You don't have to know the ins and outs of the "bathroom bill" to understand that the gender divide in today's society is real. Male and female pronouns are kept more separate than church and state, and you can see it in the sports we play, the jobs we take, and the clothing stores we shop. Not even the hair salon (a place that should be relaxing and empowering for all) is immune.
Someone who's experienced that first-hand is Kylee Howell, hairstylist and owner of Friar Tuck's Barbershop in Salt Lake City, Utah. "Prior to opening my own barbershop, I had not been able to find an environment to get my hair cut where I felt comfortable and confident," she says. "I always found myself struggling for conversation, and I often found that the haircut wasn't usually what I asked for. The stylist insisted that what they had done was better for my look, but it didn't feel good to me or for how I felt about myself."
Even though she grew up in a hair salon (her mum was a stylist), Howell instead started going to barbershops. It was the first place where she didn't feel judged, she says. The conversation was closer to her interests, too — men's fashion and sports, to name a few — but oftentimes "the male barbers struggled to cut my hair because they just weren't sure what to do for me. I had barbers push back on going as short as I would ask for because they 'weren't sure how that would look on a girl.'"
When Howell finally chopped her hair as short as she wanted to, "it felt like the first time meeting with someone I had known for a long time," she says. "It was a whole new experience to feel the sides of my hair that short, but it also looked so natural every time I caught a glimpse in the mirror." After that, she decided to pursue a new career as a barbershop owner, where she could create the environment she so craved growing up.
Today, with the help of award-winning producer Shonda Rhimes, Dove Real Beauty Productions is highlighting Howell's story. (You can watch the full clip, above.) "Every woman knows the power of hair," Rhimes tells us. "[It] is very representative for all of us and has a really powerful effect on everybody. And Kylee talking about cutting her hair, and having it transform and show who she really is and then cutting the hair of other women and doing the same for them in a barber shop was really beautiful."
Howell's story isn't isolated, either. According to a recent report conducted by Dove, three out of four gay and lesbian women believe society suggests they do not care about beauty; and 90% of those respondents believe there are negative stereotypes associated with a lesbian or gay women’s appearance and beauty habits.
"I have worn everything from Mohawks to hard parts, crew cuts, fades, and even straight razor shaved my head," says Genie Clark, lead stylist at Rudy's Barbershop in Atlanta. "Occasionally, I’ll get called a dike or butch or told I have a men’s cut." But it's more than just outdated negative stereotypes around the styles that need to change — the entire salon experience, from that first consultation, also needs drastic improvement.
"As a stylist who came out as a trans woman many years into my career, I've been on all sides of this," says Bailey Pope, a hairstylist for Tigi Collective in NYC. "I wore an undercut for years leading up to coming out and went to the same barber, and I felt less and less comfortable going to him because he would make weird comments about my clothing choices or when I started wearing makeup. I knew quickly that I no longer felt okay there."
Luckily, more and more hair salons are taking a step in the right direction. Rudy's Barbershop, for example, makes it a point to give free haircuts and products to homeless LGBTQ youth in need. Others are using beauty services to break the stigmas surrounding trans women. "Gender has been a part of the conversation for a long time in the LGBTQ community and luckily is now at the forefront of a national conversation," says Clark.
Howell hopes that in the same way professionals are trained to cut and style all hair types and textures, they will also learn to accept and work with people of all genders and walks of life. "For many people, their hair is their statement piece," Howell says. "It's the exclamation point to their style sentence."
Rhimes adds, "No matter your race, your sexual orientation, your religion, your height, your weight... It’s how you define yourself that matters."