My middle son has silky, reddish-blondish-brownish hair, the type made to grow out long.
From the time he was 2, we watched his hair sprout from a little boy bowl cut into rocker locks. We let it grow and grow until it hit between his shoulder blades. And for the longest time, he said he wanted to grow his hair “down to my knees!” So I brushed it. I used smoothing solution on it, and my own expensive conditioner. I patiently detangled mats. And I loved every second of it.
Until my son, just after his 4th birthday, said he wanted to hack his hair off.
Okay, he didn’t say “hack.” He said he wanted “short hair, like Daddy.” He told me. He told his father. When he said it every day for a week, we knew he was serious.
I always loved long-haired boys. My high school boyfriend had a headful of crazy, copper-colored curls. My college boyfriend had long, straight, black locks, and I made him crazy playing with it. I used to beg my husband to grow his hair back to the curly mane he’d rocked in college, but he always refused.
So when I had sons, I let their hair go wild. And they loved it, mostly, other than the detangling part. I loved it. Their hair seemed part of who they were, a wild cloud of difference in a sea of crewcuts.
And now my son wanted his gone.
I knew what had prompted his desire. Lately, everyone we met had referred to him as “her.” It doesn’t help that he has huge eyes and delicate features. The flowing mane only completed the girly look.
People in Target called him Miss. Old ladies asked if I had all girls. “Your daughter’s under your cart,” said a woman in the checkout line. I’d vented about this to friends: I was impressed, I said, that they think I’d dress a girl in a dinosaur shirt and Star Wars shoes. Unfortunately, my son had overheard me complaining.
But I know what broke him. He goes to homeschool co-op once a week. And some little girl had taken in his nail polish, his long hair, and called him a girl. Or she’d told him he looked like a girl, or that only girls had long hair and nail polish … I didn’t quite get the whole story. But whatever she said, my sensitive son was mortified. I’d hoped when this day came he’d laugh it off and ignore it, but instead he took the stupid gender-shaming to heart.
I’ve never been so angry at someone else’s 4-year old girl, who was just spouting some outdated gendered nonsense she’d learned from her parents. I told him she was wrong. I told him she was stupid. I rattled off lists of men with long hair, boys with long hair. I showed him pictures. I told him girls and boys could both have long hair, and to say otherwise was small-minded and dumb.
But he’s in the phase where he’s developing his gender identity: he wants to separate the world into girls and boys, and he doesn’t want to be on the wrong side. People kept miscategorizing him, and he was tired of the ambiguity. The “girl” and “daughter” comments were wearing on him, bit-by-bit and drop-by-drop.
I knew his dreams of a short cut were driven by gender comments and gender shaming. For that reason only, I wanted to tell him no way, he was keeping his hair. But after seven days of asking, we knew he meant it. And since he really meant it, we had to get his hair cut.
It’s simple: no matter the motivation, it was his hair and his choice. We believe in bodily autonomy. He had loved his long hair, and when he loved it, I did everything I could to take care of it. I would have let him grow it down to his knees, like he said he wanted. Now he said he wanted it short.
So we drove up to the kid’s salon. On the way, I Googled “spikey boy haircuts.” He practically bounced in his seat with happiness. When we stepped inside, he hopped into the barber’s chair with a smile.
“Cut it all off!” he said.
My heart was breaking. My sweet baby boy was big enough to make his own choices, and we had to listen to them. I explained to the stylist what I had in mind, and showed her a picture of a haircut I liked. Not as much as his long hair, of course, but out of the pictures I’d found acceptable, he’d liked this one the most.
I blinked back tears. “Can you braid it and cut the braid, so I can have it?” I asked.
The stylist rubber-banded his hair — the same way I did, so many mornings for him to go to homeschool P.E. He’d always called it his “samurai hair.”
She twisted a quick braid, rubber-banded the bottom, and picked up her scissors. In a second, she’d sawed through the top, and there was no going back. She handed me the limp, golden hair.
And she cut. And cut. When she was all finished, he had a headful of cute spikes and a huge grin.
He loves his new hair. I spike it up every morning, and that ritual almost takes the place of my careful brushing. But mostly, he’s happy with it. It looks cute; he seems much more grown-up without a cloud of baby hair.
I wish his haircut hadn’t come about because of gender shaming, and I feel, somehow, that I didn’t arm him enough against it. I didn’t think I’d have to lecture other 4-year-olds on gender politics, so I didn’t, and now: he’d cut his hair off.
But, again, his hair, his choice. Maybe one day he’ll grow it out again. Until then, at least I get to do his spikes.