I Firmly Believe In Bodily Autonomy, But My Kid Has To Brush Her Hair

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
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It’s a scene that’s all too familiar in my house—my two kids huddled over their iPads in the few minutes before they start school, desperate to get a few seconds of screen time in before they’re forced to do something besides mindlessly watch YouTube. Neither one has made their bed. Neither has packed their school bag. And my daughter’s hair is in a ball of knots at the back of her head. I’m annoyed.

I’m annoyed that their obsession with their iPads means they aren’t ready on time, but even more, I’m annoyed at my daughter’s complete and total apathy when it comes to her hair. She got dressed and brushed her teeth, so why didn’t she brush her hair?

Growing up, I used to sneak into my mom’s room after school to use her makeup without her knowing. She owned only a powder compact, blush, and blue shadow, but I’d carefully spread, smear, and brush the makeup onto my little kid face and primp and preen in front of the mirror. It brought me endless joy. As soon as I got old enough, I bought my own makeup, along with a blow dryer, hair sprayer, and mousse—and never left the house without being “done.” For too long I cared about what I looked like to other people.

Fast forward 30 years and I have a daughter who couldn’t care less about being “done.” She does not care one iota about what people think of how she looks. She has no interest in my makeup or a curling wand. I not only love this about her, I admire it and often wish I was better at channeling it. As a result, I support her choice of clothes, her choice of footwear, her choice of jewelry and accessories. She can wear what makes her happy and look the way that brings her joy. I believe in her bodily autonomy. I believe she should be allowed to make choices about her body without my coercion.

And yet—she’s sitting on the couch with a rat’s nest the size of a bowling ball in her hair, and I cannot keep quiet.

Because—why? Why has she resisted brushing her hair for so many days in a row now that the knots have tangled together and need their own zip code? I don’t understand. When her hair gets to this point, where I know brushing out the knots will be somewhere between time-consuming and painful, I have to say something to her, and I have to step in, despite all that space I want to give for her bodily autonomy.

I’ve tried everything to encourage her to brush her hair at least every morning to prevent this situation. I’ve nagged. I’ve given her gentle morning reminders. I’ve bought her countless special brushes—wet brushes and tangle brushes and have no doubt single-handedly kept the children’s hairbrush industry in business. And still—her apathy to brushing her hair remains, and the rat’s nest grows, and my desire to give her full bodily autonomy is thrown out the window when I see those knots and do not give her a choice about letting me brush them out.

The truth is those knots drive me absolutely bonkers, but my response fills me with guilt. I worry that if I push too much, I’m going to give her a complex, or worse, slowly erode that amazing ability she has to be wholly herself, unbothered by what anyone else thinks of her. She’s knocking on the door of her early teen years, where self-consciousness flourishes, and do I really want to start making my daughter anxious about how she looks right now? Do I want to put my voice in her head like that, for the next few years…or, possibly, even for the rest of her life? I don’t. I really don’t. I don’t want to turn her into me as a teenager. I want her to rock whatever look she wants to rock, whatever makes her happy.

And yet, I also want her to care about taking care of herself enough to do the basic things—like wearing clean clothes and brushing her teeth. Brushing her hair should be included in that basic self-care, shouldn’t it? So maybe it’s okay if I nag and coax? Maybe I’m not snatching her enviable ability to move through the world without caring what anyone else thinks.

It feels like walking a razor thin line, and I’m not sure I’ve found the right balance yet.

I suspect what bothers me is less that she’s making a choice about her hair and her body, and more the very apathy involved. She’s not choosing, for example, to wear a messy ponytail everyday, and I’m annoyed because I want her to have a sleek bun. She’s not choosing a center part, against my wishes that she wear a side part. The problem is, it seems, that she’s not choosing at all. She’s cutting corners to get a few more minutes with her iPad, and it drives me bonkers. I want her to care enough to choose—because I am sure if she chose, she wouldn’t choose wild knots that require a fair amount of pulling to untangle.

The truth is that I may never find the right balance—I will probably always be the voice in her head reminding her to brush her hair, the voice she rolls her eyes at. But hopefully I will also be the voice in her head reminding her that the part of her that is wholly comfortable in her own skin, regardless of all the rest, is amazing and special and should always be nurtured.

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