The Delicate Art of Breaking Up With Your Barber
Illustration: Kingsley Nebechi

The Delicate Art of Breaking Up With Your Barber

When a haircut feels like the opposite of self-care, follow these steps

The second season of Atlanta, subtitled “Robbin’ Season,” captured a distinct type of psychological horror: the larceny of life itself. Throughout the season, the main characters of the Donald Glover-created FX comedy were relieved of their time, their dignity, and their sense of physical safety. But the most distressing episode wasn’t the Teddy Perkins experience, Earn’s managerial shortcomings, or Alfred’s traumatic venture into the woods — it was a routine trip to the barbershop.

In “Barbershop,” the season’s fifth episode, Alfred spends a day being dragged through hell by a barber who constantly puts his safety and freedom in jeopardy — all with half a haircut. Bibby, the tormentor in question, is an affable motormouth who uses a string of excuses and empty promises to keep Alfred from his goal of a simple, yet necessary, haircut. Each transgression becomes a greater test of both Alfred and the audience’s patience. And although the episode is an exaggerated pile-up of terrible barber experiences, it’s rooted in reality. That’s what makes it all the more terrifying: This shit actually happens.

For a chunk of 2020, barbershops nationwide were closed as a safety measure to prevent the spread of Covid-19, leaving patrons to tend to their own hair, or simply let it grow unchecked. Now that it’s back to business as usual at most shops — albeit with some health precautions in place — it may be an opportune time to audit your relationship with whoever tends to your shape-ups.

“Black men value their barbers and have a very intimate relationship [with them],” Atlanta writer/producer Stefani Robinson, who wrote the “Barbershop” episode, said in 2018. “When that relationship is betrayed it’s like, ‘Do I keep going back to this person? They are the only one who knows how to handle my hair… and what I like.’ And a lot of time is spent building up that type of relationship.”

Black men will put up with the occasional inconvenience if it means getting laced with a cut. That’s understandable, especially considering that our hair is bound to self-expression and self-esteem. Still, everyone has a breaking point; once that threshold has been crossed, it’s on to the next. Breaking up with your barber may be difficult to do — especially if the relationship is long-term — but it’s the only recourse when your hairline or peace of mind are at stake.

Such was the case for Brad Wete, a 34-year-old content creator living in Los Angeles. He was just a preteen when he noticed his hairline was creeping northward with every haircut, due to his barber’s handiwork. He may have only been in middle school, but he had to make a tough decision. “That mixture of loyalty and fear is crazy,” he says. “You know the relationship is bad, but you can’t end it. The first time I felt like a man was when I called him to say I didn’t like his recent cuts. Biggest call of my young life.”

Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert who owned a salon for 10 years, suggests creating physical distance after a barber breakup — unless you think your ex-haircutter’s ego can withstand the sight of you in someone else’s chair mere feet away. Wete did the opposite, squatting into another seat in the same shop. But some can take the unintended slight in stride. Joshua “Twitch” Vega, a Brooklyn-based barber who lists NBA athletes RJ Barrett, Courtney Lee, and Jarrett Jack among his clientele, says he doesn’t take it personally if a customer leaves him for another barber in the same shop. “For every guy that leaves me, there’s two more guys that I acquire,” he says.

Some barbers may force the customer’s hand by ignoring instruction, regardless of how explicit the specifications are. After his former barber relocated to a new state, Elga Roberson visited a trial barber in Oakland, California, for a standard taper fade. Everything was business as usual — until it wasn’t.

“He finishes and hands me the mirror — I’m shocked,” says Roberson. “What was once a normal forehead is now magnified times three.” But he wasn’t done — the barber planned to recreate a sharp line with painted-on dye. “He puts on gloves and starts lathering up some black oil concoction. I remove the cape from around my neck and pay him [because] I knew I’d never see him again in a barbershop. He was lightweight offended [that] I didn’t want the Carlos Boozer.”

Today, Roberson calls it his “worst experience from a professional,” but Swann still suggests being respectful in these instances. “Unless the parting was on some really horrible note, my advice is to always exercise politeness and be cordial,” she says.

Swann says that even if you’ve decided enough is enough, you still need to determine whether you want to retain a connection to your barber. If it’s strictly a barber-customer relationship, a courtesy heads-up that you won’t be coming back is appropriate, reaching out in your usual manner and keeping the convo brief. “Avoid going into detail about the ‘why’ — especially if you have no desire to go back.” she says. “When you do that, it gives the person the false sense of opportunity to fix what’s broken.”

