The Hair

Z wants to grow her hair long.

I'm surprised by this request, as she has hated having her hair washed, brushed, combed, pony-tailed, TOUCHED since birth. She emerged from my undercarriage with a thick, full head of hair and never looked back. As it grew in unwieldy, scraggly tufts, my every attempt at brushing, barrettes or ponytails, no matter how benignly gentle, were met with angry rebukes. I was not interested in fighting with her about her hair. So another Dorothy Hammill was born.

Z, age TINY.

This short haircut of Z's was so easy, for all of us. We took her to get her hair cut every six weeks, where she could zone out to Dora while the scissors flew around her head. We washed it once a week, we brushed it maybe twice as often. The rest of the time, her hair was just there.

I look at little girls with long, smooth ponytails or complicated braids and wonder how much effort goes into that style and whether it was their idea or their parents'? I know some girls love having their hair fussed over, and maybe some really enjoy sitting still while their mothers pull a brush through tangled knots and OKAY, REALLY? DO ANY LITTLE GIRLS LIKE THIS??

I've really loved Z's short hair, not only because it minimizes the number of minutes I have to listen to whining, screaming or "YOU'RE PULLING OUT MY SCALP!" but also because it's so darn spunky. I liked that it set her apart from all the girls with long hair in ponytails. I liked thinking she was doing her own thing.

Though, I realize as I write this, it was most likely entirely MY thing.

Is our girls' hair, and what we do with it, really all about us?


When I was about five, my mother took me to a hairdresser, whispered a request and sat back to watch as the hairdresser proceeded to slice off many inches of thick, tangled hair that I refused to brush. I was shocked, and deeply unhappy with what was deemed a "pixie cut" by the hairdresser and a "boy cut" by every kid in our neighborhood. Gone was the wrangling over hair brushing but also gone was the clearest marker of my femininity. I did NOT approve.

I grew my hair long as fast as I could and kept it long for the rest of my childhood.

I remind my mother of this moment as often as possible for maximum guilt inducement.


Sometime this Spring, Z began asking us to let her grow her hair long. I reminded her that if she had long hair, we'd have to wash it more often, put it up out of her face sometimes, and brush it much more often, figuring that this undesirable list would quickly put the kibosh on her plans. It did, for about a month, but then the requests began again in earnest.

"Just cut my bangs, Mommy, let the rest grow LONG."

She doesn't seem to have a specific reason for wanting long hair- she's not desperate for a ponytail, she doesn't have favorite barrettes she's just dying to wear, in fact she still hates those things most of the time. With nothing else clearly forming her opinion, I can't help but wonder if the dominant cultural imperative of Pretty Women Have Long Hair has made it through to her brain.


When I was a sophomore in college, I spent a session at a summer dance festival in Massachusetts. Something magical and deeply adolescent happens at these summer programs: you imagine you are changing in some radical way. I was still convinced I could shed parts of myself like a snakeskin, becoming someone slippery, daring, new.

The culmination of this summer's transformation was a very short haircut from a pricey Boston hairdresser. A bunch of hot, sticky days spent in un-airconditioned dance studios with hair stuck all over my face and a little encouragement from my best friend gave me the push I needed for a drastic cut. I walked out of there feeling like a million spunky bucks. For the last week of the dance festival, I swear I danced a little sassier, like I left some of my reserve along with my hair on the salon floor.

But then I got back to my little college town, where no one was capable of cutting my wavy hair in any style but "ten year old boy" and "blue haired granny". I felt I had to wear dangly earrings and makeup every day to counteract the neutering combination of my butchered hair and curve-less figure.

I quickly grew it long again.


Z is about to start kindergarten, and the gravitational pull of peer influence is getting stronger by the day. I see her carefully watching her friends, trying out what they say on her own lips, seeing if it fits. I can only assume that being one of the few five year old girls she knows with short hair is starting to feel uncomfortable.

I know I have consciously made her hair low fuss because I myself am low fuss about my hair. I use my blow dryer only for special occasions, like when icicles might form on it if I walk out with it dripping wet in February. My flat iron gets dusted off maybe twice a year. I once got in a raging fight with a boyfriend who complimented me on "brushing" my hair, after I had spent an hour blowing it dry, applying four different products and flat-ironing it. If it looked like this when I brushed it, IT WOULD LOOK LIKE THIS EVERY DAY, BUDDY.

