Family life

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

Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners

I understand that I may withdraw my consent at any time.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.