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What My Long-Haired Son Taught Me About Gender Bias

“What My Long-Haired Son Taught Me About Gender Bias” originally appeared on The Good Men Project and was reprinted with permission.

Image source:
Image source: Anna Rosenblum Palmer

Ever since half-his-life-ago my son decided to grow his hair long, his luxurious golden locks have drawn endless compliments — and confusion.

On the playground …

… when other kids try to insult him by calling him a girl, he considers it a compliment. “Why,” he asks at the dining room table, “is it teasing to call me a girl? My best friends are girls. Like you, Mama.”

So we dig into gender stereotypes as we do dinner. While he and his brother laugh it off, they were shocked to learn that there are no women on United States currency, and that we have never had a female president. As we talk about suffrage and the suffering it caused, they slough it off as stupid, an attitude that feels appropriate to the lack of forward movement on such issues in our supposedly more evolved age.

At restaurants …

… when servers ask me “what she is having,” our family is more offended that “she” isn’t expected to order for herself than that his long hair caused the confusion. We are used to it.

On road trips … 

… when we stop to grab a snack and use the bathroom, he is often chastised for using the men’s room. The concerned citizens stopping him seem only to want to protect the “little lady” from what lurks behind the men’s room door. I have heard it can be pretty ugly in there.

At these same service stations I watch my sons at the counter. They select their snacks and prepare to pay with their own money. My other son, who wears a more typically short hair-style, makes a quick transaction, with the clerk scanning his item, taking his money and possibly offering a curt “thank you.”

My long-haired boy gets a different response. The cashier’s body language changes as he or she leans forward, asks about his selection, and compliments on his ability to handle his own cash. Simply because they believe they are talking to a girl, they are both more impressed and more engaged with “her” than they were with his brother.

***

The four of us wonder about these encounters together. Do these kinds of behavioral distinctions speak to lower expectations for girls than for boys? To more accolades for girls? A swirl of positive and negative all mixed up together?

Despite decades worth of studies summed up by researchers from Hamilton College stating that teachers in U.S. classrooms “[pay] more attention to male students, [allow] more wait time for males, and [provide] more constructive praise and criticism for males,” my own experience with my personal sample size of two sons has shown a markedly different reality.

My son/daughter draws attention and adoration from almost every adult we encounter. My regular old son with the “boy cut” is the second class citizen in these moments. He has learned to interject in order to include himself as part of the conversation. I can only hope this will serve him well in life as he learns to advance his own views.

***

As we disembark from our long flight, my short-haired son gets a succinct nod from the pilot, while my long-haired son gets the whopper.

“How was your flight, Princess?”

This is it. He can be chastised about bathrooms, called a sister/daughter, get teased on the playground and roll with it as well as a well-adjusted kid might be expected to. But Princess? He draws the line at princess. The pilot looks confused until my other son turns on this captain’s over-head light.

“My brother had a great flight! His ears didn’t even pop!”

I don’t turn back to see, but I can imagine the mix of confusion and embarrassment that must have played out on his face. And at once, both boys are part of the conversation … just as they should be.

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