Cutting Through the Patriarchy with One of LA's Few Female Barbers
Sofie Pok, 27, is the only woman in this Los Angeles building. She's covered in tattoos—her Angkor Wat one catches my eye, a nod to her Cambodian heritage. She's intimidating, but breaks into a smile when I reach over to shake her hand. She tells me about how she became a barber—it was kind of an accident. After going to school for psychology and realizing that academics were hard to maintain with limited studying time, she took her down payment for a car and put it towards cosmetology school. Her parents were disappointed, expecting a career as a doctor or lawyer for her. But Pok cuts hair.
pre bonded hairIn cosmetology school, Pok stepped up to the plate when her peers shied away from working on men. "All the girls were always afraid to do the men's cuts," she says. "At the beginning, they were just throwing me haircuts all day." And though Pok excelled through cosmetology school, finding a job after wasn't easy. Barbershops aren't too keen on hiring women—especially women who are only licensed as cosmetologists.
"They were like, if you don't have a barber's license, you can't do shade," she said. But that wasn't even the worst of it. "Of course, I didn't know how intimidating it was. It was literally 11 dudes and me. Going in there with zero experience, all these dudes have ears on you. It [didn't hit me] until a couple guys and random customers were like, no, I want a guy to cut my hair.' It feels so shitty. I worked so hard to be here, and to be as good as the next guy, and these dudes were literally just throwing me under the mat like that. People were saying, 'You're just a girl. You can only do girl stuff.' Like, why can't I be as good as the next guy? Little things like that are what pushed me to really focus on it."
But combatting stereotypes isn't new to Pok—she's never fit into a cookie-cutter mold. At a young age, she began dying her hair and getting piercings and tattoos. A desk job was never in the cards. Now, she seeks all sorts of outlets to express and channel her creativity, including photography and videography (and of course, cutting hair).
"Sometimes, you can't see your work with your own eyes. When you're using a mirror or a camera, you get to see what your eyes have missed. That also helped me clean up my cuts even more," she says of her initial interest in photography. "At the time, I was barbering six days a week. I was getting burnt out—I was questioning if I even wanted to do it anymore. I felt like I was doing it too much; I felt like there wasn't any time to live and enjoy other things. Once I started picking up photography and video, it started balancing me out."
remy hair extensionsPok is careful and detail-oriented. She is an artist, and the way she moves around her clients is seamless. But it wasn't always easy. When Pok first began cutting, she had to overcome the anxiety of talking to clients, of stepping into the spotlight, and of being the only woman in the room.
"Stepping out of [my] comfort zone. Now that I've started to get into it, I've realized you just can't stay comfortable. [If you remain] comfortable, you're always going to feel incomplete or live with regrets and what ifs. If you're afraid of it, and you know you're afraid of it, you have to tackle it if you want something different. When I started, I was scared. I was very scared. I didn't really talk to my clients—I'd be like, what do you want, and start cutting away—no conversation. But over time you learn. It's work on its own to make conversation, but once you do it, you see a difference in everything."
Pok says the barber community is "a lot of ego. It feels like 95 percent are guys, so you'll get a lot of guys who don't even think twice about you. They almost categorize you as just being a girl that people just want to look at and sexualize. It sucks, but it teaches you.
"I think a lot of people, when they start, it is really sensitive," she continues. "I used to cry because I was like, this is overwhelming and emotional and a lot of people just rip you apart based on your gender. I still get girls who hit me up asking, 'What do I do? This just happened.' My advice would always be, 'I know where you've been—just haul ass through it.'"
Hamburg port was dark the night that Juana García Miniño got on board a cargo ship for the very first time. The vessel was covered with huge tarpaulins, and the then-26 year old arrived at the dock with some fellow workers. They were assigned their cabins. She was told to get up at six o'clock in the morning to start work.
That was the beginning of the 23 consecutive months she spent on her first vessel. Since then, Miniño has worked in oil tankers, more cargo ships, and then passenger ships. And her life continued in that vein, until this adventurous woman from Galicia, Spain, eventually spent 32 years she spent working on Norwegian vessels as a maid. "Maybe I'm the woman who's boarded the longest," says Miniño as she exhales smoke from her cigarette. She agreed to talk to me about a part of her life that set sail in 1976. It all began when she left her husband.
The dictator Francisco Franco was already dead, but democracy was yet to arrive in Spain. Divorce was still illegal, and in Juana's native Galicia—as well as pretty much everywhere else in Spain—sexism was very much present. After their separation, she moved back to her parents' house with her two children, who were four and two years old. Back in her village, she became the "separated woman." All the neighbors pointed their fingers at her when she was on the street.
perruques cheveux naturels"I couldn't stand it anymore, and I needed to get out in search of my freedom," she explains. One of her relatives worked in a Norwegian vessel as a crew member, so she saw her opportunity to escape from a society where a woman's only place was at home, with her husband and children. Her father, who had sailed with Dutch vessels in the past, expressed his concern that she'd never come back. "Rest assured, I'll come back," responded Miniño at the time. He advised her to protect herself from the Norwegian sailors' fondness for drink. "And if you have to come back, just do it. It's OK," he said.
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She didn't return for almost two years. After that first night in Hamburg, she found out that life on board a ship was maybe exactly what she'd been looking for. "They treated you as an equal, and they showed absolute respect for women," says Miniño, noting that she never received any funny looks or comments.
