Here's Why Your Kids Should Have Autonomy Over Their Hair

The way we cut and style our hair is an expression of our gender identity. Caregivers need to let go of biases about what kids’ hair should look like and support the exploration of self-expression.

Person getting a gender affirming haircut
Photo: Alex Dos Diaz

I have always focused on teaching my children the importance of body autonomy. I was intentional about this from their birth, since I had so little of it as a kid.

"You're the boss of your body," I've always told them—sometimes getting myself in trouble with teachers who send home written sermons about my kids not having an "appropriate" coat on days they deem cold. But then, I didn't know what to say one morning last year when my then 7-year-old asked if they could dye their hair bright red.

I remembered being seven and begging to be allowed to cut my hair short but was told that "girls are supposed to have long, flowing locks." I remembered how I'd been punished when I'd worn my long, sticky hair in a messy ponytail despite parental orders to "take that down." I wanted to do things differently with my kids. But I was also nervous about the consequences.

Supporting A Child's Hair Cut Is Supporting Their Body Autonomy

Dr. Laura Kaster, clinical psychologist and author of Getting to Calm said, "I learned early in my adolescent development training to encourage parents to let kids make their own hair decisions. Parents control so much of their children's lives that they should rejoice in having hair as a safe realm in which they can support body autonomy." Dr. Kaster went on to explain that parents have strong opinions about what we think looks best, but if we take the time to understand these biases—especially around hair and gender expression—we'll see how rooted they are in social constructs.

Okay, that's great for teens but does that apply to 7-year-old kids? Were the adults in my life right in trying to steer my hairstyle choices and are my memories of it being traumatic just another one of those childish grudges adults hold against controlling guardians? What about the fact that my now 8-year-old identifies as nonbinary (enby)?

Steven Knipp, hair stylist, queer activist, and Vice President of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) of Muncie, Indiana says, "Kids are coming out younger and younger these days, and more are identifying as trans or gender non-conforming. Hair is so closely tied to our identity, and it's one of the best avenues to express ourselves and reflect who we are. So many times, parents are the ones making the decisions about their kids' hair, telling their kids not to cut their long hair to kids assigned female at birth or telling the children assigned male at birth that their hair is too long and to cut it off!"

Knipp explains that these decisions and judgements by parents have adverse effects on kids, causing gender dysphoria and, "sending their kids the message that it's not ok to be anything other than what society expects you to be."

Yes! I was so frustrated in during my teen years thinking the world would only find me worthy if I presented like the girls in the teenie bopper magazines. Oh, how I wanted to chop all that hair off and turn the remainder into an androgynous mop of color! When I got to college, I adjusted hair with a vengeance, dying it every couple of months, getting an undercut, having my name shaved into the back of my head—I was reclaiming dominion over a body I felt had never been truly mine.

Why Hair Is An Important Part Of a Kid's Gender Expression

I asked a couple of my kids' queer friends about their hair journey. 14-year-old Nate (she/he/they) who lives in France and self-identifies as genderfluid explained why their short, "androgynous" haircut is gender-affirming.

"I want to be free to explore my masculinity and femininity, without being labeled as a girl or a boy. I want to be recognized first as a human being, before being forced in a binary gender. Also because I want to taste both gender codes, since they represent my personality and how I view myself," they say.

He adds that he'd like to leave it mid-short because he finds it "modest and cute at the same time." However, Nate worries, "I'm afraid to get misgendered more easily. I prefer to keep it short for now."

15-year-old Kai (he/him), also in France, who identifies as a "homosexual trans man," says, "I often tend to cut the sides of my hair very short and buzzed, and I let the top be all fluffy and messy. I really love this hairstyle since it makes me look more masculine and it helps me to pass [as a man] because many cisgender men have similar hairstyles."

Transgender men—or any trans person—don't need to look a certain way to claim a gender, but for several reasons, it can be more desirable for some to be assumed to be cisgender.

I wondered how these teens' parents reacted to their gender-affirming hairstyle choices. For Nate, the transition was easy. "My parents were glad that I was ready to try something new. My father took me to his personal hairdresser to cut my hair professionally. But [my parents] were a little surprised when it was a 'boy haircut.' [They] were taken aback by my sudden change of style. But they support me," he says.

But for Kai, the reviews were mixed. "My family doesn't really like the fact that I cut my hair very short. They say it makes me look like a boy and that it's too short. My mom has negative comments on the way I look and often tells me how nice I looked with long hair." Kai was happy to share his story but has not come out to his parents yet.

Kai adds, "My family got used to it and I think my dad actually prefers me with short hair since he wanted me to cut it." His grandparents offer mixed reviews. His grandfather seemed disappointed, but Kai happily shared that his grandma loved it. And his biggest supporter? "My little brother (13) knows about my [my identity] and is rooting for me."

