My Younger Self

Growing Up, I Wasn’t “Boy” Enough for the Barbershop

The day I went to the barber’s alone was the day I learned boys were not supposed to look a certain way. His shop; a tiny, airless room squashed in the middle of other tiny rooms of a Face-me-I-face-you across the street, was visible from the window of my parents’ bedroom. My mother accompanied me with her eyes to make sure nobody snatched me up as I journeyed to the shop.  In this dingy place with peeling carpet, where posters of rappers and pop stars covered the raw walls, the barber trimmed off my eyebrows. I was seven then. According to the barber, I was a boy, and my eyebrows had no business being that long and full.

Before this trip, I had always gone to the barber’s in the company of my elder siblings or my father. They would stay throughout my hair appointment and make sure the barber never carried out his threat of trimming off my “girly eyebrows,” or the spread of hair that ran from the back of my neck down to my spine. But, on that day, my guardians were unavailable for my barbershop trip. My father was at work, my immediate elder sister (the only sibling who was yet to be shipped off to boarding school) was out on some errand, and my mother was spring-cleaning. My mother had told me to wait for my sister, but I insisted on going alone. I needed the haircut if I didn’t want the head teacher to make me stand in front of the whole school during assembly the next morning, and I wasn’t sure when my sister would be back home.

The boy in the mirror was still me, only this time without eyebrows.

After the barber was done, he tilted my head in front of the mirror for me to see how much of a boy I now looked, all thanks to his genius trimming of my eyebrows. I like to think that he was wearing a satisfied look on his face, like he’d launched a rocket into outer space. 

In that moment, I did not see how more of a boy I looked like. The boy in the mirror was still me, only this time without eyebrows. I went home to my mother who was shocked by my new look and I had to lie that I was the one who requested the eyebrow trim. My nearly-bald eyebrows soon became a family joke.

This was when I began to dread barbershops.

Before I prayed for my eyebrows to grow back during morning devotions and Sunday School, before my eyebrows grew back but not as full as they used to be, before all of these happened, barbershops were the center of my world.

Before my eyebrows were trimmed back into boyness, before I walked back to that barbershop alone when my eyebrows grew back, before I listened to the barber convince me to let him trim my eyebrows, even before I went back home and cried in front of my mother’s dressing mirror, before I would repeat this visit three more times, before I found a new barber, two streets away, who didn’t have problem with my un-boyish eyebrows, before I had to walk briskly passed the barbershop across the street so the barber who trimmed off my eyebrows won’t confront me about why I was no longer cutting my hair at his place, before I prayed for my eyebrows to grow back during morning devotions and Sunday School, before my eyebrows grew back but not as full as they used to be, before all of these happened, barbershops were the center of my world. I looked forward to every visit.

I would glue my eyes to the images of Ludacris, 50 Cent, Nelly, Usher, Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Kevin Lyttle, and Sean Paul with fancy haircuts and imagine what it would be like to be that unapologetically fresh. Of course, I never had the audacity to demand one of those super-fly haircuts. Now that I think about it, it was probably for the best: I doubt if those barbers could actually pull off those styles. Every barber on the block went all out to jazz up their shop more than the next with the newest collections of celebrity wallpapers: Best of the Year Haircuts posters, Tony Montana face powder, hairbrushes, the Apple Hair Food line of products, SoftSheen Sportin’ Wave Hair Cream, hair gels, massive wall mirrors, swivel chairs, and a selection of movies or television channels they played during service hours. But the wonder I had for barbershops waned after that visit. I began to see cutting my hair once every fortnight as a dreadful chore.

Barbershops are important for children, especially young boys. It was the place I made my first friend since I could not make one in school because I was too shy and too scared of talking to my classmates. I can’t remember his name now, this friend. But I remember he came with his father as well and we all sat on the two-seat sofa waiting for our turns.

-Hi, What’s your name?

-My name is X.

-My name is Y.

-You came with your father.

-You came with your father too.

We talked more on our next visit.

-What’s the name of your school?

-Do you people learn French in your school?

-Do you have a lunchbox?

-What is the color of your water bottle?

-Can you recite the multiplication table?

Then he and his father stopped coming.

I still made other friends in barbershops. We would brag about the things our parents bought us or our CD collections of animations and kid’s songs. It felt easier for me to talk to children my age in barbershops while we wore house clothes instead of our stiff, ironed, boringly-colored school uniforms, and without the confines of a classroom or towering school fences.

The trembling came back. 

Aside from making friends, barbershops are also where young boys see older men who are not related to us, up-close and personal. These men walk in and are over-magnified by our childish eyes. We look at them with admiration, which slowly evolves into aspiration. We want to walk the way they walk; with the right amount of swagger, talk the way they talk, and copy their hairstyles. Barbershops are essential socialization units. The men who walk into barbershops may not know that the little boys waiting for their turns are looking up to them, or how their bravado and stance have become blueprints for these impressionable kids.

