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When Ava Sambriski went to a hair salon a few years ago, a stylist responded to their request for a short cut with confusion. The 22-year-old overheard another worker offer advice. “Just give her a men’s cut,” the other stylist said.
“That was very difficult to hear,” said Sambriski, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. “But they saw short hair. And their first thought was, well, that’s for men, not for women, or for anybody else.”
Adding to the insult, even though they got a so-called men’s cut, they were still charged $70, the price for a women’s cut.
Barber shops and hair salons aren’t always a safe space for LGBTQ people. The gender binary is baked into everyday operations at most, with shorter cuts standard for men and longer styles assumed for women. The gendered menu of options means people who are perceived as women can be charged almost double for the same haircut as a man.
Research from the Dresscode Project, an international alliance of gender-inclusive salons, found 93% of LGBTQ people have been misgendered while getting their hair cut.
“After I got that cut, I did not go there again,” Sambriski recalled. Instead, they found a spot in their own neighborhood called Transfiguration Hair Studio.
The West Philly shop, which opened two years ago at 48th and Baltimore, employs an almost entirely LGBTQ staff and offers a completely genderless menu. Prices depend instead on whether it’s your first visit, and how long the style will take to achieve.
“We’re definitely looking to fill a void,” Angel Indelicato, the salon’s owner, told Billy Penn. “We’re creating space for people who are gender-nonconforming, trans, queer. We want to hold all the space for that, and we don’t want to force anyone into what society tells them they should look like.”
Several other shops in Philly have also forgone gendered menus.
Halo Hair on East Passyunk redid their menu about a month ago, after it became “impractical” to keep charging people different prices for the same haircut, according to stylist Claire Blickenderfer. Others local spots with gender-neutral pricing include Juju Salon, Andre Richard Salon and Liquid Salon, according to their websites.
Unraveling a bias baked into the industry
Kensington’s Alchemy Hair Lab hasn’t had a gendered menu since it opened two and a half years ago. Owner Erica Engstrom has short hair and was sick of paying more for a cut because she’s a woman.
“Younger people in the neighborhood definitely embrace it and love it,” Engstrom said.
Transfiguration owner Indelicato clearly remembers the hair school lessons. Students were strictly trained to cut hair along the gender binary. A men’s cut is always short and square, instructors would say, while a women’s cut is long and round.
With that as the foundation for many stylists, Indelicato said there are a ton of opportunities to make queer and trans people uncomfortable. It starts on the phone, when a receptionist asks if a client wants a men’s or women’s cut. It happens in the chair, too, when stylists are making choices about how to shape and style.
And it definitely happens when stylists ring up their clients at the end of their appointments, charging a fee based on their own assumptions about the client’s gender.
“A lot of trans and queer people feel pigeonholed when coming into a salon, straight off the bat,” said Transfiguration stylist Lola Gonzalez-Heres. “Sitting in a chair, having the stylist project a specific style onto them, it starts based on that menu.”
A bad haircut can be a big deal for anyone. But for LGBTQ people, it can trigger gender dysphoria — a feeling of distress when your looks don’t match with the gender you feel inside.
“Hearing people be misgendered in the chair around me, I’m just like, my heart is in my throat. It feels terrible to hear it. It feels terrible to experience it,” Indelicato said. “And it’s just furthering this feeling of discomfort in your body, your mind, your soul that emanates through every small thing you do all day.”
While working at another Philly salon a few years ago, they got a question from a client: Why don’t you have a non-gendered menu?
“A light bulb just went off,” Indelicato said. “And I was like, ‘OK, yeah, we don’t have to do this.’”
With simple pricing, business is booming
Aside from two COVID-related closures, each lasting about four months, Indelicato said things have gone smoothly since they opened the studio in March 2019. They employ a coordinator and two stylists, and are looking to hire another person to cut hair — plus someone to do waxing and skincare.
The pricing structure is pretty simple. If you’ve been there before, visits cost $45 to $65 depending on the length of your hair. If it’s your first time, stylists do a full consultation to better understand your identity, and the cost ranges from $55 to $75.
The two years at Transfiguration have been a breath of fresh air for customer Sambriski. Their confidence was affirmed a few months ago, when they started to grow out their hair into a bob but then quickly regretted it.
“Some gender things came up, and I was like, ‘I feel like a boy in a wig!’” Sambriski recalled. “I told [Indelicato] that, and they were like, ‘OK, well, let’s fix it up right away. What would be more affirming for you?’”
Business has been booming at Transfiguration since the end of January, Indelicato said, with 15 to 20 first-time appointments each week. So far, most of them have been queer and trans people.
Sambriski understands why. “Anybody looking for a great haircut, especially for queer folks in the community, they should definitely come here,” Sambriski said. “It is the only place that I’ve ever considered coming in Philly, and it’s been a fantastic experience.”