Parents Can Be A Child's Best Support—Even When Accepting Change Is Scary

Mindy, a mom from Massachusetts, says her 11-year-old enby decided at the age of six to never cut their hair again and now wears it very long. Mindy says, "A (they/them) has been deliberate about clothing, jewelry, and hair choices since they were very small. When they were five or six years old, they made the decree that their clothing should always be either 'beautiful or cool.' People often assume they are a girl because of their hair and will use she/her [pronouns when referring to them]."

Fawn, a mom from Michigan, whose 11-year-old daughter, Zahna (she/her), came out as a transgender girl at the age of five says, "For Zahna, hairstyle is very important to identity. When she was three, the best way for her to express her inner feelings of being a girl was to tell us, 'When I grow up, I'll have long hair like a big girl.' We knew that was a bigger conversation than just hair. It took another two years for her to tell us and for us to understand that she was saying she was a girl the whole time."

Like many transgender and gender non-conforming kids, Fawn explains hair was an important piece of affirming her daughter's gender identity. She wanted hair long enough to put into a ponytail. "Her image of a little girl involved long hair and having that really affirmed who she felt was on the inside," Fawn says.

But recently, Zahna decided to shave the sides of her head and leave the top longer. Fawn explains, "She just started her puberty blockers and I feel that as she is becoming a teen and identifying more as a trans lesbian—meaning she is a transgender girl who is interested in girls. [She sees] other women who are queer or lesbian with short hair, and she wants to look like them."

The beauty of Zahna's idea of a gender-affirming hairstyle changing as she grew and looked at queer role models is not lost on me, but sadly, the new hairstyle has gotten Zahna misgendered in public. "Ever since I got short hair, people always think I'm a boy, mostly kids I meet at parks, no matter what clothes I'm wearing, the girly-est clothes ever, or boy-ish clothes."

Fawn admits to being concerned about the new cut. "Only because our society interprets haircuts and uses them to put you in a box for others to understand." She's afraid that people will make assumptions about gender and sexuality and those assumptions can lead to harm. "I feel like it's safer to have long hair and 'pass' as a girl. But I never ever tell my daughter this; she should make all her choices unbiased. I also realize many nonbinary and genderfluid kids cannot pass, so I know it's not fair to think that way, but it's hard not to want to do everything you can to always be safe."

Mindy echoes this worry regarding A but admits that demographics matter. "I only worry about the possibility of them being bullied as a gender-nonconforming person. I feel fortunate that we live in an area that is very accepting. They have enby friends and are not the only nonconforming kid in their class," she says.

The Freedom To Choose A Hairstyle Is Euphoric

I take comfort in the perspectives of adults who have come through the other side of this journey—a side I am on too. Aamina Khan writes in their profile of six queer and trans people for Allure, "How we wear our hair has so much more to offer than subversion, though—it can also be a pursuit of euphoria, freedom, or play, as well as a way for us to celebrate our heritage and our queerness….As a tool for self-discovery, the journey we take with our hair can be as fluid as queerness itself."

Mia S. Willis, (they/them) a 26-year-old Black performance poet in Atlanta who identifies as a "pansexual transmasculine nonbinary person" talks about their tumultuous hair journey through pressing combs, protective cornrows, and barrettes to now fluctuating between a close-crop/high-and-tight and a mohawk.

"Despite the fact that my grandmother cut her hair short before I was born, she and my mother have always insisted that short haircuts on women was a slippery slope toward masculinity and lesbianism. In hindsight, I do think that my aversion to short hair was driven by my internalized homophobia and transphobia, as I now know that there is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about a short cut (ex. Halle Berry in the 90s)," Willis says.

When Willis moved away from home, they finally found the freedom to change their hair to fit who they were rather than changing themselves to fit a hair style. They say, "I think of my hair as an extension of my gender, in that it has changed so much over the course of my life (and will no doubt continue to change). I'm grateful to be at a place in my life where I like how I look, and my hair reflects who I am rather than who my family wants me to be."

It's Just Hair

Maybe my 7-year-old enby kid was just trying to assert themself as the agent of their own body. Maybe they just wanted to play with traditional boundaries in a low-stakes way that wouldn't hurt anyone. Maybe they saw the euphoria their 15-year-old enby sibling experienced when they shaved their head bald. Maybe they saw me, who coming out as enby in my mid-forties, shaved most of my head and dyed the remainder "galaxy colors," for once recognizing the reflection I saw in the mirror as the me I am inside, and wanted the same ludic liberty for their own body.

How could I tell my kids they are the boss of their body but then deny them the right to do what they want with their own hair? I couldn't.

Was I worried that they would be bullied by other kids or teachers? Was I nervous like Mindy and Fawn that dying their hair a bright color might make them stick out amongst their peers, making them a target for hatred? Yes.

But, I prioritized their right to body autonomy over my fears. Hurt people will always find something to bully other people about. When I asked my child what they would do if anyone expressed disapproval of their hair, they said, "I'll tell them 'hey! It's just hair and that I'm gonna play with mine while I'm a kid!'"

I couldn't have thought of a better answer.

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