by Sabah Choudrey
Hair is important to a lot of people for many reasons. My hair is something my parents told me to have pride in: thick, black, wavy hair. The kind white people secretly envy. Growing up surrounded by white beauty standards, I didn’t have much pride. But now I embrace my brownness and all the hair that comes with it.
When I turned 18 and found my home in the lesbian scene, I shaved the sides of my head. I cut off my long curls. I was proud, and I wanted people to look at me and think, ‘yeah, probably a dyke.’ I made a statement without having to say it. Since then, my hair has become more and more important to me as a trans person. For many of my trans and queer friends, our hair has played a significant part in our journeys. Hair doesn’t define our gender but it does help define who we are.
I recently decided to go to my local barbershop. As a trans-masculine person, grooming is important to me. My small size and curves mean I don’t always fit the ‘man’ stereotype people expect when I turn up for a trim. I went because I wanted to take up space. I wanted to enter spaces I was entitled to and use services I have a right to use. I didn’t want my trans anxiety to isolate or take space away from me.
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After weeks and weeks of anxiety and dysphoria, I finally make it to a barbershop. A tall, buff, tan-skinned man approaches me in the narrow, empty salon and asks what I want. I say, “A skin fade.” He says, “Have you had a skin fade before?” I lie and said yes – confident in what I want – pretending this isn’t my first time. He calls me “bruv” and I have to stop myself from staring at his huge, perfect arms and focus on what my voice is going to sound like when I next speak.I mentally construct a narrative for myself, building a new back-story to calm my nerves.
I lie about my age, saying I had just finished university, to hide that I haven’t hit a testosterone-fueled puberty. I pretend it’s okay when he calls me a “barber whore” when I explain I don’t have a regular barber because I move around a lot – not because being trans means you can’t just enter any space you want and feel safe. Yeah, I just forget to get my hair cut regularly, it’s not anxiety related at all.
I tell him, my heart racing, that I was studying in Brighton, hoping he hasn’t heard it is the loud and queer capital of England. These little lies are things trans people are doing constantly to survive. It hurts to feel so not myself, but it is more challenging to be myself. The space is mine as much as it is theirs. It’s not about “passing” for me, something I never want to do but sometimes have to do to feel safe.
He tells me how much he loves the most hetero club in town. I recall years of walking past it on the seafront – drunk straight men harassing my lesbian housemates, lads excusing sexism for banter. I recall years of knowing we are not welcome. I recall these memories and I quickly forget them.
I pretend I know what a “honey trap” is, when he tells me about his friend who went to meet a girl there and got his designer watch robbed. I pretend this is a culture I share with my friends. Yes, we worry about losing our watches, not losing our lives.
He says, “You’ve got a mad scar,” and points to my head, where the fade has exposed the memory of when I fell off a ledge on a girl’s holiday. We both pretend it was a lad’s holiday, and it was only ever a good night out if you didn’t remember anything anyway. We don’t need to say it explicitly, it’s the culture we share, right?
He puts his wide hand out and shakes mine with a firm grip. I say, “Thanks, I’ll be back,” and I’m not lying, I’m not pretending. I feel like I’ve passed a test and, to the barber, I’m just another client, and that’s all I want to be. Invisible. Forgettable. Safe.
In a society that does make us choose between two genders, and in a world that enforces gender binaries on markers like hair length, the people who fall between or outside these expectations are hyper-visible, exposed and fighting for survival. Trans people challenge that binary simply by existing, but sometimes, breaking that binary puts us at risk. Sometimes, we do have to pretend that our identity is as simple as our expression, or that who I am is entirely dependent on my hair. Because it’s one thing to look like you are redefining masculinity, but it is another thing to be told you are wrong. It just takes one person to look at you a little closer to show you how wrong you are.
Hair gives us a special kind of control and safety because we have the power to change it. We can manipulate hair to change the way we feel about ourselves. It’s a way of loving ourselves without being explicit. It’s a subtle way to reclaim space, entering traditionally masculine or feminine spaces with a gender that breaks the binary.
Our hair validates us in a society that refuses to accept us as the gender we say we are. Our hair can affirm our identity as a part of our masculine, feminine or androgynous gender expressions. And that makes our hair powerful.
I’m so bad at being a man, which I love about myself, so it does make me happy when I fool them at the barbershop. When I do that, it means I’m surviving. And my hair looks good.
Sabah is a queer Muslim social justice fighter, working as a Trans Youth Worker with Gendered Intelligence, London. Sabah spoke at TEDx Brixton about being a hairy brown girl, an angry brown man and a queer brown person. One of the co-founders of Trans Pride Brighton. Sabah writes on:www.sabahchoudrey.com
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