My daughter’s first haircut was over six months in the making. When she was almost two-and-a-half, we began to talk about cutting her hair. She’d sit in the tub, conditioner slathered into her honey-blonde ringlets, as I gently combed the tangles out. It helped the wide-toothed comb glide through her hair more easily, but no matter how much conditioner I used or how gentle I was, the process was painful.
“Ouch, Mama!” she’d yell. It was a routine she grew to hate, so we began talking about what we could do to change it. “I have to comb the knots out of your hair,” I told her. But I explained that if she really didn’t like having her hair combed, she could get a haircut. She was intrigued.
The next time I went to the salon for my own cut, I made an appointment for her as well. She watched as locks of my hair hit the floor. Despite the fact that she’d talked about nothing but getting her hair cut during the week leading up to the appointment, she changed her mind and opted for just a fancy ponytail.
We left the salon hand-in-hand, my daughter beaming as she walked down the street with her hair piled high on the crown of her head, topped with a big, white bow. “You are in charge of what happens to your body,” I told her. “That means that you get to decide when you’re ready to cut your hair.” This is one of the ways I am teaching her about boundaries and consent, and that her body is her own. In our home, that also means asking permission before hugging, kissing or touching someone and never forcing her to give kisses or hugs, even with relatives.
When I was in third grade, I thought my dark, wiry leg hair was gross and I asked my mom if I could start shaving my legs. It took hours to remove all my leg hair and I cut myself around my ankles, all because I thought something was wrong with my body for not looking like the smooth, blonde, hairless girls held up as the ideal. As I got older, I spent hours primping, squeezing, tweezing, wobbling in heels and putting myself on display because my body was not mine; it belonged to the patriarchal lens I was taught to see it through.
Every time I have been catcalled on the street or have tried to have a conversation with someone who was staring directly at my breasts, my body was not mine. All the times I have been groped, grabbed or ogled on trains or in bars and nightclubs, my body was not mine. All of the times I felt I couldn’t say “no” even when I wanted to, because I didn’t want to be a tease, because he’d bought me drinks or paid for dinner, or because I knew he wouldn’t listen and I didn’t really have a choice, my body was not mine. The time my freshman year of college when I couldn’t say “no” because I was passed out, the time I did say “no” and he didn’t listen, my body was not mine.
It has taken me a lifetime to figure out what it means for my body to belong to me and no one else. I am still learning it. And because of that, I have been hurt over and over and over. Some of that pain could not have been prevented no matter what I did, but lots of it could have been if only I had known that I was allowed to say “no” and that my body could exist for my own approval and my own pleasure. I want to teach my daughter the things I have spent decades learning.
By taking bodily autonomy down to the very basic, I am hoping to give my daughter the tools to assert her autonomy in more serious situations: when she’s hugged by a classmate and doesn’t want to be; when she’s catcalled on the street; when she’s on a date with a partner who wants to take things farther than she’s comfortable with. When I let her decide when her hair gets cut, I’m teaching her how to assert what she wants — and doesn’t want — to happen to her body.
Several more months passed with the same nighttime routine: The conditioner. The comb. The whining. Finally, I broached the topic again. “If you really don’t like having your hair combed out, a haircut would make it easier. Would you like to have your hair cut?” My daughter was now approaching 3 years old and her hair, when wet, reached her butt. She said she would like a haircut.
All week, we talked about haircuts. She told me she was a little bit scared. I promised that was normal, and we talked through it. We looked at pictures of haircuts. We talked about what kinds of hair kids in her class had, and whose hair she liked. She named a classmate who wore her hair in a bob. I reminded her that she could change her mind at any point.
When the day finally came, she watched locks of my hair hit the floor once again. Then, it was her turn. She climbed into the too-big chair and held my hands. “Are you ready?” I asked. “Ready,” she said. The hairdresser held each ringlet and, one by one, snipped them off. After the first one was cut, my daughter exclaimed, “It didn’t hurt at all!”
Just five minutes later, my daughter’s beautiful curls sat on a table. Her hair brushed her shoulders and her smile lit up the room. “Mama, I was so brave,” she said. She held her chin higher the rest of the day, and refused to wear her hat on the way home so her hair wouldn’t get messed up. In the week that followed, she showed everyone we met her new hair. Hair that happened on her terms.
That haircut sets the stage for so many other, bigger things in her life. And while I mourn the loss of my baby’s perfect curls, I am happy because she is happy, because her haircut happened just the way she wanted it, and with her full, enthusiastic consent.
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