My toddler was waiting to ride a carousel at the mall when a stranger approached us and asked a question that left me reeling.
“Your little girl is beautiful. Does she have cancer?” The man reached into his pocket, as if he wanted to donate some change to us.
I looked at my daughter, then back at him, confused. “Oh—no! She is just really bald,” I laughed.I smiled as hard as I could. I didn’t want the poor guy to feel any more awkward than he already did. He nodded and backed away. My one-year-old rode on Clifford the Big Red Dog a couple of times and we continued our shopping.
But I kept circling back to the man’s assumption. I was accustomed to hearing a lot of mostly rude remarks about my daughter’s lack of hair. But I had never heard the c-word before. That shook me.
A great many babies go through a bald phase. In fact, it’s a common and healthy thing for both infants and their mothers to lose a significant amount of hair in those months following birth, due to a combination of genetics and postpartum hormones.
My daughter entered the world with lots of dark brown peach fuzz covering her head. Within two months, it was completely gone, except for a ring of hair around the bottom of her head, which made her look like a baby George Costanza. (We even considered dressing her up as George for her first Halloween.)
I also lost handfuls of hair in those early months, so much that there was always a dark layer of it on our bathroom floor. I started mopping daily. My stylist reassured me it was totally normal, gave me a hug, and mentioned it was as if I “had a totally new hairline.” Um, thanks?!
Unsolicited, a friend encouraged me to massage my breast milk all over my daughter’s head. OK, cool, that would surely make her hair grow. I had been donating my extra milk to a 28-week preemie, so moisturizing her scalp with breast milk seemed like a pretty vain thing to do. I never tried it.
A relative mentioned my daughter’s hair loss every time we saw her, being sure to tell me that it “rubs off during naps,” which seemed unlikely, since she often napped on my chest at that age.I thought about giving her a lecture about hormones, but I let it go. Serenity now!
Another hairstylist told me that when a baby is bald, “you have to do headbands.” But my daughter wouldn’t tolerate bows or headbands. She ripped them off as quickly as I put them on, prompting me to be suspicious of how parents manage the social media photos I often see with babies sporting cute headwear accessories.
Even if my daughter had been cooperative, I didn’t care for the implication that a bald baby girl had something to hide or to be ashamed of—that being mistaken for a boy was some dreadful outcome. Additionally, headbands pose a strangulation risk for infants in car seats, and babies certainly shouldn’t sleep or nap in a headband—another reason to grumble about all those pictures of sleepy, accessorized newborns. When you’re the mom of a bald baby, the message is clear: You need to decorate that head. Heaven forbid a stranger think she’s a boy.
But why all the observations about a baby’s appearance, anyway? Why didn’t I ever hear, “Wow, she really enjoys Sandra Boynton books!” or “Wow, she knows exactly what to do with that egg shaker—what excellent fine-motor skills she has!”
Nope. When it comes to comments about babies, people are surprisingly focused on looks. I know the man at the mall was just trying to do a good deed. But can you imagine him approaching a bald gentleman at the mall, asking him if he had cancer, with the intention of paying for his coffee? No way.
It’s as though everything is fair game when it comes to an infant’s appearance. Chubby babies, for instance, get remarks from strangers about being adorably plump. But you’d never tell a heavyset person at the grocery store that you love their oh-so-squishable thighs! Maybe most people think that because babies can’t yet feel body-shamed or self-conscious about their looks, it’s OK to let the opinions fly. But parents do have those feelings. And the comments can sting.
After my daughter turned two, she somehow managed to sprout a head full of tight ringlets, light brown with natural blond highlights. I’m still getting tons of remarks from perfect strangers, but now it’s mostly elderly women who approach us at the coffee shop to coo over her hair and tell me how much she looks like Shirley Temple.
Just like the man at the mall carousel, I know they mean well.
But my daughter is more than her hair. Or her lack of hair. Children are so much more than their appearances. They shouldn’t have to absorb that sort of judgment and critique before they can even speak.
The next time you’re tempted to make a comment about a child—even a seemingly positive one—ask yourself if you would tell an adult the same thing. (“Oh, is that a birth mark?” “Look at those big, pinch-able cheeks!”) Because children, even those too young to understand your comment, deserve the same amount of respect as an adult.
Or better yet, don’t make a comment about a child’s appearance at all. Mention something the child can do well. Mention something about the child’s personality. Talk to the child like you would talk to an adult. I assure you—they’re no less human than you.
Even the bald ones.