By Jesse Curran
The girls look beautiful.
That’s how more than one of my colleagues respond after receiving my holiday card.
I have a six-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. My son’s chestnut brown hair flows a foot down his back. Now that it’s so long, the soft corkscrews have lengthened and extended to waves. He never wants a pony tail nor it pulled back, so instead, it cascades over his shoulders and frames his cheeks.
This happens from time to time: well-meaning folk assume the hair indicates a particular gender. When I can, I note that I have a daughter and son, but my son prefers his hair long. My colleagues smile sheepishly and will often apologize and make a mental note for next time.
When we discuss social constructions of gender in the first-year seminar I teach, I try to embed the larger critical framework in personal anecdotes, and speak sincerely from my experience. Last semester, I told my students about my son’s hair in order to open a discussion of cultural assumptions and gender performance. One student nodded his head and raised his hand. He explained how his Jamaican mother didn’t cut his hair when he was young and that she was criticized and he was, at times, ridiculed for this choice. As a group, we collectively acknowledged how hair is just the beginning, and how things are certainly more riddled with pressure and scorn for our transgender allies.
At other points in history, long hair on a male head was associated with regality and virility. For some cultures, cutting hair was considered a great punishment, a source of shame. It has often been a means of control and containment.
None of this is lost on me when I opt out of cutting my son’s hair, though most importantly, he seems to like it. He is resolute about his style. When asked about a trim or cut, he says no. And this no has been enough for me.
Enough for me, but not for others. About six months ago, my daughter snipped off half her brother’s bangs, which had just grown out—with safety scissors. I cried a river when they emerged from the backyard tent that served as a pandemic home school and since has become an erratic art studio. With my own scissors, I tried to smooth the rough edges, which were then better blended by my best friend, a stylist with three boys, whose bangs always perfectly frame their sweet little faces.
Months later, Grandpa intervened, having a word with my husband on their Sunday exercise walk around the quaint village where we live.
“We think you should cut his hair.”
“Why?” replied my husband, unphased.
“People think he’s a girl. Other kids will make fun of him.”
These kinds of comments and conversations come from friends, colleagues, and family members who present themselves as otherwise quite socially progressive. I confess I’m boggled by why so many seem so bothered by a boy’s long hair. It makes me think quite a bit about the ways people pick and choose their causes, and that acceptance is not always consistent. Why this pressure to ensure small children conform to performative gender norms? Why is hair so subversive?
I run my fingers through my own hair, which over my close to forty years has never been dyed. Its length is tossed into a high bun, wisps framing my rather wrinkled face. In the bathroom drawer there is no blow-dryer and there are no style products; nor is there mascara, eyeliner, or lipstick. I remember on my first day of graduate school, I opened the day with an Atlantic swim before quickly changing clothes to catch the Fire Island ferry back to the whale of Long Island. My salty tresses dried into curls on the boat as we sped across the Great South Bay. I remember walking into my seminar on literary theory, protected and enlivened by the wind and salt on my skin and scalp. I remember feeling beautiful.
And when, years later, I came across Alice Walker’s essay, “Oppressed Hair puts a Ceiling on the Brain,” it just made sense to me. Walker writes:
Eventually I knew precisely what hair wanted: it wanted to grow, to be itself, to attract lint, if that was its destiny, but to be left alone by anyone, including me, who did not love it as it was. What do you think happened? [ … ] The ceiling at the top of my brain lifted; once again my mind (and spirit) could get outside myself. I would not be stuck in restless stillness, but would continue to grow.
For all the foolish ways I’ve squeezed into jeans that are too tight and worn uncomfortable shoes because I thought they looked sexy, I’m grateful that I’ve never oppressed my hair. I’ve learned to love it as it is.
I run my fingers through my son’s hair, which unlike his sister’s, never seems to knot. I kiss it and smell it and tell him how handsome he looks. Perhaps my husband and I don’t push the cut because it is a remnant from bygone baby days. Because it has been with him since the beginning, when he emerged from me into a birthing pool in our living room on a May afternoon. His little head covered in hair and vernix. It’s not lost on me that the tips of today’s hair have been with him since his very first days with us.
I am a wildly imperfect mother, but I try my best to let my kids shape their own identities, free of my judgement. I encourage them to select their own clothing, toys, and accessories, and hope such choices can be creatively expressive. They are their own people, with their own style and instincts and I hope that they feel playful rather than pressured around gender norms.
When I ask my son if he wants a haircut, he confidently says, “no.” When I ask why, he responds, “because I like it.” And that’s good enough for me.
Jesse Curran lives on Long Island’s north shore with her husband and two children. She is a poet, scholar, essayist, and educator; her current writing works breathe space into – and make peace within— the frenzy and uncertainty of suburban parenthood.
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