Gender Identity and Hair Length: Should Parents Dictate a Kid’s Hairstyle?

Family Matters on 07.13.11
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I have a keen memory of being about four years old on a playground. A little boy asked me, "Are you a boy or a girl?" That question landed on me in a distinctly unpleasant way. Even at that age, I knew why my gender was in question: my mom kept my hair very short. I never cared about my hair before, but after that comment, I started to worry about being mistaken for a boy.

Starting around age two, many children are able to discern differences in gender by observation of classical markers of masculinity or femininity (or stereotypical characteristics, depending on your feelings about gender differences.) For example, Daddy shaves his face. Mommy's hair is (usually) longer than Daddy's. Daddy doesn't wear skirts, while we sometimes see Mommy in a dress. Kids see this stuff, and they categorize, regardless of how some people might endeavor to thwart this tendency.

I Am Girl, Darn it, Hear Me Roar!

As a little girl, I wanted to be identified as such. It's who I was and I wanted to be recognized and known for the essence of me. I was not, nor am I currently, ashamed of my gender or femininity. I know there's big talk these days of letting little boys do girl things. That's great for them; let them be them.

I think it's harmful to tell a boy (or a girl) that they can't look or play a certain way because it's associated with the opposite gender. When I was a little girl, while I wanted the right to play Dukes of Hazard and Star Wars alongside my brother and I wanted nothing to do with dolls, I also wanted it known that I was a girl.

The Lure of Long Hair Beaten by the Pull of the Hairbrush

As I got older and felt more confident expressing what I wanted, I asked to grow my hair long. My wish was granted, but I recall too many hair-brushing battles around age seven, and by about the second grade, my mom and I agreed that perhaps a return to short hair wasn't so bad after all.

However, I wasn't crazy about having short hair. I didn't want to fight over having the knots brushed out of long hair, but it felt like a sacrifice in the back of my mind. Boys were something I noticed in a new way by around fourth grade. I had those first stirrings of wanting to be attractive, but that was tempered by feelings that my hair length was a problem.

Finally, Long Hair Wins

Complete and utter dissatisfaction with my short hair erupted once I began junior high and I wanted to fit in with the other kids. My mom reluctantly agreed to shoulder length. I remember feeling a vague push and pull about hair length between us - I wanted to let my hair flow down my back. The pretty girls in my class all had long hair, and I was so tired of feeling restrained, nerd-like and all buttoned up. My mom just plain hated long hair on me, and still does to this day.

When I got to college, haircuts weren't worth spending money on. Plus I was finally 100% in charge of the hairs on my head, so I let it grow. I loved it; I had never felt so feminine and it felt like a relief to finally let my hair be how I felt it "should" be. Now I'm in my mid-30s, and I'm still in no rush to shorten up my hairdo. My mom has stated frequently over the years that she prefers my hair shorter.

Hair Length: a State of Rebellion?

I had dinner with a friend recently whose mother always wanted her hair to be long and flowing when she was growing up. Now as an adult, she has short hair. Her mom thinks it's a revenge thing or a way to rebel against her. When really, it's a chance for my friend to finally wear her hair as she likes it.

Does she like it this way because it's an expression of freedom, of control over her own head, of how she wasn't allowed to wear her hair before? Maybe. But I don't think so. I just plain like long hair, and my friend just plain likes short hair.

How Old Is Your Boy?

My daughter has short hair. Not because of me, just because it hasn't had a chance to grow long yet. It's grown in, just not out or down. Almost every time I talk to a stranger, they make the assumption that she's a boy, even when she's wearing pink. 

I was recently in the doctor's office with Alex, who was wearing pink polka dots. The nurse said, "Hello Alexandra!" Then to me, "How is he doing?" I corrected her. She was embarrassed, noting that she'd even just used the name Alexandra moments before. I saw her look at the outfit, probably wondering how she'd missed it.

It happened at the swimming pool recently. Alex was wearing a pink, skirted bathing suit and another swimmer asked me, "Boy or girl?" Really?

Will I Push Her Towards a Hair Length?

When she gets a little older, I might suggest to Alex that she keep her hair long, but I probably won't. Even though, when I was mistaken for a boy and now my daughter is mistaken for a boy, it's like fingernails on a blackboard to me, I will leave it up to her.

I remember that prickly, nagging feeling of wishing I had long hair when I was younger. Now as a mom, it might give me that same itchy feeling, the feeling I imagine that my own mom has, to see my daughter wear her hair in a way that I find less flattering. But I'll have to do as my mom did: step aside and let Alex be Alex.

Katie Morton is the founder of The Monarch Company. Get a FREE copy of her eBook, 10 Steps to a Blissful You, to get started on developing extraordinary willpower for life.

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