Hair Apparent

by Rachael Koenig
Originally Published: 

As the mother of two young boys, I have resigned myself to certain standard operating procedures regarding their appearance, which, per their preferences, typically includes a lot of Minecraft T-shirts, Skylanders tighty-whities and socks with skulls on them.

Although, once upon a time, I had dressed my firstborn in collared shirts and plaid short pants, relishing the look of a daintily dressed prepster, I have accepted the fact that as he has grown, his taste in clothing has became more contingent on a myriad of marginally humorous cartoon characters and video games rated “E” for everyone, eventually passing along those predilections to his worshipful younger brother. Subsequently, I have relinquished my position as fashion director. Or, maybe I just got lazy, as my days of roaming through the Babies”R”Us newborn section, marveling at the level of adorableness that one can find in a pair of teeny, tiny overalls, have given way to rushed Target runs that allow me to pick up milk with a side of pajamas.

There is one facet of my sons’ facades for which I have remained steadfast in my partiality: their haircuts. From the day my oldest son was willing to sit still long enough to be draped with a nylon cape snapped tightly around his neck, I have enjoyed the ritual of taking them both to the barbershop. I love the barber chairs. I love the buzz of the clippers. I love the old, weathered picture of each standard men’s haircut on the wall, as easy to select as a fast-food menu item: “I’ll have a No. 4 across the top with a No. 2 on the side.” I love watching the line of boys and young men sitting patiently as their hair is clipped, creating a scene that could easily be a snapshot from a long ago decade.

Perhaps one reason I enjoy the ceremony of such an establishment is my recent exposure to a world that has historically existed outside of my own. As the eldest of four girls who endured homemade bowl cuts given on a wooden stool in the kitchen, I never had cause to frequent barbershops, and each time I passed by the door of one, I would peer through the glass and ponder. Barbershops were for boys. Boys who didn’t have to worry about what they looked like. Boys who could get their hair cut short without being judged. Boys who wore what was comfortable, said what was straightforward and did what was easy.

For me, there was always a perceived freedom in being a boy, which grew more profound as I got slightly older and suffered through typical estrogen-related tribulations: my first period, a training bra, home perms and blue eye shadow. As I felt increasing pressure about what I needed to look or act like, I longed to wake up one morning as a boy, throw on whatever T-shirt smelled the freshest, run a comb through my hair (or not) and feel ready to walk out of the house as Ferris Bueller or Marty McFly, convinced I’d be judged on how cool I was, not how pretty I looked. If I could not get to live that fantasy, I’d live it vicariously through my sons.

While it has occurred to me that my sons may eventually demand more of a say in their coifs, for the moment, I felt certain their ages and associated disinterest in what was probably required to regularly style their own hair gave me a few more years of having my way. This confidence was foremost in my mind as I brought my 5-year-old son to the barbershop three days ago. His hair seemed to have grown in much more quickly than usual, which I attributed to the time of year (summer) and a gradual evolution in the standard haircut that I requested. In recent months, his tolerance for haircuts (along with everything else) had dropped dramatically and required an increasing level of bribery. Since the summer was only half over, I thought it wise to insist on a slightly shorter cut—less upkeep and cooler for the weather.

“Sure,” said the woman barber, draping a cape around my pouty son. “I’ll use a No. 1 on the sides instead of a No. 2. That will keep him until school starts.”

Ten minutes later, she brushed off the fallen hairs from his shoulders and spun the chair around to face the mirror…which gave me a clear view of my son’s grief-stricken face.

“Too short!” he shrieked, crossing his arms over the top of his head. The barber frowned even as I smiled apologetically and assured her it was exactly what I asked for. Granted, it was short, but not quite boot camp short and certainly not the shortest haircut he’d ever had. Still, the transition from a grown-out longer cut to this may have been a bit shocking.

“You look great!” I assured him. “Very handsome!”

He glowered and kept his hands over his head as we walked out toward the car. “Too short, too short, too short…” he started to chant as he climbed into the back. “I look bald.”

I rolled my eyes as I looked back at him through the rearview mirror. “Dude, get over it,” I grumbled. “It’s a haircut.”

Over the next several hours, I attempted to soothe my son’s anguish over the new length of his hair in various ways, each attempt less successful than the last.

“You look older,” I said. “You look like almost 7.”

“I look old and bald,” he countered.

“Lots of little boys get their hair cut this short for the summer,” I said.

“No one I know,” he said firmly.

“You know, Daddy has really short hair,” I tried. “You look just like Daddy.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Look, I’m sorry I had the lady cut it this short,” I finally offered. “I didn’t realize you wouldn’t like it. I won’t have it cut this short again, OK? But, let’s move on, because it will grow back and in two weeks it will look like it did before.”

“I want to wear a hat to camp,” he demanded.

As much as I wanted to point out to my 5-year-old son that he was not being reasonable and rational about this situation…well, I don’t think I have to finish that sentence.

His major concern seemed to be that everyone at camp—both adults and children alike—would make fun of him for being “bald,” and I could not talk him down from this ledge perched precariously above an outdated and clichéd nightmare. And, although I knew his age would not allow him to intellectualize the absurdity of this vague fear, I had difficulty contemplating how a common boy’s haircut had created such a sense of anxiety and dread.

Forty-eight hours later, he continued to refuse to leave the house without a baseball cap pulled down tightly over the tops of his ears, and I marveled at his tenacity.

“Did he wear his hat in the pool?” I sighed to the camp counselor as I signed him out the next day.

“No,” she smiled. “But he kept his arms over his head most of the time.”

As dramatic as my son’s reaction to his haircut seemed to be, I realized I could relate. How many first days of school loomed heavily in my mind as I worried about whether or not my new polos and corduroys would be shunned? How many times did I try to express my individuality (for several months in seventh grade, I wore a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap after reading The Catcher in the Rye) only to feel a burn in my cheeks relative to the number of snickers I heard behind my back? As much as I wanted to stand out, I couldn’t stand the attention that came with it. My son, who routinely expresses his passionate and creative personality within the confines of our home but worries about fitting in beyond the front porch, is obviously cut from the same cloth.

Eventually, it dawned on me that my preconceived notions about the carefree nature of little boys were naïve and sexist, and my attempts to dismiss my son’s feelings about his appearance were unfair. As 5-year-olds go, he’s proven he has more than a casual interest in how he chooses to present himself. And within certain parameters, I am willing to support that…which is a polite way of saying no ponytails or mullets.

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