Wow. I could still get into that fight TODAY.

I like to think that how I spend my time, every minute, counts. And my girls are paying attention. When CG and I have date nights, I spend time dressing up, putting on makeup, BRUSHING MY HAIR (Anyone want to have this fight with me? I'M READY.). I make an effort to celebrate our dates, to mark them as special, with a little extra effort. I feel good when I'm making these preparations and I think this is a fine message to send to my girls.

But day to day? I've got better things to do than fuss over my hair for an hour. I think this is a GREAT message to send to my girls.

However, I do have long hair. Yes, I've had short, spunky haircuts before. But they never worked for me. I like having long(ish) hair. I feel naked without a ponytail. I've figured out what works for me and I'm sticking to it. I no longer believe that a haircut can change my life.

Sometimes I worry Z will be at a disadvantage socially because I haven't taught her all the girly things she might need to know to fit in with her peers. It is my inner teenager that worries this, of course. I know that what I really want for her is the self-confidence to create her own sense of style and beauty and comfort.

We are going to try this idea of hers, letting her grow her hair long. She needs to be allowed to figure out what works for her. I'm not sure how this'll go but it is her body, and as she gets older, she's going to want to experiment and own every part of it.

Even the dead parts that need to be brushed. Daily.


Swistle said...

My medium-haired girl asked awhile back to have her hair cut short, and several of the bloggers I read have mentioned the same thing with their medium/long-haired girls: a sudden interest in short hair. I think they tend to ask for the opposite of what they have, to try it out. Mine liked the short hair fine, but is now "growing it long" to see how that is.

Hillary said...

I had short hair as a kid, but I asked for it -- and as much as I loved it, I ended up growing it out in the dreaded middle school years when it's important to fit in. And then I proceeded to whack it all off in high school because, damn it!, I was different than everyone in my small town. As an adult, I waver between super-short cuts and long hair, donating the difference when I can. Z will probably flip back and forth a zillion times. It's just unfortunate you're the one stuck wielding the brush for a bit.

Nik-Nak said...

My daughter is only two so what her hair looks like is purely parent's preference. Right now we aren't cutting it. Her father thinks little girls should have long hair and I like her curls enough to agree...for now. I do remember when I was about 9 asking to have my hair chopped off. It was a hideous look and I hated it the moment I saw it. It's been long ever since.

Misty said...

When I was a kid, there was this strange culture in my family that "girls had long hair." Period. So much so that when I did get to the age where I wanted to experiment with length, I felt so chastened that I didn't do it because of what other people wanted me to look like.

I think it might have spawned from some sort of creepy gender issues. Still, I think Swistle and Hillary are right in that we will try all kinds of different things with our hair/clothes/etc. just to see how it feels. It is part of growing up.

Marie Green said...

My older two have had really long hair in the past, as well as several times of cutting it into a "bob", and it's been their decision all along. They don't mind washing and brushing it, and they DO have specific ways they want me to braid or style it... It seems like they "grow it out" and then cut it, only to declare they are growing it out again.

Marin, though. OH MARIN. She also wants long hair like her sisters, but her curls are SO HARD to brush/comb through, and she HATES having her head touched. Every morning she stands in the bathroom and SOBS while brushing her own hair. OW!! She yells, and again, she's brushing it HERSELF. Not sure what to do with that one.

For myself, I find long hair EASIER and needing LESS STYLING than short, so mine is always some form of medium to long.

kate said...

My four year old has long hair, and loves it long, while I could go either way. Recently I thought it was TOO long - as in, she could practically sit on it - so I convinced her to get a trim, but it took quite a bit of selling because she was kind of afraid the hairdresser was going to chop it all off.

She has super easy hair, though. It's very fine, and very straight, so it doesn't really tangle and it's easy to wash and brush and style per her requests.

My own hair goes back and forth between long and short. I can't decide.

Kathi said...

I hear you on the gravitation pull of friends thing. I fear sharing M with the rest of the world when she starts kindergarten. She has her own style. Hair hasn't been the issue. But she picked out Barbie undies today at Target and I realized how little control I really have over so much. I realize barbie undies aren't the end of the world, but I fear they are just the beginning of her fashion choices that I won't agree with.

