Almost a year ago I wrote a little blog post on my little website about my son, his hair and how we can fall into the trap of making choices to please others instead of doing what we want. Little did I know then that this issue would continue to grow and grow (along with his hair)……..
William is my youngest child and is now 4 years old (his big sister Isabelle is very nearly 9 years old). He is the sweetest, most loving and adorable little boy and I am so lucky that I get to be his mummy. For most of his life he has been little for his age (except at his birth when he was a sizable 9lb 5.5oz!) but despite this he has always been strong willed, determined and blessed with a massive personality.
The other thing you will notice about William from the photos below is that he has the most gorgeous blonde hair. Gorgeous LONG blonde hair. William didn’t want to have his hair cut and would scream and scream at the mere mention of it. The last time we took him had been really stressful all round and so not going was fine with us both! However after a while William’s started to be mistaken for a girl. Initially he didn’t notice and his big sister would jump to his deference, the person making the mistake would be embarrassed for a moment and we’d carry on like nothing had happened. It just wasn’t a big deal for us.
William lives in jogging bottoms, t shirts and hoody tops (his choice – this boy is all about the comfort!) – he looked just like any of the other little boys in his nursery but just with longer hair. I was happy for him to have long hair and wanted him to be happy in his choice but at the same time I was nervous that by doing so it might open a whole can of challenges for him that a ‘simple’ haircut could avoid.
The more this confusion happened the more I became fascinated by the boy/girl expectations. My observations of the world were interesting – I became really aware of the boy/girl stereotypes that exist within everything. Clothes, toys, books – everything. When Isabelle was younger we chose the toys and clothes she wanted without much thought for the boy/girl split. I don’t think I really noticed it. Eventually she became consumed by a love of pink and sparkles but that was her choice in some ways. It wasn’t that we were forcing it on her at home (although I’m not denying the fact that media/marketing etc will have played a role) but more that she chose or asked for it more and more and we were ok with that. But a moment that stood out to me was when I was in a toy shop in the Disney Cars and Planes aisle and a little girl of around 3 headed towards the cars but her mum swiftly ushered her in the other direction saying “no no those are the boys toys don’t go down there”. Why couldn’t that little girl go down that aisle?! Why was she guided towards the aisle of pink? What would be so wrong with her playing with a car??
Family members would say – “well he will need to get it cut at some point….” But not comment on the fact his big sister hadn’t had her hair cut in 4 years (again her choice….!) and would actually comment on how lovely and long her hair is. Why the double standards?
Something I really found fascinating was when I took William for a settle visit in a different pre-school where some of his nursery friends go. A sweet child who didn’t know William said to me “is that a boy or a girl?”. I politely responded that he is a boy and his name is William. I could see she was thinking about this and then said to me “but he has long hair, girls have long hair and boys have short hair”. I responded that she had made a very interesting observation but what about some of the female grown-ups in the room who had short hair – did that make them boys? She concluded that no it didn’t, thought for a moment and then carried on playing with William. What made me really smile was the reaction of another lovely little girl who was playing at the table. She has been going to nursery with William since they were both babies and she had been attending the pre-school for longer. She looked puzzled by the conversation and she just said “he is William. He is just William”. She was so used to him and his hair that she hadn’t given it any thought about how he might look different to other boys. To her he was “just William”. It was so sweet.
William eventually started to become more and more aware of comments that were made. On one occasion he saw an older man in a service station with long hair. He shouted out “look mummy! He is just like me”. The relief and reassurance on his face were visible. It was the reassurance he needed that he wasn’t alone (after having been called a girl yet again at the counter moments earlier). It gave him a few more weeks of being happy with his hair.
The big kids called me a girl mummy………
The sadness in his voice when he told me this broke my heart. It was then followed by a request to have his hair cut. I was so sad for him. The older children had done it. He looked up to them so much and would only have wanted to be liked by them. This wouldn’t have been like the simple question from the pre-school girl who just hadn’t been aware of a boy with long hair before. The older children had known him for a while. They must have known he was a boy. I had to hold back the tears. I wanted him to choose to have his hair cut when HE wanted it cut – because it annoyed him or he was fed up with the knots or it going in his eyes – I didn’t want him to have it cut because he felt he had to conform or fit a box that others decided on. There was no turning back though. He had made up his mind and I had to make this a positive experience.
Our last hairdresser visit had been less than positive and he had been frightened at the thought of having it cut ever since. In an effort to make sure that we made it as good as it possibly could be for him I asked for recommendations from anyone who had had a child who was petrified (and hysterical!) at the mere mention of a hairdresser. There were lots of recommendations but one stood out for me from a local mum who described how her daughter had autistic tendencies when it came to haircuts and how her hair dresser was incredibly patient and kind. It just felt right and when my husband phoned to book he explained the situation and got such a good feeling that we booked. The hairdresser booked us in at 8am so that William could have his appointment before anyone else was in the salon which felt so reassuring – at least if it all kicked off there wouldn’t be an audience! Armed with a stash of chocolate and Thomas the Tank mini bags off we went. The salon was far from the gliz and luxury of my usual hairdresser but William didn’t need luxury. He needed kindness, reassurance and patience. And that was exactly what he got. Peter was so kind and patient and spent ages chatting before the scissors were even touched. There was no noise and busyness in the salon – it was perfect. William was amazing too. I could see his hesitation and nerves and so just let him take his time. Eventually he let the first hairs be cut.
William loved his haircut. He was so proud to show it off and he looks just as cute. Phew! Big sighs of relief all round!
I know you might be thinking ‘it’s just his hair – it’s no big deal’. And I guess you are right. But the same judgements, pressures and expectations can be present for anything else as he grows up – how he chooses to dress, a disability or his even sexual orientation. I don’t have any answers. I don’t know how to change things or make a huge difference to the world. But what I do know is that children aren’t born judging or being critical of others. They learn by what they see in the world around them and the examples we set. This situation has taught me just how important it is to teach my children about differences, diversity and how it really is ok to be different. This is so hard for children in a world where the pressure to conform can be just so intense and overwhelming – something I am especially beginning to notice for my 9 year old, but hopefully this can make a small difference and perhaps a small ripple effect might emerge. After all, Isabelle has told enough people that you can have your hair however you want when defending her little brother!
A Guest Blog from Yvonne Hopkinson
Yvonne is mum to Isabelle and William and trying to figure out this parenting thing on a day to day basis. In addition to this she is a lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire and when she isn’t there she can be found teaching antenatal and hypnobirthing workshops for her business Relaxed Birthing or as part of the Nurture 4 Life team in Cheltenham. You can find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/relaxedbirthing, drop her a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or give her a follow on Instagram.
William had his hair cut by Peter at Hugh’s Hair, 13 Bennington Street, Cheltenham. 01242 515336.