I’ve been procrastinating writing this post for a month because I wasn’t quite sure what direction I wanted it to take. If it’s a mess, I apologize in advance (and also: welcome to my life, where most things are a mess).
When my husband came home from his last haircut a little less than a month ago, my son suddenly announced that he wanted a “daddy-sized” haircut.
My husband and I looked at each other. My son’s crowning glory was his hair, the first things people always remarked on – dirty blonde, wild, curly, and beautiful. Aside from trimming his bangs for safety reasons, he had never had his hair cut – we decided early on that, so long as health and safety wasn’t a concern, he would let him take the lead and make his own choices about his body, including his hair. Until that moment, he’d never expressed interest in getting it cut.
But he was insistent. We want to respect our son, but his also three, and his whims and wishes can change on a near-constant basis. We compromised and told him that if he still felt that way in three days (which would be a Saturday), we would take him that morning to get his haircut. He seemed cool with that.
So we waited. And each day, we asked him if he still wanted to get his haircut, and the answer continued to be a resounding and increasingly enthusiastic “yes.” So, that Saturday morning we gave his curls one last shampoo, loaded him into the car, and headed to the barber shop.
Now, I was already experiencing a sort of, let’s say, melange of emotions – excitement for Bear growing up and asserting his bodily autonomy, anticipation of what my little guy would look like with his newly shorn locks, and a little sadness and trepidation at this very concrete sign of my baby growing up. I wouldn’t say I “got emotional” – I didn’t cry – but I felt things, you know? Good things, proud things, bittersweet things.
Unfortunately, some less-than-positive feelings crept in once we got to the barber shop.
I probably should have expected it; maybe on some level I did. I had a history with this place; I’d started going there a few years prior myself, because they gave a good haircut for significantly cheaper than the stylist who I went to for years, primarily out of a misplaced sense of obligation. My stylist was a wonderful woman, and very talented, but she couldn’t seem to wrap her head around the severity of the cuts I would ask for. I eventually figured that going someplace accustomed to giving primarily masculine cuts would be better suited to my needs. I was right; they gave me exactly the cut I wanted.
But they asked my husband’s permission, first. Like, checked in to see that it was okay. And then, insisted that I had to be wrong when I told them I wanted a number 1 razor cut (1/8 of an inch, which is what I sport to this day), because “that’s really short.” But, regardless – I got it. They did it, to my liking, and it was cheap to boot.
And then they reassured me that it still looked “feminine.” Which, first off, no it didn’t, and that was part of the point, but secondly – I sought out a severe razor cut at a barbershop. Why do you think I need or want reassurance about looking “feminine?” Say it looks good, say it suits me, but please, don’t feel the need to reassure my “femininity.”
The barber – who was new since our last visit, and whom we didn’t know – did a double-take when he saw my son – I’m pretty sure he thought Bear was a girl, and was having trouble wrapping his head around the cut we requested for him, which was an unpleasant case of deja vu from my own experiences. The other barbers, who remember me and my son, expressed amused surprise that they were confused because “they thought I had a boy.”
They cajoled my husband – “I bet you’re happy to finally get this done!” “Bet you’ve been waiting for this!” “You’ll have a son again!” – while we were left to just smile and continuously repeat, “It’s his body, so we left the choice up to him.” “His daddy had long hair for years.” “We weren’t going to push him if he liked his hair long.”
I want to be fair – I want to be fair to them as people and as professionals without letting them off the hook. There was not – in any way, or by any means – any trace of intended malice behind their words. They were not sneering, they were not judging, they were not admonishing. They were gentle and patient with my son. They were understanding of my feelings as a mom, seeing her baby taking a significant step into older childhood.
That does not erase my discomfort. That doesn’t change the fact that I spent the whole time hoping upon hope that my son wasn’t listening and internalizing the message that little boys can’t have long hair, or that little boys (or girls, or anyone above, beyond, or in-between) can’t present themselves in any damn way they please. That it had to be mom, holding tenaciously to his long hair. That dad must be rejoicing in finally “having his son back.”
My son, thankfully, seemed too entranced with is own changing reflection (and asking the barber literally a dozen questions a minute) to really take in the conversation going on around him. That was a relief. My son left the barber shop smiling, pleased as all get-out with his new haircut, and we went home.
Again, I’m not trying to paint these people as villains, or the experience as life-changingly traumatic – they are people or a certain age and a certain disposition, and I was at best annoyed and at worst uncomfortable – and my son didn’t notice at all. But I also don’t want to let them off the hook. People need to be aware of what they say around children. People offering a service need to have some sort of awareness of their customers circumstance and be sensitive to it. Gender is a complicated subject for me, I readily admit that, and I don’t necessarily expect people to realize that on an individual level.
But that’s just it – gender is a complicated subject. Gender presentation (and personal presentation in general) is a complicated subject. Discovering who you are and how you want to express yourself in the world is a complicated subject. Be aware of that when you speak. Especially in front of a child, whose joys and passions and pride in self can be so easily squashed be a few careless words from grown-ups telling them it’s not something they can/should like or do because of what they were born as.
(Oh, but also – consent is not complicated. When I said it was my son’s choice, I meant it. Please do not gloss that over and assume I must have been either pressuring him or holding him back. He made a choice. Don’t dismiss it).