Michelle said...

I've gone back and forth with my hair. After the first baby, I chopped it all off. After the second, I let it grow out, putting it in a pony tail 9 out of 10 days. Only recently have I started wearing it down more. Within an hour or two of being at work, I put it up.
Peanut's hair is long and I keep questioning why I'm letting this happening. We are in a good place where she doesn't throw a fit every time I fix her hair. She has four options: Pony tail, two big braids (pig tails), one small braid (in the front, side to keep her hair out of her face) or a clip pulling the sides back. I'm letting her grow it long I guess until she decides she wants something else (or won't let me fix it so it is out of her face.)

pamela hunt said...

such lovely writing!! Such a beautiful essay layered with meaning. I too used to cut my hair and think I could change. I still think I could be someone new ... Sllippery. So beautiful!

clueless but hopeful mama said...

Swistle- I am so curious to know where the sudden interest in short hair comes from? I wonder if it's internal curiosity? Peer inspiration? A character on their favorite tv show?

Marie Green- I, too, find long hair much easier to style for myself. And by "style" I mean "put back in a ponytail". Strange that the opposite is true for my girl.

Misty- The culture of our families are so deeply ingrained in us. This is why I work hard to be careful about the messages I send. This is why I want to be open minded about hair, among many other things.

Sarah said...

I love all the talk about how family culture really influences our hair choices. Until I was about twelve, long hair was the law in our house, and for most everyone we knew. It was partly, I think, some kind of religious thing- nice girls had long hair? I don't know. Some random verse in the Bible about hair that some denomination decided to latch onto and then judge other people about? Shrug. But for whatever reason, both my sisters and I had LOOOONG hair. And it was mostly miserable. I have incredibly thick hair. Hard to brush, hard to style, very heavy.
As soon as I hit high school, I cut it pretty short, chin length. And... it looked BAAAAAD, because I have such a round baby face, and then this big FLUFF of hair, but I stubbornly clung to it because I was defying convention! I was brave!
Then as an adult I tried to grow it super long again because long=sexy, right, but that looks BAAAAAD on me too, because of how heavy my hair is; the weight of the long hair pulls everything just flat as a board on my head. And it's so HOT and just... like wearing a damn SHAWL of hair every day.
Now that I don't believe my identity is in my hair, I'm like you- I blow dry maybe four times a year, almost NEVER flat iron, because it's mostly pointless anyways. I keep it right around shoulder length, which is just long enough not to make my face look dollbaby-ish but not so long I want to die of heatstroke. AND I can put it in a ponytail. Very important.
I also get it chemically straightened now, which helps so much with my goal of not fussing over it. I just wash, brush, and go, and it looks, if not stunning, at least not noticeably wild and out of control.

Sarah said...

Just realized my comment was ALL about myself. Oops. As far as my DAUGHTER goes, she has my thick hair, but the actual strands are fine and silky, like her grandma's. So she has the best of both worlds. She does have my crazy waves, though, so I think finding just the right length is tricky for her, too- too short and it goes wild, too long and all the curl pulls out. She always wants long hair, so far, but loves the IDEA of hair cuts. So she'll ask for one, but then only want, like, half an inch trimmed!
I've always been very careful with her not to attach any sort of inherent VALUE to one hairstyle over another, and to assure her breezily that "hair grows back!" so that she won't panic about getting a bad haircut some day.

miyoko said...

this exact statement is what P said at her last haircut. she wants her hair as long as mine. I. got her hair cut just like P's at this age. I figure i'll keep her hair maintenance free as long as i have control over the situation. ;)

shannon said...

Get yourself some spray-in-leave-in conditioner. Works like a charm for tangles. Infusium 23 is my favorite here in Canada. Don't know if they have it there...

KG said...

Marie Green - curly haired friend of Jenna here!

You might want to check out the book below. No one in my family has curly hair except me, and I was in my late 20's before I figured out how to avoid so much struggle and pain, and this book helped so much. One key is not to brush curly hair! Haven't brushed my hair in close to 10 years. Comb it out w/ lots of conditioner in the shower, spritz it with water on non-shower days to re-fluff the curls.

Curly Girl Handbook, by Lorraine Massey

Good luck!

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