The Art (and Awkwardness) of a Virtual Haircut

SAN FRANCISCO — More than 20 days into San Francisco’s shelter-in-place orders, with hair salons and barbershops closed, I was resigned to growing out my bangs. But my husband, Matt, who had gone almost two months without a cut, began threatening to shave his head.

For weeks, he had been trying to hide his floppy, overgrown strands in video calls by wearing large headphones and sitting back in the shadows. But those were only half measures. Hair does not care that we are sheltering in place for who knows how long. It just keeps growing.

That’s when I learned about virtual haircuts. Caitlin Collentine, my hairstylist at Wabi Sabi Beauty, emailed with the offer. For $55, she said, she would walk us through the cut over a video call.

It was not the most far-fetched service to attempt online reinvention since the coronavirus pandemic has spread in the United States. In the past week I have heard about a virtual Iron Man race, a virtual Easter egg hunt and virtual speed dating, while my colleagues have reported on virtual forest baths, backyard ultramarathons and “cloud clubbing.” Even plumbers in Ohio and Florida have virtually helped customers fix their own malfunctioning pipes.

An amateur haircut with professional guidance sounded better than a bald husband. I signed up for a $20 bang trim, too.

Part of me thought: How hard could it be? I imagined the haircut going so well that I would emerge from quarantine with another pandemic survival merit badge (see also: bread baking, Super Mario Odyssey playing). Perhaps we could become home haircut people.

But the more realistic part of me expected to develop a deeper appreciation for the magic conjured by hair-cutting geniuses. Tales of “coronacuts” gone wrong have bubbled up on social media, with celebrities like Riz Ahmed and Pink sharing photos of their failed D.I.Y. attempts.

“Anyone else do a #Stayhome haircut that got outta hand?” Mr. Ahmed recently wrote on Instagram alongside a photo of his freshly shaved head.

If Matt’s virtual cut was a disaster, that would be him, too. The stakes were low.

Our first challenge was securing electric clippers and hair scissors. Local stores were sold out and everywhere I looked online the items were unavailable for weeks. I should not have been surprised; the entire country is cutting its own hair. We borrowed a set from a friend (sanitized, with a contactless pickup and drop-off).

The second challenge was not cutting my fingers.

Ms. Collentine began our FaceTime call by taking pictures of Matt’s head from the front, side and back on a tablet, which she used as a reference. She showed me how to properly hold the clippers (a relaxed C-shaped hand, not my claw-shaped death grip) and pointed out where to shave on the photo of Matt’s head.

That was the easy part. Because our clippers only came with clipper guards for longer hair, I had to do a lot more cutting with the comb and scissors.

Hairstylists make wielding a comb and scissors look natural, but I found myself contorting my wrists and fingers into strange angles to get the right cuts. Matt was mostly amused by this, but I also picked up a hint of concern — especially anytime I said “Oops!”

Watching and listening to Ms. Collentine’s directions while Matt watched me and chimed in felt a bit like learning to drive with both parents in the car.

“Move the comb to the left a bit. The other left. Try holding it like this. More perpendicular. To his head. OK, cut that. Well, that’s OK, too. You’re doing great!”

I asked Ms. Collentine if watching amateurs fumble around with scissors made her want to reach through the screen and do it herself. It could be “a little maddening,” she said.

But it gave her a new appreciation for her skills. I suggested hairdressers and barbers charge at least triple for their first round of post-quarantine cuts. It’s basic supply and demand.

At first, I trimmed the top section of Matt’s hair so carefully that one could barely notice the difference. Then I did it all over again with more confidence, much shorter.

A few of my snips conveyed serious bowl cut vibes, but Ms. Collentine showed me how to artfully blend them in with a technique called point cuts. Hair, it turns out, is pretty forgiving.

Increased confidence — knowing just enough to be dangerous — created its own challenges. As I snipped away faster and faster, feeling a bit like Edward Scissorhands, I eventually cut my fingers. Fortunately the scissors were too dull and cheap to hurt for long.

The result, once Matt contributed his own styling, was a satisfactory improvement. I should note: He can’t see what the back looks like, nor can his co-workers on video calls. I do not anticipate we will be home haircut people once barbershops reopen.

Ms. Collentine also helped me style my overgrown bangs into less ambitious, lower-maintenance side-swept bangs. After I parted, combed and trimmed, she examined the results and suggested adjustments. (A mirror would have been helpful for cutting my own hair, as it’s difficult to see what you’re doing in the small video screen.)

I now feel motivated to put the tiniest bit of effort into my hair each morning. As “Fleabag” taught us, hair is the difference between a good day and a bad day.

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