TORONTO -- As lockdowns ease up in parts of the world, seats in barber shops and hair salons are among the most coveted in a reopened economy.

Watching those seats fill in other countries might even elicit envy in self-isolated populations who have yet to take clippers to their own heads.

Even as physical distancing has kept people more apart than ever, there’s still an apparent desire to keep up appearances and get a haircut. That’s because our hair holds a lot of symbolic power, says Allan Peterkin, a cultural historian of grooming and a psychiatrist with the University of Toronto. 

“Your own haircut is part of your public face to the world,” he told “Many people have a trademark cut or look. The fact that you can’t maintain that strikes to the heart of the self, that you can’t present the image that you’re used to.”


Not only is that part of someone’s personal brand growing increasingly unkempt, but hair for both men and women is a symbol of youth, he said. It’s why some people might choose to colour their hair. “It’s a symbol of health, vitality and sexuality,” he said, which is why many people “feel like a hundred bucks” after a fresh cut.

Perhaps most paradoxically for a time of widespread lockdown, hair is also a symbol of freedom, he said. Most people in western countries are able to wear their hair however they choose, and under self-isolation and quarantine, that sense of freedom might feel more threatened than ever. “Being able to go to the salon or barber shop is a freedom. When it’s taken away it really does affect people,” said Peterkin.


For many cultures, salons and barber shops have also offered a powerful sense of community for generations, and can even provide a mental health boost. A University of London paper from 2016 found that black men in particular find “wellbeing benefits” beyond the haircut itself in a visit to the barber shop. 

“Hair salons and barber shops are hubs of social activity and gossip and news,” said Peterkin.”People have a real connection with their stylist — almost like a pseudo therapist. You may tell things to your stylist that you don’t tell your friends.”


Even with all that long-established meaning, haircuts could take on entirely new significance in the age of COVID-19. More than ever, a new haircut could feel like another kind of deep clean.

“Symbolically, the whole culture is feeling dirty, infected,” said Peterkin. “As (the pandemic) lifts, the whole idea of being allowed to go to your dentist and get your teeth taken care of and then getting your hair taken care of and maybe your skin — that will be part of the cultural, ritual cleansing. We’re back to clean.”

Peterkin thinks the idea of “clean” could go even further for men after the pandemic. Though the last 25 years has seen a sustained movement favouring “scruff” and beards, he thinks the “clean-shaven man” could come back into style, though it can be difficult to predict. 

“As part of this face of cleanness and rebirth and youth, we might start seeing shaving again,” he said.