Hair-Shaming Is a Thing—Here’s Why We Need to Stop Judging Parents When It Comes to Their Kid’s Hair
Ever felt the need to criticize a parent whose child’s hair is undone? Let us stop you right there. Not only is it needless, but there are actually benefits to messy hair.
People love to preach that publicly criticizing kids is off-limits. But when it comes to hair, every few years a celebrity and her child wind up the target of hair-shaming. In short, onlookers make very public comments about a child's hairstyle—or not-so-apparent style.
In 2014, it was Beyoncé and Blue Ivy. The duo was the butt-end of hair jokes as people thought Blue Ivy's hair was so far from "neat" that it warranted a petition on change.org. In 2019, Jessica Simpson was criticized for dyeing her daughter's hair purple after she became inspired by the movie, Descendants. This year, Gabrielle Union experienced backlash because her daughter's hair was "never done."
But celebrities and their kids aren't the only ones who are hair-shamed: Neighborhood parents are often judged over their children's hair, too. I've found phrases such as, "I can't stand seeing kids with messy hair while the mom's hair is freshly done. That's just lazy," or "Why is that child's hair never done?" commonly circulating social media, blogs, and social circles.
But why is hair such a hot topic, why do some choose to keep hair unkempt, and what are some of the benefits to doing so? Here, experts and parents explain.
Why Hair Is So Triggering
The fact that hair and strong opinions go hand in hand makes sense. After all, hair is more than follicles and style; it's a form of expression and has always held societal significance.
Historically, hair has been a symbol of wealth, class, and status. Ancient Egyptians often wore headdresses and wigs and long hair was often adorned with flowers and headbands to signify a higher social status.
Stories such as Tangled, in which main character Rapunzel's long hair is magical and useful—and lifeless when short—gives hair even more meaning, suggesting it plays a role in how we feel and the way we live our lives.
Messages about hair symbolism are a mainstay in modern-day culture, too. Many Black women stop chemically processing their hair and embrace their natural texture and kinks as a self-affirming symbol of self-love. And it's no secret that many women go through a hair transformation after a breakup, sometimes symbolizing freedom and reclamation of identity (remember when Felicity chops off her iconic, long flowing curls to reveal a pixie cut?).
In many ways, hair is also a sign of health; the loss of it is linked with medical diagnoses such as anemia and thyroid conditions. Unkempt and matted hair can even be linked to domestic abuse or child neglect.
The Case for Messy Hair
Just because neatly-styled hair has many associations with history, culture, and even well-being doesn't green-light hair-shaming. After all, the way hair is worn is often a personal and cultural choice—and viewing hair as unkempt can be an inability to recognize and accept those differences. Black people, for example, have been the target of hair bias and hair discrimination when their hair is worn in its natural state, making it necessary to create legislation that prevents discrimination against race-based hairstyles.
Furthermore, the necessity to brush your hair 100 strokes a day is a myth, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD).
Basic hair care and hygiene recommendations are simple: Comb with a wide-tooth comb to manage tangles and wash in accordance with hair texture, per the AAD. Beyond that? There aren't really any scientific pros and cons to brushing or not. Here are some parents who opt for messy hair as a conscious parenting decision—and the benefits that back up their choices.
Flexibility can promote individuality.
"Most of us have been brought up to think that conformity is what will make us successful," says Balint Horvath, Ph.D., a father and blogger based in Zurich, Switzerland. "My fiancé and I don't comb my daughter's hair because we'd like her to experience freedom from an early age. By letting her embrace imperfection with her hairstyle and the way she looks I try to let her develop independent thinking."
As Union said about the backlash she received, “I'll see comments and people are like, ‘Why is her hair never done?’ And I'm like, ‘She is a year and a half.’ I don't want to give her a complex about what is an acceptable style.”
Less pressure can foster positive self-image.
"I don't pressure my daughter to comb her hair because I don't want her to feel that appearance and being perfect are huge priorities," says Kathyrn Schwab, a mom based in Springboro, Ohio, a school psychologist, and founder of the blog Tons of Goodness."Girls are increasingly worried about appearance and body image and I would rather encourage her to think about friendships, academics, and creativity rather than stressing the importance of combing her hair."
A hands-off approach teaches bodily consent.
Asking permission before touching children and showing the appropriate response to "no" is one good way to teach young children about consent.
"If my kids want to comb their hair or ask to, I would comb it in a heartbeat," says Stacy Spensely, a mom to a 7-year-old, 4-year-old, and 22-month-old based in San Diego. "I comb my hair before we go out, but it's my body and my choice."
While Spensely doesn't comb or brush her children's hair just for the purpose of styling, she does comb it wet to prevent tangles. She also speaks with her children about how important it is to take care of their hair and body. Besides the ease of having fewer tangles and learning personal care, she makes the point of body autonomy. "It's their choice and their body, so it makes sense to give them some control of their hair as I try to respect their bodies."
(A lack of) hair care can teach responsibility.
"I often send my two kids to school with their hair not brushed," says Jamie Hickey, a mom in Brookhaven, Pennsylvania. "I have explained to them that there are some responsibilities that I expect them to do on their own and brushing their hair in the morning after they get dressed is one of them."
By framing hair care as a personal responsibility, Hickey noticed her kids were more willing to handle their hair themselves. "At first they would wake up and brush their hair as soon as they came downstairs and now it has evolved where they are also doing it at night since they realized this helped them not have as many knots in the morning," she says.
Sensory issues can make hair care uncomfortable.
Many people are familiar with the term "tender-headed," but for parents of neurodiverse kids, it goes much deeper.
Because of their body's heightened nervous system, everyday stimuli such as hair care can be excruciating for children with a diagnosis of autism or sensory processing disorder, says Karen Aronian, Ed.D., an educator, and owner of Aronian Education Design in New York. Children may avoid hair washing, hair brushing, and hairstyling and pull away, shun, and even have temperament flares to prevent these actions.
"All of the know-it-alls would say that if I cut his hair or combed it more often he would get used to it, but that's not how it works," says Kisha Gulley, a mom to a 4-year-old son in Phoenix who blogs about her experiences raising a child with a sensory processing disorder and autism. She notes that for her child, hair brushing can be painful.
Approaching hair care situations gently is important, says Dr. Aronian. And if children are averse to hair brushing, brushing your child's skin with a specialized therapeutic brush first can help desensitize your child to the physical discomfort.
Consulting with a doctor or therapist familiar with your child's disorder can also help determine if your child's adverse reaction is auditory (they might feel discomfort from the sound of clippers and brushes), tactile (they may have scalp sensitivity), or vestibular (an uneasiness from tilting their head back and forth), helping you ultimately identify the best strategy for your family.
Ultimately? A parent's decision to brush—or not brush—their child's hair is just that: their decision (read: not yours!).