On her first vessel, the crew was made up of only 20 people. She was one of the only three women who worked there. Her job, as was the responsibility of the other two female fellow workers, was to prep and tidy the crew's dining area, as well as to clean the cabins. "Luckily, the steward and the cook spoke some Spanish, and they helped me so much, because I couldn't speak any English back then," she remembers.
Miniño (in the middle) with two other workers aboard the passenger ship Braemar. Photo courtesy of subject
From the German port they sailed to Rotterdam, and then they left for the Arctic Ocean in order to pick up a shipment at the port of Churchill, Canada. "When we were about to arrive, I went out to the deck, because I couldn't believe we'd make it through so much ice," she says. But they did. Churchill was a small town: just one hospital, a few houses, a bar, and a store.
As soon as their shipment of maize was loaded on board, the vessel went off to Liverpool, UK. From there, they went to Philippines, Japan, and Argentina. On another trip, they picked up some pig iron in Venezuela; then coal, in Australia; then sulphur and timber. "We never knew where we were heading for, and I loved it," Miniño says. The ship would set sail from a port, holds empty, without a precise direction. The crew marked a single area: South America, for instance. For the following 12 or 15 days, they fantasized about their next destination in a state of excited adventure. Then, the shipping company called the captain, and he announced their next port.
perruques cheveuxWhen Miniño came back home after 23 months on the sea, what she feared the most was that her children, who were being looked after by her parents, would reject her. "As soon as they saw the car they started running, and each one of them held tightly to one of my legs," she says. She sent photographs and letters to her sons, and their grandparents explained their mother's voyages to them. They eventually got into the habit of following Miniño with the help of the world globes they kept in their bedrooms, and they showed their friends the postcards sent by their mother from remote places.
I made my dream come true, and I came back feeling so free that I didn't care about what people said about me anymore.
"I always feared they would hold something against me, but they never complained about anything," she says. It was quite the opposite. Now her son proudly boasts to his friends about the fact that his mother spent so many years on the sea in order to fund his university degree. Her daughter chose not to continue with her education, but she bought a truck that she and her husband still both drive now. "If my mother was able to do it, why shouldn't I?" she told herself one day.
Those nearly two years of back-to-back sailing helped rid Miniño of many fears about leaving home. "I made my dream come true, and I came back feeling so free that I didn't care about what people said about me anymore," she recalls. She only thought: "You can laugh as much as you want, but I have a job, I'm independent, and I am the master of my life."
After her first taste of the ocean, she knew that she was meant to be on a ship. She started working in alternate quarters: She spent three months on board, with more working hours, and then she came back home for the same period of time, where she continued receiving her normal wage. Sometimes the vessels were cargo ships, others oil tankers. "Safety measures were more severe, and the training in case of an accident was more intense," she explains about the ships carrying oil.
Miniño in the control room of a tanker. Photo courtesy of subject
lace front wigsIn the late 70s, she traveled to the Persian Gulf for the very first time. They were only allowed to disembark in Dubai, whereupon the crew ran off the deck in search of a restaurant. She lived through the Iran-Iraq War, which began in the 80s. Some members of the crew didn't want to risk picking up shipments between two warring states; the shipping company allowed them to disembark and stay at the entrance of the Gulf. Miniño didn't leave her ship. "Some people actually landed, but I couldn't see any danger then, so I always stayed on board," she says.
The first vessel to be sunk by a missile near the coast of Iran was one that sailed ahead of Miniño's oil tanker. They were stranded in the Gulf for three days, waiting to hear if they were to remove the sunken boat's fuel. A Dutch vessel ended up doing it, leaving them to continue their way to the Iranian port where they loaded their tanks. "We entered the port with the lights off, and all the windows painted black, in order not to become another target for the missiles," she remembers.
Cohabiting aboard the ships was easy. "We usually travelled with the same crew, and that was of very much help," she says. Captains changed more frequently, but they knew every one of them. During the evenings, the boat's lounge became a meeting room where the crew chatted, played cards or partied and had some drinks. Miniño joined in with everything, only sneaking out when the Norwegian crew members started to knock back booze. As her father had warned her, they drank so heavily they didn't even recognize anyone in the corridors afterwards. "I preferred to leave, not because they would do anything to me, which they never did, but because they started fighting with each other and it was better for me to disappear," she explains.
From the 80s onwards, an increasing number of Norwegian women began to join crews. "Telegraph operators were mainly women, and then some more women joined in to work as engineer officers and deck officers," Miniño says. Women were even more common among the high commands of passenger ships. But though she worked with two Chilean women every now and then, Miniño never once met another Spanish woman in her 32 years of professional life.
In 1987, when cargo ships and oil tankers began to recruit Filipino crew for much lower wages, Miniño realised she could only find a stable job in passenger vessels. She wasn't completely sure about becoming a maid, but the shipping company chasing her gave Miniño the option of working as an interpreter—she had already learnt Norwegian—whenever her skills were needed. She started working in vessels that regularly commuted between Denmark and Norway. At first, it used to take them up to 24 hours to get to their destination, but nautical advances gradually shortened the trip, and it was reduced to between three and four hours.
cosplay wigsSix years ago, Juana decided to retire after 32 years at the sea. "I was tired of traveling, but not of working," she explains. Now she's fighting with the Long Hope Association so she and another 12,000 Spanish sailors who worked on Norweigian ships are granted the right to receive their retirement pension from Norway's government. Right now, she only receives a pension for only half of her working years, and she says that all she wants is to have her working life officially recognized. In the meantime, she's happy to leave her sea legs behind.
"The only thing I would do," she says, "is a cruise."
This post was originally published on Broadly Spain.