When it comes to gender, things are a lot different today than when we grew up…or are they?
Many parents want to expose their daughters to trucks as well as tulle and their sons to baby dolls in addition to baseball. But society doesn’t always cooperate, and everyone from store managers to nosy strangers seems to shove gender-specific ideas at our kids at an early age.
How early? Mara Yacobi, of JLove and Values, found out when she tried to make an appointment for her son’s first haircut.
My 15-month-old baby’s hair was falling into his eyes, and it was time to get his hair cut.
He’s my third child, and I wanted to follow the same traditions that I had with my other two: honor and celebrate all the “first” occasions with a special event. In this case, l envisioned going to a hair salon. Once there, the stylist would seat my child in a car-shaped salon chair, give him a lollipop and cut his hair. After taking a few photos, I’d leave with a locket of hair as a keepsake and a happy baby holding a balloon.
Although this special event can be a bit pricey, I was willing to make the investment for the memories. So I called a local children’s salon.
Me: I would like to make an appointment for my 15-month-old to get a haircut.
Receptionist: We have an opening this afternoon. Is the baby a boy or girl?
Me: It’s a baby. What difference does it make?
Receptionist: Well, a boy’s haircut is $27, and a girl’s haircut is $35.
Me: Are you for real? We are talking about a baby. What difference does it make if the baby has a penis or a vulva?
Receptionist: Well, it’s a difference because girls get a hair wash with blow dry.
Me: I understand if one’s hair length is longer than another’s, but my baby is 15 months old and has as much hair as all other babies the same age—no matter what gender.
Receptionist: There is just a lot more involved in cutting a girl’s hair; we provide a different experience for them.
Me: I know you’re just relaying your salon’s policy, but you might want to consider a more gender-neutral approach. Perhaps think about how much hair you’re cutting on a particular individual and not focus on his or her gender.
Receptionist: Um, yeah. That’s a good point.
To his credit, the receptionist didn’t flinch when I said penis and vulva. But this hair salon had clearly established gender “rules” with specific ideas about what each group ought to experience. My baby had only been part of this world for a little over a year, and I still had total control over everything he saw and did, from media consumption to the toys he played with. I wasn’t ready for society—or a hair salon—to dictate the type of experience he would have based on his gender.
From the moment an expectant parent is asked, “What are you having?” our children become exposed to a narrow definition of gender roles. If the parent responds, “A girl,” the gender association is pink, which is followed up by images of princesses and dolls. If the parent responds, “A boy”—you guessed it—it’s blue, with trucks and action figures in hot pursuit.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with any of these colors or toys. But when our culture associates them with very specific masculine and feminine ideas, we limit the choices available to our children and dampen their imaginations. And when rules about style of clothing and haircuts become so rigid that we can’t just ask for a simple child’s haircut, it strips away from us the right to express our individuality.
A 15-month-old is too young to care about his hairstyle or the color of the balloon he’d get as a reward or the “car” he’d be sitting in. So I tried to turn this experience into a teachable moment, encouraging the salon to rethink its gender-based policy. I also modeled for my two older children how to challenge gender stereotypes, so that they can continue to question the world around them.
I shared the hair-salon conversation with them and asked what they would do in a similar situation. Both my 7-year-old and 9-year-old suggested that I find another place to cut the baby’s hair. In that moment, I felt proud that they had arrived at my same conclusion.
And with that, my baby’s first haircut was done by yours truly.
Mara Yacobi is a leading speaker and specialist in youth development and relationships. Drawing on her skills as a Licensed Social Worker and Certified Sexuality Educator, Mara’s mission is to empower parents and young people with the knowledge and skills that are critical for health and developing positive relationships with peers. She is the founder of Askmaranow.com and JLoveandvaluescom. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.