Chelsea Barber Offers Free Shaves to Raise Cancer Awareness

Nafisa Masud @nafisa_masud

Outside Barba, signs promoted the free shaves. (The Ink/Nafisa Masud)

On Thursday afternoon, five men in their late 20s to early 30s crowded Barba Men’s Grooming Boutique on 19th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. They were waiting for a shave but wouldn’t have to pay a dime because they would be “paying with their balls” as part of an effort to raise awareness for testicular cancer.

Barba is offering three days of complimentary shaves to men who walk in or make appointments if they agree to first undergo a free in-house testicular cancer screening. After the screening, they’ll be given a care package that includes a personal cancer screening guide, coupons for local businesses and underwear emblazoned with the slogan “I Paid With My Balls.”

Inside, the walls are adorned with posters of clients and volunteers alongside statistics about testicular cancer. (The Ink/Nafisa Masud)

The goal of the event, a partnership between Barba and the ad agency Terri & Sandy, is to spark a conversation about men’s health. It’s one that’s been markedly absent despite statistics showing testicular cancer is on the rise in the U.S. The American Cancer Society predicts nearly 9,000 new cases of testicular cancer will be diagnosed by the end of this year. And though it isn’t the most common type, testicular cancer highlights a worrisome reluctance among men to discuss health issues.

J.P. Gomez, the 29-year-old creative director of the “Pay With Your Balls” campaign, hopes to change this by capitalizing on “Movember,” the fairly recent practice of men growing out their facial hair during November to bring light to men’s health issues. “Movember is such a big trend,” he said. “It’s a hot topic, but people overlook the meaning behind it.” His team at Terri & Sandy, alongside Barba, advertised the promotion all last month on billboards, benches and social media.

The team also decorated Barba with jars of ping pong balls and hung posters of volunteers and clients along several walls, accompanied by testicular cancer statistics. Featured on one such poster was a cancer survivor and friend of Gomez’s, one of the many reasons why he’s so passionate about the campaign. “This cause needed a new message,” he said. “We had to start the conversation going.”

Care packages outside of the screening room. (The Ink/Nafisa Masud)

Xavier Cruz, boyfriend to Gomez and owner of Barba, agreed. He has owned the boutique for five years but moved to the Chelsea location five months ago and wanted to take advantage of the larger space. Cruz worked in a women’s salon before Barba, where the conversation about medical issues was very different. “The women were very free to talk about their health,” he said. “I felt left out  and it bothered me.”

Cruz chalks it up to “macho” attitude. “Guys just don’t talk about their balls,” he said. But throughout their campaign, Cruz has received several private emails and Instagram messages from men thanking the team for making the issue a priority. He values the input precisely because he knows how hard it is to talk about men’s health. “It’s such a huge deal,” he said. “But nobody talks about it.”

On Thursday morning, the salon was filled with regular customers with more appointments scheduled for after work hours. Cruz said he expected Friday afternoon and Saturday to be the busiest days with free shaves booked every 15 minutes.

The first customer on Thursday was 30-year-old Joe Buffa, a friend of Cruz’s and an independent personal trainer. He said he was a dancer before becoming a trainer so he has always been focused on health. But he had other reasons to participate. “Cancer runs in my family and I almost lost a friend to cancer,” he said. “I watched him suffer several rounds of chemo and it hits home.”

Buffa believes that some men avoid testicular cancer screenings because they fear the results while others need motivation. “Sometimes you have to wave the carrot in their face,” he said. ”Why not get a free shave out of it?” Buffa also sees larger societal forces at play. “Unfortunately, it’s not sexy to show men struggling or sick,” he said. “There are walks for AIDS and breast cancer but nothing for us.”

He thinks Barba is a good setting to change that attitude. “This is where the men come, especially in the gay community,” Buffa said. “The chairs are always filled so it’s a stronger platform to push these ideals.”

As customers entered Barba, they were offered free beverages by the staff while they waited. “It wasn’t a hard sell to get me involved,” said Buffa. “When people consider health, they neglect the internal aspect. But you have to hold yourself accountable.”