When my daughter, P, started to attended a small “unschool”, she discovered not only a joyous education but also the joy of colored hair. Unschoolers believe that children learn better when they pick what they learn and how to learn said subjects. It wasn’t surprising to find kids who like our kids picking also how they wished to present themselves to the world. The girls at the school embraced colored hair chalk with something bordering on intensity. P, at the time seven, started a campaign. Chalk didn’t work so well in her dark hair and she wanted the pop of color she saw in her friend’s lighter hair.
For me, I weighed two concerns as I asked her to wait: one, I didn’t want to damage her hair with bleaching and two, I didn’t want her to look too grown up. The second concern also provided a philosophical conflict. Believing in a child’s autonomy meant respecting not just big choices like what they wished to learn but also simple things like how they liked their hair. This meant dealing with tangles, super short hair with amazing undercuts, and now apparently wild colors. P and I came to an agreement that she could dye her hair when she turned ten.
The day she turned ten, we dyed her hair blue. Our first outings with P’s new hair proved positive. She glowed with pride during trapeze as the whole class decided to do a trick called “mermaid” to honor as one girl said “P’s mermaid hair.” She left it loose as she swung from the bar, and it streamed around her like water. During her sister’s art class, the teachers who also knew P exclaimed at the beauty. Her father and I both chuckled at how blue hair suited her so well. What really counted though was how much P felt empowered by her hair. Her movements became bolder. She didn’t seem as shy. I wondered if it were the hair or if it was that we honored her choice.
Over time, the positive responses started to mix with a more negative reaction. People made comments to me about how they’d not let their young child dye their hair. “They should be children as long as they can,” one woman confided with a significant look at my child. Parents told me they weren’t ready for their children to be seen as “sexy.” And a lot of nasty looks were sent my way when children P’s age used P as a reference for dyeing their hair. This response floored me. I remembered my own concern about P looking too grown up. But P still played with plastic animals with her five-year-old sister. She still swung on the monkey bars like other kids. She certainly didn’t want to be sexy. She didn’t dress in a way that could ever be construed as sexy.
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The problem I realized is that P’s hair color coincided with a growth spurt that made her look older than ten. Males started to look at her different, and of course having blue hair did make her look older. But still I asked myself did I punish my child for growing too fast? Was it really fair to say no blue hair because your body looks older than ten? More to the point, was I going to go against my deeply held belief that children deserve autonomy over their bodies by denying her the choice of hair color?
Was the issue really me allowing my child to grow up too fast? Or was the issue with other people who placed their own ideas about sexuality on her body?
Our family believes that children are humans complete with their own voices that deserve to be heard and opinions that warrant respect. We protect our children, but we try our best to guide them into making safe choices for themselves. No one is going to run into the road on our watch of course but we aim to give them freedom to make choices as well. This means allowing them to choose their own clothing, their own hair styles, etc. It’s not always easy and at times we might raise our eyebrows at stripes with polka dots or the wisdom of wearing a sequin dress to the park. But how did I balance my child’s desire for blue hair with a world that wants to sexualize female children at young ages? My role as a guide meant walking this fine line between allowing my child to be a child but also recognizing that some things the world saw as sexual my child did not.
I cannot deny that I have always felt a bit of relief when my girls shunned short shorts or miniskirts. They never wanted to wear bikinis as youngish children. I struggled though as I watched videos like Shia’s video depicting a young girl dancing with and on an adult man. Like many parents, my eyebrows rose a bit when I saw Willow Smith lying on a bed with a shirtless man in his twenties. But I also read Shia and Jada Pinkett Smith’s explanations. In both cases the women made the point that the viewer’s sexualized the content as opposed to the participants. This of course brought me up short in my rush to judge.
What happens if it’s us who reads sex into situations that might now actually be about sex?
I’ll admit openly that I am still not one hundred percent certain how I feel about these aforementioned situations. But I do know that their words brought me up short when it comes to things like coloring my kids’ hair. I felt pretty sure knowing my daughter that she didn’t see blue hair as grown up or sexy.I’ll admit to struggling with these ideas myself. I’ve seen young girls dressed in clothes that seemed more appropriate for college girls. I’ve raised my eyebrows at parents who let their girls wear make up at nine and ten. All around me advertisement seemed bent on selling “sexy” to girls who likely didn’t even really understand what “sexy” meant. At the same time, I heard comments that were frankly “slut shaming” about girls as young as ten. It’s not just puzzling for our girls; it’s puzzling for us parents. I want my girls to grow up feeling they have a choice about how to adorn or not adorn their bodies. I also want them to be safe. Was I putting my daughter at risk by allowing her to do something that made her look like a grown up? Was I setting her up to be wounded by slut shaming comments? But if I said no to the blue hair was I sending her the message that as a woman she held the obligation to make her body socially acceptable.
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I decided to ask P why she liked having blue hair. How did she see this experience? Was it to be a grown-up? Was it to look attractive for others? She said, “I thought it would be interesting. I think it’s pretty.” She paused for a moment and added “I feel like magic.” I can’t help it if the adults around my child sexualize her. I can’t help that her body looks older. I am not going to punish her for any of these things. That route leads to shame for something that is not even her fault. In the end, it comes down to the fact that my daughter having blue hair plants her firmly in what she sees as childhood. The shame that others want to place on her has no room in a world where blue hair makes you a mermaid. Society expects a lot from our girls. They want them to be both sweet and innocent but consumers as well. Our girls are groomed from a young age to see themselves as attractive for the male gaze. Seeing my daughter’s hair as adult or “sexy” makes an assumption about why women dye their hair these colors. Simply put telling my child that blue hair is “sexy” supports the idea that we do these things for “other” likely a male other.
Mostly, I don’t want my beautiful daughter to ever think about giving up her magic because magic is the thing of childhood.
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[Feature Image: A fair skin child looks at the camera smiling while wearing a pink tank top and long blue, green and pink hair is swept up in a bun. Flickr.com]