In 2010, my first child, a little boy, was born. Two years later, our little girl showed up. I worried that raising a girl would be different than raising a boy. Every day, the world tells my little girl and all little girls that they need to look a certain way, act a certain way, BE a certain way. I wanted my daughter to grow up knowing that she was good enough, strong enough, smart enough to be anything she wanted no matter what she looked like or what she wore.
But from Day 1, I found that people treated my two kids differently.
Strangers at the park regarded my newborn daughter. She wore a green sleeper and kicked her legs: “What a strong little man you have there!”
The grocery store cashier chimed in: “She’s a girl? You should get her some of those cute bows!”
Literally everyone my daughter smiled at couldn’t help but comment: “Look at those dimples! So precious!”
My son noticed the differences, too. “Why doesn’t anybody think I’m cute?” he asked me once.
As they got older, people talked to my son about toys he liked and his interest in trains. They told my daughter she was cute and that my husband would have to keep the boys away one day. People assume my son likes science and engineering and that my daughter doesn’t like to get dirty. But the truth is, my son does like science, but he also loves reading and playing My Little Ponies with his sister. My daughter doesn’t mind getting dirty at all; she frequently rescues worms from the sidewalk and has a great mind for math.
It feels like a constant battle to counteract the misguided assumptions and the “cute” comments with our own “smart-strong-talented” comments. But it’s a battle I’m willing to fight no matter how hard my own insecurities get in the way. When she was four, my daughter would frequently push on my tummy and ask me why it was so squishy. Just a couple weeks ago, she watched intently as I changed clothes, then asked if everybody’s legs got fat. In both instances, I told her that bodies come in all different shapes and sizes and how cool it is that our bodies can do so much for us—legs that run and jump, arms that climb and hug.
Like basically every woman, I have my own confidence and body issues. I’m committed to not passing them on to my kids. In our house, we talk about exercise not as a way to lose weight, but as a way to keep our bodies healthy. We want to help our kids gain confidence and learn how to make their own decisions. Both kids choose their own clothes and their own hairstyles.
If I’m being honest, it was my daughter who taught me about finding confidence. She had just turned three years old when she first started asking for a short haircut. I wasn’t ready to cut it as short as she was requesting, and not certain that at that age she really knew what she wanted. Still, we cut her hair.
It wasn’t long before she wanted to grow it out, and so the process began. But just a year later, she wanted it short again. I suspected she just didn’t like having the tangles combed out, so we compromised with bangs and a bob style.
She still wanted it short. Like her brother’s, she said. Very short.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I wanted to teach her to make her own choices, but I wasn’t sure if this should be her decision. I’m ashamed to say I worried about what people would say. It wasn’t that I cared what anyone thought about her haircut, but I didn’t want her feelings to get hurt if anyone teased her. But in the end, I relented. It’s just hair, after all. When she was almost four and a half, she got a very short haircut. Pixie short.
After the haircut, there were countless times when my heart broke for her. Kids came up to us and pointed at my daughter. “Is it a boy or a girl?” they’d ask. “Why is that boy wearing pink?” kids would say. Once, during her dance class, I overheard a child behind me ask her mom, “Why is that boy wearing a leotard?” I waited, hoping the mom would take that opportunity to tell her child that we can all choose the hairstyles we want and wear what we want. But instead, she simply said “I don’t know” in a voice that indicated she thought the whole thing was unpleasant. My heart was pounding out of my chest, but I turned to them and said, “That’s my daughter. She chose to cut her hair short. All kids can style their hair however they want.” I could tell the mom was embarrassed and she should have been. When I turned, I saw that she, too, had a pixie-style haircut.
Never once did my daughter regret her short hair. She wasn’t bothered by the questions and comments from other kids. She didn’t seem to notice when other adults used male pronouns when referring to her. She just liked how she didn’t have to comb her hair anymore.
I noticed that other adults treated her differently, too. She didn’t get as many “cute” comments. She was asked more about her interests instead of her clothes. All in all, her short haircut was a good thing and she loved it. (For about six months. Then she decided she wanted hair like Rapunzel, so she’s growing it out. Again.)