I pulled up to the Albertson’s express lane with my 15 items or fewer Monday afternoon, and noticed that the cashier was sporting a cute new shoulder-length bob. I don’t know the cashier personally, but she’s one of those familiar strangers we see in our worlds all the time, and I see her there often enough that I recognized that she’d gotten a haircut. So I complimented her on her great haircut, and we discussed another customer who’d noticed, and then I told her I was getting mine chopped the next day.* Then we discussed that her daughter, having seen mom’s hair, now wants to get hers cut shorter, and her mom is ambivalent, because her little girl, like most little girls with long hair, has beautiful, shiny, healthy Breck-girl hair, and her mom thinks it’s beautiful, as do others.
I said, “Well, you know, it’s only hair. It’ll grow back.” Then the cashier said, “Everyone tells me not to let her cut her hair.” And I confess, a large amount of feelings in regards to body autonomy, especially for girls and women who are allowed so little in this culture, rose up inside me, triggered by the words “Everyone tells me” and “let.” As I paused to take my receipt, I had to decide how much, if any, of that to let out on this poor unsuspecting cashier.
I would probably be on board with the idea that parents have some say in the appearance of their kids. I tend to think they get too worked up about hair in general, whether it’s too long, too short, too hacked, too mohawked, too shaved, too blue, but I grew up in a “my house, my rules” kind of household, and if parents want to hold that line, I guess they can. I will say that I taught in a private school with strict dress codes and no “weird” hair allowed, and I can tell you that a surprisingly high number of those kids went wild, sartorially speaking, once they graduated to public school. It’s a strange thing to run into a kid whom you last saw a year ago in khaki shorts and regulation navy polo shirt wearing a studded dog collar and heavy black eyeliner to accessorize her all-black ensemble. The more you try to control, the more opportunities you give kids to rebel, so it pays to pick your battles. Hair, which is in endless supply for most of us well into our 30s, is probably not a hill I’d die on.
BUT…if you want to raise strong, confident, safe children, and daughters especially, who understand that their bodies belong to them, and to only them, isn’t a choice of haircut a good place to start with that? Basically, this cashier is weighing telling her daughter what amounts to, “I know I cut my hair, but too many people–including myself–like the look of your hair as it is, and how we want you to look trumps whatever you might want.”
As if every human being on the planet isn’t getting this message twenty ways to Sunday every single day of their breathing lives. About their hair. About their fashion choices. About their body size and shape. The idea that we should own ourselves wholly, bodies included, for many people indicates “an abominable sort of conceited independence,” to quote Miss Bingley.
How revolutionary would it be, then, for this mother to say, “I think your hair is pretty right now, but it’s your hair, so if you’d like to cut it, of course we’ll make an appointment/get out the scissors”? For the mother to ignore all those people who think she should take ownership of her daughter’s body via her hair, and instead let her daughter decide what happens with her body? And this is such a low-risk way to start, too, for people who aren’t used to flouting convention and majority opinion, because if she chops it now, it’ll grow back. And if she’s like any other woman I know, she will spend the rest of her life playing with her hair, growing it out, chopping it off, changing the color, styling it differently, because that’s what we do. We change it up like an accessory, because that’s really what it is. Men do the same thing with facial hair.
A child who gets to have her hair cut the way she prefers it; a child who gets to wear the clothes she wants, even if someone else thinks they don’t match or are goofy; a child who is raised with the idea that she gets to decide what touches her body, be it hair or clothes; isn’t this a child who will be primed to accept the even more revolutionary ideas that her body is not for public critique and comment? That her body is not a prize she has to give to anyone who pays her a compliment or spends time with her? That her body is not something she has to pummel into submission to please others, regardless of what it does to her health and her soul, or be ashamed of if she doesn’t meet impossible and changing standards? That her body is important for the things it will allow her to do in life–hug, laugh, run, jump, climb mountains, make love, make babies, make art–rather than whether it pleases strangers’ eyes? That what she thinks is right for her mind, body, and soul are far more important than anyone else’s opinion? These are all facets of the same rare jewel: Body sovereignty. The inalienable right to know that our bodies are ours, and ours alone, to decorate or not; to display or not; to share or not; to use or not, as we see fit. The culture will tell us otherwise; it will tell us that ownership of our bodies is public, but that is wrong, and we need to figure that out ourselves as well as teach it to our children. And maybe that starts with a haircut.
I couldn’t say all that to her, though. It was the express lane, after all. But I wanted to at least plant a seed, to offer an alternative to the dominant and soul-damaging cultural narrative when it comes to women’s beauty and bodies, and their putative duty to perform femininity and beauty for the benefit of the straight male gaze at all times. My parting shot as I walked away was, “Well, we girls and women need to learn that our bodies belong to us, don’t we? Have a great day!”
I don’t know whether it even registered, but I think it’s worth it to offer subversive alternatives to folks, as much as a reminder to ourselves as to them; so often, it has never occurred to us that there was another way, because all we know is what we’re steeped in. We may not be able to foment revolution in the minds of everyone, but if we can do it one person at a time, the rest will take care of itself in time.
*I don’t want to chop it, but a year ago, after growing it long and leaving the color natural, I decided it’d be a good idea to start dyeing it red again, because I missed it. I used the 28-day wash-out stuff, because I wasn’t sure I was committed to it for the long haul, and wanted the option of going back to my natural salt-and-pepper. But I noticed that it wasn’t washing out in a month, and when I finally talked to my stylist about it, she informed me that there was probably no actual dye left in my hair, but that red dyes have a tendency to stain. Oops! Wish I’d known that before I started up again. I also noticed that the dye was wrecking my usually healthy hair–split ends galore. So I decided that it was mistake to start dyeing it again, and I needed to quit. So I went and got my hair dyed brown, with streaks in it to blend with the dark brown and white that was fixin’ to come in. And it looked beautiful for about 2 weeks, until the new brown dye started to fade, leaving the stained red underneath. At this point, I’m unwilling to chemically process my hair again, because it’s just going to damage it further, and push off the start of what’s going to be an aesthetically painful process lasting months, and I’m going to gradually cut it out over the next year that it’ll take to grow it out from roots to uniform natural color. The last time I did this, I cut it supershort, but that’s not that good a look for me, so I’m going to do it in stages this time around.