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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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You’re new to a town and need to get a haircut. There are only two barbers. One has a good haircut, the other has a bad one. Whose chair do you sit in?

The correct answer to the riddle is to pick the barber who has the bad haircut, as he was more likely to have given the other barber the better haircut. The question circling in my mind is, who would I be?

My husband takes great pride in his hair. Even though he has never gone more than a few weeks without a cut, he was not alone with his hopes of holding out until the day a professional may once again touch his hair.

While the city speculates when physical distancing measures will loosen, our dinner table chats speculate how his hair would grow out in the meantime. Will it afro up and out? What would he look like in a ponytail?

The tipping point was reached at the sixth week of home confinement. With a sincere smile, I was asked if I would cut his hair.

Under no other circumstances would I have been allowed to go near his head with a pair of scissors. Hair is an extension of one’s sense of self and makes up a large part of the outward image of yourself from which others pass judgment. How we choose to carry our hair is a deeply personal choice.

Even during this pandemic how we look matters just as much. People only have a small screen through which to view us. These limited visible cues are all we have to show the outside world that we are coping just fine.

Much of the attention quarantined haircuts (otherwise known as coronacuts), or the lack thereof, focuses on the individuals themselves and how much they are affected by it.

The mere fact of my husband asking me to give him a haircut after holding out for so long was an indication that, at this point, he has nothing else to lose. He has braced himself for all possible outcomes and with the warming weather is itching for a trim.

These shared circumstances are encouraging us all to try new things. The internet is amplifying our new pursuits, where a beginner’s approach is celebrated through endless cheers from onlookers and likes of #firsttime posts.

Somehow though, I feel a double standard where first-time haircutters are not part of this club. The moment you announce that you’re going to give a haircut, responses are a mixed bag of sarcasm, doubt and genuine horror.

It is true that the odds of my abilities to give a good haircut are stacked high against me. Like all crafts-training, experience and practice are key. I had none of those, yet there remains this unspoken pressure to live up to the baseline of what once was. We both know what a good haircut looks like. The burden of a bad haircut would disproportionately fall on me.

Aware that I’d likely get lost in the never-ending stream of online tutorials, we both thought it’d be best that I just go for it.

And so I set up a new workshop with carefully arranged newspapers on the floor, a chair and plenty of towels. The initial passes with his beard trimmer were nerve-racking. I was struggling to get a proper handle with the tool and did not want this to play out like a cartoon scene.

My innate desire to want to excel in everything I do and be my own version of a messy-haired barber whose chair was occupied, not by default, but by choice overwhelmed me.

Forget about my shattered ego, it would be heartbreaking to see my husband disappointed every time he glanced at his reflection in the mirror because of my sad haircut.

To add further pressure to this already terrifying experience, he was filming it, selfie-style, with one arm outstretched and a running commentary – a memento for our memories, I supposed.

By this point, I was so consumed with the goal of not messing up his hair that I didn’t notice as he uploaded some of those clips as live updates to Instagram. The successive sequence of notifications vibrating from his phone clued me into what was happening. Apparently, the hashtag #firsttimeisthebesttime was trending. Complete strangers, as well as many of our friends, were now watching his haircut in real time on their phones.

I realized that if he could find amusement and genuinely enjoy the process then the outcome mattered a little less. I exhaled a huge sigh of relief. I let loose and my fingers relaxed.

Frustrated with not knowing how to hold the comb and scissors in sync, I let it go and started snipping away as desired. As an artist, I did have experience with trusting my instincts and freestyling.

My confidence grew in correlation to my detachment of giving a good haircut. In no time I got lost in this new sculpture that I was shaping. I required periodic reminders to look up at the mirror and take a step back to see what I was doing.

What this haircut has clarified to me is that despite the risks and the odds of a disastrous outcome, choosing to give one was ultimately about trust.

Irrespective of the circumstances that led us to this point, as I was cutting his hair I was humbled that he had entrusted me with his precious hair and all that represented to him. At the same time I was trusting that he would show me compassion, irrespective of how it looked in the end.

He is lucky he can’t see the back of his head. I try my best to suppress a chuckle every time I do. It would be a shame to let pride overshadow or rewrite this surprisingly beautiful experience which has brought us closer together.

The reality is his hair will start growing out in a few days. Let’s not forget that I was the only chair open for business and good is a relative term anyway.

Kanika Gupta lives in Ottawa.