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.
In 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."
Pok 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.'"