How to Cut Your Own Hair

After years of practice, it’s a skill I’ll never let go of.

The Atlantic

Magic Shave powder smells like sulfur, a fetid perfume. They call it Magic because it keeps the razor bumps away. Black men have used it for more than a century to keep the coarse hair jutting from their faces from curling back into their skin. You whip it to a froth in a cup, slather it on your face, and wipe it clean with a butter knife.

My granddad used the Magic that comes in the red-and-white can—extra strength. He lived in a single-story ranch-style shotgun house in Montgomery, Alabama. Even now, I can see my 8-year-old self standing alone in front of the mirror in his back bathroom. It’s summer. I’m holding his clippers. My mom cut my hair all the time; it seemed easy enough. All you have to do is keep your hand steady, I tell myself, before plugging the clippers in. Pop, they’re on. I glide my hand toward my hairline. The blade courses over it toward the back of my scalp. Bzzp. A single patch of hair falls to the floor.

What did I just do? I hide the hair, ditch the clippers, and walk out of the bathroom toward my cousins, the adults, and my granddad. They had to have been laughing, because when I ask my mom about it now, she’s beside herself. Someone helped me fix the patch on my head, right?

“Nope,” she laughs.

These days, statewide stay-at-home orders and temporary closures of nonessential businesses are forcing all sorts of people to turn their bathrooms into barbershops—with mixed results. Senator Sherrod Brown sat “somewhat still” while his wife, Connie Shultz, cut his hair; former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang got “prepared” as well, tweeting a photo on Wednesday of rechargeable clippers. Earlier this week, my colleagues noticed something different on video calls: Did you risk it all for a haircut? I laughed.

I was in high school when I started learning the craft. My dad wasn’t bracing for a pandemic the first time he tried to teach me how to do it, in San Antonio. I’m guessing that he saw the thatches of hair scattered alongside my pride on the garage floor and decided to step in.

That night, I’d retreated upstairs in frustration before returning to the living room and telling my mom I was going to cut my hair off. I was an angsty 11th grader. What was I so mad about? I have no idea. I’d been getting haircuts at Daniel and Jason’s shop for the past few months, but something in me said I couldn’t wait any longer. “Fine, do it,” she told me, “but you can’t do it in the house.”

I went out to the garage and plugged in the clippers. Pop. I dragged the blades across my scalp, backward and forward. I held a mirror up with my left hand. (Why hadn’t I been doing this the whole time?) I had tiger stripes all over. Sweat beaded on my forehead, and I tried to gain the composure to face my mom and sister back in the house.

Here were the laughs again. “Audrey,” I asked my sister, “you want to cut some?” I figured it couldn’t get any worse. Back to the garage we went. She had more sense than I did. Go with the grain. But her knowledge of patterns didn’t extend to length. My parents came in to finish the job. The final result was as close to bald as I’ve ever been. When I went to school, I acted like it was on purpose. “Bald with a chinstrap is the new wave,” I’d say, referring to the stubble on my face that I called a beard. Sometimes you just have to go with it.

Clippers, brush, du-rag. A gray Houston Astros flat-bill hat to conceal the evidence in case I mess up again. I’m 17. It’s two days after Christmas—the clippers, my first set, were a gift from my parents. My dad watches, and offers two pieces of advice: Use a guard, and go with the grain. The guard keeps the blade at just the right distance from your scalp. I go from back to front on the top; angle down on the sides, down in the back; and go with the grain of the crown. It isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough. He helps me with my line. He does the initial short, precise strokes of the blade, then hands it to me. I am careful not to go too fast. I look in the mirror and run my hand over my head. For the first time, I have cut my hair and am not embarrassed.

My parents probably wanted to make sure that when I went to college, I wouldn’t struggle to get an acceptable haircut. It worked. I’ve been cutting my own hair for a decade. Every now and then during college, I would help a friend out and cut his hair. I use standard Wahl clippers and Andis T-Outliners. They get the job done.

Every week or two, I go to the bathroom and turn on some music—usually a Spotify station based on my parents’ wedding song: Earth, Wind & Fire’s “We’re Living in Our Own Time.” I’ll reach under the cabinet, grab my bag, and pull out my clippers. I plug them in and flip them on. It takes me back to the bathroom at my granddad’s house, the garage in San Antonio, and the last house I lived in with my family. Thinking about home is cathartic when you’re not supposed to go anywhere.

Last Wednesday, day who-knows-how-many of social distancing, my hair was uneven, my shape-up had grown oblong, and I was feeling anxious—an unholy mix of cabin fever, exhaustion, and missing my parents. The anxiety is more frequent these days. After my daughters went to sleep, I stole away to the bathroom to give myself a haircut. I can’t control much right now, but at least I can tame my hair. I grabbed my clippers and plugged them in. Pop.