Boys get a mixed bag of intel from barbershops. Most men internalize the toxicity they picked up from barbershops as little boys and end up never unlearning them. Little boys do not just pick up how to dress or how to walk, or which haircut style to have from the older men in barbershops, we also picked up catcalling, slut-shaming women, and stifling emotions. There’s the ‘Why are you crying like a girl?’ indoctrination of male superiority; the sense that our sisters, even if they are older than us, had no right to talk anyhow to us because they were beneath us. We learn the femmephobia and homophobia there, and we hold onto it. 

Even though the new barber did not trim my eyebrows or try to make me see how girly they were, I still trembled on the swivel chair. On my first visit, he tried to quieten my fear by telling me how it’s normal for little boys to be scared of clippers; the noise, and the presumption that it would hurt like hell. He pointed to the boy who had just finished having his haircut and whispered to me that the boy had cried so hard on his first visit that his father had to promise him a Capri Sun to placate him. But it wasn’t about the clipper: I had prayed so hard that this new barber wouldn’t find something wrong with my eyebrows or any part of my body. Something that needed to be beaten into boyness.

I gradually got used to the new barber after the first visit. He was warm and attentive and always asked if my neck was tilted to a comfortable angle. He also played the most interesting movies; Snake In the Monkey’s Shadow, Shaolin Soccer, The Matrix, Kung Fu Panda. With every new visit, I trembled less on the swivel chair. I raved to my father and elder brother about him and made sure they started getting their haircuts there as well. I have finally regained my confidence in barbershops, I thought. Not for long, because I would soon be shipped off to school.

In boarding school, we didn’t have the luxury of leaving the dormitory to go and cut our hair. The school management contracted a barber who came once a week, on Saturdays. We would line up downstairs and wait for our turn. There were no swivel chairs or posters or fancy hair products. It was just the barber with his clipper and a lighter that served as a makeshift sterilizer.

The trembling came back.

I trembled so much on the first Saturday that the clipper snagged at the fold of flesh on the back of my head. The other boys laughed at me because who is still this childish to be so scared of a clipper?  I began to skip haircut weekends. Luckily for me, my hair grows in twirls, not upwards. So if I brushed and pressed it down, it could appear low enough for my class teachers not to notice. It bought me two weeks—three if the universe was being generous—until my hairline started edging towards the middle of my forehead. I counted the days until the holidays came when I could go home to my barber.

I switched to a new school in my senior year. The new barber at the new school, for some inexplicable reason, was unsettled by the hair that grew from the back of my neck down to my spine. He would gesture to the other boys waiting for their turn at the shed beside our school’s amphitheater and asked them if they had seen anyone who was this hairy. They said no, of course. He began to call me Esau. The new barber insisted on trimming the back of my head so my hair could stop where normal people’s hair stopped. I refused because I have never trimmed the back of my head. He insisted. So, my cycle of trembling and dodging haircuts resumed. I would go as far as half the term without cutting my hair so I could do so during the midterm holidays. In my final year in secondary school, when polished appearances became mandatory, I began to apply for exeats to leave the school and have my haircut in town. Sometimes, the exeats were granted. Other times, I would have to endure the school’s barber grating the back of my head with his clipper.

He began to call me Esau.

University offered me a world of freedom, including the freedom to choose who cut my hair. It took a couple of trips for me to finally settle for a barber who listened to me and didn’t have a problem with the way my hair grew. He was not the best barber in the school, he was not even a professional barber. He was just another student trying to make ends meet with a side hustle. His shop was under my hostel’s staircase; a small table that held combs and a rusty tray filled with face powder. But I was at peace with him. We would talk about how this university wants to kill all of us and share songs and movies on our phones via Xender.

My trembling stopped.

In every new city I move to, my first concern is usually whether I will find a barber that I’d like. I have been lucky so far. During my national service year, my barber was the one who helped align the blades of the new clipper my father gifted so he would be able to shave my beard with it. After my service year, I moved to Lagos, and began making the rounds between various barbershops to pass judgment based on who listened more, whose hands are gentle, who doesn’t spend half an hour scraping the back of my neck.

I have noticed that barbers have become more kind to me recently. They listen more, pay attention, and duly apologize if they twist my neck too hard or jab the clipper blade in a way that causes a bruise. I think it’s because I have grown and become more assertive.

My current barber and I talk about the many frustrations of living in Lagos; the  traffic, the numerous taxes we have to pay, the insecurity in the area even with heavy policing, and the rising cost of living. We have also decided to try out a new haircut style on me. Yet, every time I am due for a new haircut, I have to convince myself that I am no longer a seven-year-old boy, sitting in silence as an unruly barber wrecks havoc on his eyebrows.

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