A mom at preschool was admiring my daughter’s short hair the other day. She complimented the adorable style and turned to her own preschooler — a girl with shoulder-length hair — to encourage her to get the same cut.
“It’s so cute and so easy and comfortable,” the mom said. “Don’t you want to cut your hair into a pixie cut like that?” Her daughter resisted a bit.
“Yes, it is all that,” I told her. “But are you prepared for it?”
I think I genuinely shocked them with my brief warning.
My daughter wanted short hair. We were encouraging and the kids’ salon we use has a stylist who does an amazing job complete with berry-scented glitter and free hair clips as we leave. My little girl feels great about herself and proud of how she looks, all sparkles and shine.
This is the same little girl who frequently refers to herself as a “he” in the third person and wears boyish hand-me-downs from her older brother. You may find her playing with trucks or digging in the dirt with bugs crawling on her. But she usually can be found dressed in pinks and purples, watching a princess story or playing with ponies. She’s comfortable in her skin and being herself.
So this is more about me. Because I’ve asked my daughter how it makes her feel when people in public assume she’s a little boy.
“I don’t care,” she said.
“It doesn’t bother you at all?”
“No, I like my haircut,” she said. Even while day-after-day the grocery checkout lady, the waitress, the stranger at the playground looks at a 4-year-old with short hair and assumes things.
Sometimes we let it go. Especially with her older brother along, the concept of brother-sister comes up quickly. Or, when we’re ordering food, a simple “she’s going to have the chicken fingers” leads to a realization that the speaker has made the wrong guess. Some people are rightfully embarrassed and say so.
No real harm.
My older, wiser, more experienced brain understands the deeper implications, though. You’ve outwardly judged a tiny 4-year-old person based on exterior features. When in doubt, you defaulted to a list of easy, deeply held cultural assumptions about the way female beauty and personhood work. My daughter isn’t old enough to comprehend the full insult of how you’ve reduced her experience as a young woman to the way she comes off to strangers as feminine.
The real shock to the mom who complimented my daughter is that we’d all love to think those old, backward attitudes no longer exist. We’re more enlightened. We live in a progressive community. Many times these are women who are making the error. We never realize how deeply formed these biases, stereotypes, and attitudes are until such a simple, simple mistake happens. Hopefully, it’s a mistake that makes us question why we’re making any snap judgment about someone’s gender, race, etc. We’ve come to rely on shorthand, but when that shorthand fails us it’s a powerful lesson in politely asking if one is unsure rather than stepping on toes.
My daughter’s (yes, adorable) pixie cut isn’t going to end our deeply held cultural discrimination. But encounter after encounter does make me realize how hard I’m going to have to work as a father to keep her comfortable in her own skin like she is right now. My job isn’t to protect her from all this … my job is to prepare her that, from here, it’s only going to get tougher.
A version of this first appeared on Newfangled Dad.