When a haircut is more than just a haircut

“Cut his hair.”

That was the entire direct message. Left by a complete stranger – an older woman according to her profile pic – on a photo I had posted on Instagram of our son Cielo, at age two, playing in our neighborhood park, under sprinklers, while rocking a pretty amazing man [boy?] bun.

“Excuse me,” I replied.

She blocked me.

My husband Brandon and I had made the decision, early on, that we weren’t going to cut Cielo’s hair until he was at least a toddler, his own little person. As Jews, we were aware of and were drawn to the Orthodox Jewish custom of not trimming a boy’s locks until his third birthday. There are a bunch of explanations for this tradition. My favorite: the one that draws a parallel to the Biblical law that prohibits Jews from eating the fruit of a tree during the first three years after it has been planted. Like a sapling, a young child has to receive ample care and nurturing before we can expect it to give.

And quite frankly, we also didn’t see the need. Cielo liked his hair down. He liked his hair up. He could see past his bangs.

The haircut, we realized, would have been for others – to appease and affirm their own normative expectations around gender. Our experience as gay men has left us unimpressed by how so many seem to find comfort in prescribed and subscribed-to definitions of what is and what isn’t “appropriate” for boys. Perhaps Cielo’s ponytail will push someone to acknowledge the artifice in what we have been told is boy this and girl that. Why, we thought, should we alter our child’s natural appearance – and expose him to what could have been an unnecessarily traumatic experience – so that others could get to “he” faster than “she”?

Most did assume Cielo was a girl because of his hair – whether a free-flowing mess, or tidied up in a ponytail. “She’s so cute,” they’d say. “He sure knows it,” I’d reply, correcting them gently.

Then, always, profuse apologies – as if one of the most upsetting things you could possibly do is to signal to a parent that his or her child may look or be different. We assured people there was no offense taken. After a while, we just stopped correcting folks. We truly didn’t care – so what if you think he’s a girl; it doesn’t change anything about who our child is essentially.

We had promised each other that while we might not make it to three years, we would absolutely hold off on a trim until Cielo could, one, understand what a haircut was and, two, choose for himself whether or not he wanted to experience one.

That moment came a couple of months ago. Cielo told us he wanted to get a haircut “like Papa and Daddy,” but that he wanted to keep it long enough for “ponies.” We explained to him that cut hair cannot be reconnected – he often yearns to “connect” pieces of toast or segments of a clementine – and that while his hair will grow back it won’t happen in an instant. He was game, especially since the hairstylist at Doodle Doo’s on Christopher Street was super friendly, entertaining him with videos, Elmo books and bubbles. More than his hair length or styling, Cielo was insistent that he sit in the taxi cab-shaped kiddie salon chair and not the airplane one.

Both Brandon and I welled up during the actual cut. We had hit a milestone – and every one is worth pausing for and feeling. We were proud of having resisted the pressure to cut his hair prematurely (for us) and for the opportunity we afforded our child to exercise agency over his own presentation and expression. And while he wears fewer buns today than he did a year ago, Cielo knows that we trust him to tell us what feels right for right now.

Ariel Foxman is an award-winning editor, writer, and gay dad. This column is a part of his modern-parenting newsletter “ABBAPAPA”, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

When a haircut is more than just a haircut

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When a haircut is more than just a haircut

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