytail, maybe? I am learning not just the styles but what situations call for each. When you move through most of your life with short hair, you never have to think about or learn these things. Now that I am joining the long-hair club at thirty-two, I am playing catch-up! I see colleagues and other female friends and the way they style their hair in various contexts, and without erasing the effort and time that takes, I also feel an envy that, after doing it for such a long time, it must be second nature. I yearn to feel that way myself. But hey, just as I went from no knowledge of makeup to being pretty good (at least with my eye makeup) in a year’s time, I know that feeling natural in my hairstyling will just take time too.
So here I am, two years into my transition, and starting to see a glimpse of the self I have always been beneath the man society expected me to be: she’s cute and fashionable and very femme, and her hair is long and occasionally wavy and always wonderful, for like the rest of my body and my mind, I am going to take good care of it because I care for it. This is a new sensation, a new relationship, and a newfound source of joy. It is work, but it is work I do willingly, because it is a valuable way for me to finally express my gender as I want it to be seen.
There is something powerfully communal about a barber shop or hair salon. Going to the barber’s, especially when I was not the only customer there, was one of the situations in which I felt most immersed in masculinity. In hindsight, it’s no wonder I always felt slightly uncomfortable, as if I were an imposter, sitting in that chair. Now that I am going to a salon while presenting as a woman, I feel immersed in femininity, even when the clientele and stylists are of various genders. My ride or die paid for a haircut and manicure for me (my first since I started to grow out my hair just before the pandemic started) as my birthday present this year. We went together, for she wanted her hair cut and coloured (hence the manicure, because she would be a while, lol). I am not a very chatty person, never have been, and that hasn’t necessarily changed even though I am bubblier these days, and I wasn’t exactly interested in participating in all of the conversation at the salon. But it was good to be there and feel included as a woman in a way I never had before.
Whether you wear your hair short or long or indeed don’t have much to speak of at all, it’s an important part of our bodies. As I learned in Don’t Touch My Hair, it can have very racialized implications that my white privilege helps me to avoid. But as a trans person, it turns out my hair is also an important aspect of how I have navigated my transition—in terms of my feelings about my body, yes, but also in terms of how I feel in social spaces. I don’t know why this came as such a surprise to me, but hey—I don’t mind the pleasant surprises.