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Boys with long hair: What's the big deal?

Let kids be themeselves! Susan reflects on people's reactions to her son's long hair.

By Susan Goldberg
Boys with long hair: What's the big deal?

Rowan and his long brown locks.

Rowan hasn’t had a haircut in nearly three years.
 
I’m not sure exactly what led to this particular state of affairs: was it that he wanted longer hair? Did he not like going to the barber? Or maybe he just couldn’t be bothered to cooperate when we suggested a trim? In any case, he didn’t want to get his hair cut, and Rachel and I didn’t think the issue was worth fighting over — I mean, it’s his hair, and as long as it’s relatively clean…
 
And so we weathered the awkward stages of growing it out — where his hair jutted out weirdly from behind his ears and made his face seemed disproportionately wide; where he refused to put it back in a ponytail and so it hung, sweaty and messy, in his face — and have now reached the point at which it’s gorgeous: falling in long brown waves to his shoulder blades and, for the most part, pulled back into a relatively tidy ponytail, a là David Beckham.
 
If we’re out of that particular awkward stage, though, we seem to be mired in a different type of awkwardness: the way that society deals with boys with long hair. Everywhere we go, people refer to Rowan as my daughter, call him “she” and “her.” When I bother to correct them (always gently, only when necessary), they almost inevitably stammer and blush and apologize, which feels even more awkward, because I’m never sure what they’re apologizing for.
 
I mean, on the one hand I worry that they think they’ve insulted him (or me) by mistaking him for a girl, and I have a hard time with that, simply because I don’t think it’s an insult to be taken for female, and vice versa.
 
On the other hand, perhaps they’re apologizing for making assumptions about a person’s gender depending on the length of their hair. In that case, an apology makes a bit more sense to me. Still, it’s generally an honest mistake, one I’m prepared to forgive — especially since I’ve made the same mistake myself, and more than once. Even Rowan — who generally seems nonplussed about the pronouns people use to describe him — makes the same mistake. “There was a boy with long hair in my group at the library,” he told me the other day, “and I called him 'she.'” He’s only eight, but he’s definitely old enough to get the irony of the situation.
 
What I really don’t get, though, is when people persist in making the mistake, even in the face of actual knowledge and experience. Like when the parents on his boys-only soccer team (and that’s a whole different post) still refer to Rowan as our daughter, even at the end of the season, or when people who know that I have two sons do the same thing. What particular bit of hard-wiring in the brain finds it so impossible to see beyond a kid’s hairstyle to who he or she actually is?
 
Fortunately, thus far, a bit of awkwardness is the worst we’ve experienced. Catherine Newman writes beautifully and angrily and hilariously about her 12-year-old son, Ben, being chased out of a public men’s bathroom after a man mistook him, with his long hair, for a girl. Even after the kid calmly explained that he was in the men’s room because he was a boy, this guy kept yelling at him and then — and this is where my fists clench — began referring to him as “It.” I mean, where do you even…
 
I could be wrong, but I don’t get the sense that Rowan set out to make any particular statement when he decided to stop cutting his hair. I don’t think he was openly declaring a gender or sexual preference (although here I will insert the obligatory sentence that says that I will, of course, happily support his eventual decisions on these subjects). I think that he was just being himself, sticking up for what felt right for him. I just wish that society did a better job of letting kids be themselves, too.

This article was originally published on Apr 04, 2013

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