Our most recent argument is about putting gel in Max’s hair to keep it out of his eyes. Max is growing his hair out again, which means the hair in front hangs like a curtain, too short to tie back just yet. Can boys and men wear bangs if they have long hair? That unwritten rule that says guys can’t use barrettes or pigtails is a royal pain. So I ask Max to use gel because seeing all that hair in his face is making my eyeballs itch.
Me: Let’s start using gel.
Max: I don’t want to. It never stays, and I don’t want to wash it out every night.
Me: You don’t have to. We’ll just use a little bit.
Max: You can put gel in my hair on Sunday and Tuesday.
Me: We’ll put it in whenever we remember.
Max: I’m trying to compromise here. Would you rather have me use gel twice a week or not at all?
(Why does my 9 yo speak like a lawyer negotiating a settlement?)
Me: The compromise is that you can keep your long hair if you keep the hair out of your eyes.
Max has always been stubborn when it comes to anything that has to do with his body. He refuses to wear a jacket if it’s above 50 degrees farenheit (10 celcisus). He refuses to eat fruit, won’t even touch a smoothie, though he used to beg for apples before he had teeth. If he wants to wear a yellow-green t-shirt with bright red pants and a cap with mickey-mouse ears to school, I suggest alternatives, but he insists, “It’s my body! I’m the one wearing the clothes!” As you might imagine, potty-training had been fun. Toddler Max peed and pooped wherever he damn well pleased.
In second grade he started growing his hair long. He saw some older boys with long hair and thought it looked cool. His dad and I let Max go shaggy. His hair fell into his eyes. As his hair grew, more and more people mistook him for a girl. In third grade a few classmates teased him. “Only girls have long hair!” they said.
Gender stereotyping peeves my son to no end. You always hear how the system is rigged against girls and women. But I realized, along with my son, that it is just as bad for boys. As my son pointed out, girls can wear whatever color they please be it on pants or a dress, but a boy is made fun of for wearing pink, purple is questionable, and boys definitely can’t wear dresses. Girls are expected to be emotional, but it’s shameful for boys to cry. Girls are encouraged to play sports, but boys get ridiculed for taking dance classes. Girls have the choice of a whole range of hair-lengths, but when boys grow their hair past their shoulders they put up with a lot of BS.
Max: Tracy made fun of me. He said only girls have long hair.
Me: Tracy’s a jerk. You can tell him that Tracy’s a girl’s name.
Max: No, that’s mean.
Bless this boy. He’s a whole lot bigger than I am.
By the summer after third grade, most strangers referred to Max as my daughter. Half the time we corrected them, and those strangers would be profoundly embarrassed. Half the time we didn’t waste our breath. Max said he didn’t care if people mistook him for a girl.
“How are you ladies doing today,” asked a U.S. customs official as we were coming home from overseas.
“He’s a boy,” I answered feigning nonchalance as always.
“But he’s got long hair,” said the man.
“I know,” said Max. “Lots of people think I’m a girl.”
“But he has long hair.”
“Yeah,” I say, irritated by the disdain in his voice. “His dad is bald and lives vicariously through him.”
The last straw, however, was Max’s own pediatrician mistaking him for a girl. Granted Max has only seen this woman a few times in the past 2 years. Still, WTF. The combo of the customs official and the pediatrician pushed me to discuss cutting his hair. I took an opinion poll among friends of whether Max should be forced to cut his hair. Opinions were divided. Some, including Max’s dad, said Max needed to be protected from would-be bullies and teasing and that we as parents should be the ones to decide his hair length. Others recognized Max’s strong sense of self and told us to let him keep his beautiful hair.
I brought up the subject with Max, telling him we should consider cutting his hair for reasons mentioned above. I told him it was my job as a parent to protect him from others hurting him. He insisted he could tolerate the teasing and people’s misconceptions of him. I said that he could grow his hair again in junior high when it would be clearer to people that he’s a boy. “I feel like you don’t like me for me,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. I said we didn’t have to make the decision at that point, but that we would think about it.
Max’s dad had an idea, which was to simply have his hair trimmed an inch to break the ice. Feeling the pressure, Max agreed to it reluctantly. He had it trimmed to just below the shoulders. I felt sad. I didn’t want to win this battle as a parent. I soooo admire Max for knowing who he is and being so adamant and vocal about his likes and dislikes or his feelings. By chance, he was in a weeklong musical theater workshop that summer, which culminated in a performance of an original script and score written by the children. Here’s what they sang:
Let it go and be yourself,
I promise it will be alright.
Don’t you change for someone else,
Hold on to You with all your might.
You’re a gift to the world.
Hold on to You.
I got all watery eyed over “You’re a gift to the world,” and swore I’d stop talking to him about haircuts.
Then Max got obsessed with Doctor Who. He watched whole seasons on Netflix. The New York Comic Con and Halloween approached. Time to dress up. Max wanted to be Matt Smith, the eleventh Doctor, which meant getting a suit, a fez, a bow tie, and… a haircut. Matt Smith sports a giant wave of hair, longish but it’s above the ears. THIS was a reason for Max to cut his hair. A month into school, Max and his dad showed the barber a picture of the TV star, and Max got a haircut—an inch too short (“Haircutters are evil,” says Max). Hmmm, maybe he’d be David Tenant, the tenth Doctor, then. Forty minutes after the barber had lopped off those long locks, Max felt a pang of regret and cried. I wasn’t there, but it broke my heart to hear about it, as if we had lopped off a part of Max’s spirit.
Still, he loved being the Doctor, armed with a sonic screwdriver and a tubful of gel in his hair. For Halloween he roped me in to being a Dalek, which meant dressing like a giant lethal salt shaker and repeating “You will be exterminated” more times than I wanted to. At least I managed to negotiate my way out of wielding the toilet plunger. Outside of his Doctor mode, Max referred to himself as bald, but all the same he looked great with short hair. He even cut it again for his November birthday when he donned his Doctor suit one more time.
Max has had enough of short hair and is now growing it out again. He allows me to put a spot of gel in it whenever I remember and grumbles ferociously. I wonder if I’m okay with my boy having long hair. I hope I am. I think I am. Just so long as it doesn’t hide his face.