My seven-year-old son has hair that many people would kill … or at least pay an arm and a leg at the salon for: honey blonde with natural ombre highlights, ringlets that cascade down, skimming right above his shoulders. [I have seen photos of Avital's son and his hair is indeed glorious. -- Amelia]
To top it all off, he loves his curls. When he was younger I would trim them just a bit so that he could see (AKA shaggy dog syndrome). But as he grew older, he let it be known that he was super into his curls and refused to cut them. And to be honest? I was kind of thrilled. I loved his hair just as much as he did, and was happy that he wanted to keep it long. We only have a few simple rules if he wants to keep his hair long: It has to be up in a ponytail during hot/humid weather to avoid heat rash, it has to stay out of his eyes (which he accomplishes with various cloth headbands/sweatbands), and it has to be — relatively — knot free.
So, my rough and tumble, soccer playing, LEGO-obsessed, drum-playing seven-year-old still rocks his long curls. And for some reason, it completely throws everyone else off balance. At least once a day, ever since his hair started growing in earnest, my son gets mistaken for a girl without fail. As you can imagine, this causes a lot of feels.
When my son was between the ages of two and five, he was oblivious to the fact that strangers called him “she” or used “her” when talking to me. Usually, all it took was a quick “Oh, he’s a boy!” from me for the person to quickly realize their mistake, apologize, and continue on with whatever conversation we were having. No real harm, no foul. Although, there was that one time that I got into a lengthy debate with a waitress at a restaurant because she insisted I was pulling one over on her, and that my child was indeed a girl, because a boy just couldn’t have hair like that.
Sometime around kindergarten, my son started realizing that people were continuously mistaking him for a girl and it started to bother him. He wasn’t bothered because being a girl was a bad thing — not at all. Instead, he just didn’t understand how people couldn’t realize that he was a boy. He knew that he was a boy, he liked being a boy, and how could people miss that? We went through a bit of a rough period, where he got really down anytime a stranger midgendered him. We processed a lot. At one point, he told me that maybe he should just be a girl since everyone thought he was one anyway. He quickly followed that up with “but I LOVE being a boy.” I reminded him that there’s no one way to be a boy or a girl, and sometimes people can forget that, especially strangers that don’t know us very well and only went by what we looked like. I also offered to take him to the salon for a haircut, yet he still refused.
Then, a little while after celebrating his sixth birthday, we turned a corner. He had come into his own, and each time a stranger would say “she” or “her,” my son was polite but vocal in correcting them. “I’m a boy!” He’d give them a grin and continue on with whatever he’s doing, most likely petting their dog. And that’s where we are. He’s incredibly confident and happy with who he is, and that includes his hair.
The mama bear within me is still a bit growly, however.
Why is it so hard to believe that a boy can have long hair? People only need to look as far as his father to know that the men in our family sport gorgeous, long locks. Are we that strongly attached to traditional standards of appearance that we can’t look beyond hair? Is it that bothersome to take in the whole kid and not just the mop of (admittedly awesome) curls atop his head?
I’m quite aware that most people don’t mean anything rude or negative when they mistake my son for a girl. Unlike the celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, neither my son nor I have been harassed over his hair length. A few people make some stupid, offhand comments when I correct them, saying that if he doesn’t want to be mistaken for a girl he should cut his hair, but the majority are actually pretty apologetic and kind once they realize their error.
I wonder if it’s an American thing? A couple months ago we were in an airport and an older woman mistook my son for a girl while we were in line at a food kiosk. She of course apologized, and I thought that was the end of that. But when I made my way up to the cashier, I found her looking at me with a knowing smile. She shook her head, “You just don’t see young boys with hair that gorgeous here.” She explained that she was Dutch, and that in the Netherlands, it’s not unusual at all to see boys with longer hair. We commiserated for a bit, and she found it baffling that people mistake my son for a girl almost daily.
I’m proud that my son continues to let his long locks fly. If anything, holding true to himself and learning how to deal with others has allowed him to become more confident and secure in who he is. If he can learn that at seven? I can only imagine the strength and conviction he will grow up to possess. And if he can do it all with fabulous hair? Even better.
Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamfesto. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter.