Can We Talk?
By Mishka Hoosen
There may be an inherent vulnerability in visiting the barber’s, and it’s not just the obvious memories of Sweeney Todd. It’s also the vulnerability of trusting them with your insecurities, your hopes, and what those say about you. More than half of British men say that the barber’s chair actually allows a space in which to talk about what worries them and, during the course of a routine cut, conversations can lead to topics that you’re usually more hesitant about confronting. There are all kinds of societal factors that contribute to that reticence which is why, in a positive way, more barbers have been thinking about how this fact could be harnessed for good.
There’s no doubt that modern life is deeply stressful in many ways, and we’ve been raised in a world where men are actively discouraged from talking about, and expressing, emotion. However, what’s becoming clear is that this has a cost. Whether that’s contributing to high rates of violence, or to the sobering statistics that 75% of all suicide victims in the UK last year were men, it’s clear that there is an urgent need to rethink what we’ve been taught about opening up. It’s also time to recognise that there is already a place where men are welcome to talk, and there is someone out there willing to listen, and it may just be at the barbershop.
In the UK, the Lions Barbershop Collective was founded by barber Tom Chapman. It has developed a training program that equips barbers with counselling skills. It’s geared towards providing their clients with someone safe to talk to, and someone who can direct them to further resources should they find themselves struggling. They say on their website, “The connection a barber can make with their client is completely unique. The touching of the head releases oxytocin and creates a closeness putting the client at ease allowing them to feel safe. Simply by listening to their client and being able to recognise the signs a barber could save a life.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, Khane Kutzwell owns the Camera Ready Kutz barbershop in Brooklyn. She uses her shop and social media following to create safe spaces for LGBTQ people, and more particularly LGBTQ people of colour. This inclusive, affirming service is especially important in communities where the barbershop is often a place where people find solidarity and refuge from wider pressures. As more and more barbers realise the ways in which their shops can offer a non-judgmental and listening ear, men in those communities are finding it easier to open up.
What these initiatives show is that in a time when a lot has been revealed about the “locker-room talk” side of men’s spaces, there is also opportunity to use them in a way that has a positive impact. It also, vitally, reveals something to men who are struggling: there is someone out there listening. So many industry professionals are paying attention to the ways in which the time-honoured trust and sense of community found at the best neighbourhood barbershop can be used for a greater good. So it may very well be that the easiest first step to taking better care of your mental health is getting a haircut, and being brave enough to have a chat while you’re at it.
Mishka Hoosen is a freelance writer and researcher based in Cape Town.