If your association is more than just transactional, though, you may want to move a little differently. “Go that extra step and just reassure them that your relationship outside of the chair is still intact,” Swann says. “Make it known, but allow your actions to speak for themselves as well.”

Sometimes a split is absolutely necessary due to a bizarre experience. Daeshawn Di Marzio thought he’d found a diamond in the rough after his regular barber was sent to prison. Instead, one unfortunate trip to a new barber left the 28-year-old West Hartford, Connecticut, resident feeling like he was living a real-life version of the Atlanta episode.

“He starts shaving lower, the beginning of my chest, razor still in a risky position. Two swipes of the blade in, I yell, ‘Aye man, that’s enough!’”

The trouble began when Di Marzio called to make an appointment and was directed to an unusual location: a small room adjacent to a Chinese restaurant, with a glass entry door and a lone barber chair. As if that wasn’t enough of a red flag, the haircutter awaiting him inside was animated as he began the trim, rambling through what Di Marzio describes as “some cockamamie story about a burglary.” Suddenly, the barber paused the cut mid-anecdote, threw the customer the keys to the spot, and announced that he had to quickly step out. With an incomplete haircut and his barber’s keys, the patron was effectively trapped — it was like Alfred and Bibby all over again, minus the cross-town capers.

The barber was apologetic when he returned — two hours later — but Di Marzio, by then furious, knew something was amiss. “[He] looks like he’s high,” he recalls, “eyes wandering all over, balance looks shaky, jaw ajar like he’s rolling off Molly.” After finishing the haircut, the barber began clipping his customer’s beard before venturing into the exposed area of his partially unbuttoned dress shirt.

“He starts shaving lower, the beginning of my chest, razor still in a risky position,” Di Marzio remembers. “Two swipes of the blade in, I yell ‘Aye man, that’s enough!’” Despite the barber’s apologies, Di Marzio says he placed a $20 on the table, walked out, and never looked back.

Swann says customers should always pay when a service isn’t performed to their satisfaction, but should let that be known immediately. “Negotiate just like you would anything else: ‘Is there anything you can do about it?’” she advises.

Vega, who’s been cutting hair for more than a decade and insists it’s been “years” since he’s messed up a client’s haircut, agrees. “If the hairline is still good but the fade is maybe higher or lower than you wanted, you should definitely let them know: ‘Yo, next time, this is what I want,’” he says. “If I gave you a good haircut — it’s just a little bit off from what you said — I’ll give you half off or tell you I’ll make sure I get it right next time.”

Paying for substandard service can sting worse than post-haircut alcohol on the back of your neck, but a toxic atmosphere can also taint a haircutting experience. Not every barbershop is a sanctuary — the energy at some of these establishments can skew straight and male, shaping the conversations that happen within. It’s not a stretch to hear Hotepian hot takes proclaiming Bill Cosby’s innocence or Megan Thee Stallion’s responsibility for being shot.

Dhruva Balram, a 29-year-old freelance writer in London, visited his local barbershop for a routine cut early last year, right around the time when the controversial documentary Surviving R. Kelly was released. When R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” began to play on the shop’s speakers, both the staff and patrons began discussing the singer, who’s currently facing criminal charges in several jurisdictions for sexually abusing minors.

“Every single person in the shop was an R. Kelly apologist,” Balram says. “I felt instantly uncomfortable. My usual barber was shaping my head while talking about how R. Kelly did nothing wrong. ‘If the women wanted to leave, they could’ — stuff along those lines.” Appalled by the viewpoints, Balram went searching for a new barber, paying special attention to the ambience of the shop.

In situations that are exceptionally bad, Swann says it’s best to handle your exit with the same degree of levity as the situation itself — especially if you see the barber out in the wild. “If it was something that was really out of line, and it’s probably a person you’d rather not have any contact with anymore, if you see them you can make the choice: going the other way or something simple as a nod,” she explains. Furthermore, Swann insists that people stand up for themselves in these scenarios — etiquette involves the balance of politeness, firmness, and honesty, after all.

“There may be some fallout, but we should not allow ourselves to stay in any environment where we’re uncomfortable [or] the behavior is unseemly,” she says. “Whether it’s unsafe or you can tell immediately the person is not on their A-game for whatever reason, stop them in their tracks and get going.”

Switching up your barber often marks the dissolution of a very personal relationship, even if it’s soured to the point that you’ve decided to move on. But, as Swann notes, people rarely put up with poor service in any other setting, so this should be no different: “In the end, my advice is to stay firm and don’t flip-flop.” Even if your hairline does.