When Emma was little, people stopped me everywhere to talk to me about her hair. It was so blonde that it was nearly white and in her early toddler years, it curled into ringlets. These strangers asked where it came from, commented on its color and texture, sometimes they even pet her. (The hair-petters were probably the same people who rub pregnant bellies without asking or inquire about breastfeeding plans.)
At almost every trip to Target or the grocery, someone would usually stop me and ask something like, “So where did all that curly, blonde hair and those blue eyes come from?” I didn’t possess either of those things, so I guess I could appreciate their curiosity, but I always found it a little unsettling. Did they want me to connect all of her genetic dots right there in the snack aisle? Honestly, I have no idea how I gave birth to this blonde-haired, blue-eyed child, and yet… there she was! It’s probably just some strange concoction of recessive genes, that I usually didn’t feel like going into during some errands on a Tuesday. Not that I really could have, I don’t have a lot to say about biology.
Often someone would follow that question up with, “Is it natural?” And while I politely said, “Yes,” what I wanted to say was, “Um, she’s two… of course it’s natural, you idiot.” Or, “No, actually, we highlight it every few months. She really loves all the hours of sitting and having her hair wrapped in foil.” Or, “I wake her up early every morning and get that curling iron going right away. When she turns three, I’m getting her hot rollers!”
Sometimes I wondered how much she was absorbing. And, like all of us Moms Raising Girls, I worried that she would feel her looks, in this case her hair, were more important than her character. Would she grow up thinking that all she would be good at is making Pantene commercials?
When she was about seven or eight, she announced that she wanted to cut her hair short. Not short-short, but like bob-short. At the time, her hair was pretty long. I’d be lying if I didn’t catch myself a little. As much as I was fighting against it, I knew that her long, blonde hair was part of her identity, a part of her little-girlness, and I didn’t want to see it go. But I also knew that it was actually not only just hair, it was her hair. And I thought about all those strangers, hundreds of them, who had made comments about her hair her entire life and I thought, maybe she wants to cut it off so that someone will say that she’s funny or well-behaved or smart or has a beautiful voice. All things that were (and still are) true, but not said to her nearly as often as how pretty her hair was. And so we marched into the kids’ haircutting place and she had a crap ton of hair cut off.
Over the past almost ten years since, she’s grown it out, chopped it off and grown it out again. And again. She tried bangs earlier this year. And she grew those out again too. I haven’t said much about any of these choices, I’ve always said that it’s her hair and she can do what she wants.
And mostly I mean it.
But then there was this day about a month ago when she said she wanted to dye her hair. Brown. Um… brown? I have nothing against brown hair. My natural hair color is brown. I’m sure it’s very lovely. But I had this sort of bizarre and visceral reaction. It was like I needed to grab my adult-sized teenage daughter and clutch her to my chest. But my adult-sized teenage daughter does not appreciate being clutched. I felt myself turning into one of those hair-petters… don’t you know how beautiful your hair is?? So inside my head, I was screaming, “NOOOO!!” and thinking about how she is going to regret this terribly. But on the outside, I asked her politely to give it a couple of weeks and see if she still wanted to do it.
A couple of weeks went by and we were in her room, and she was telling me that she absolutely, definitely still wanted to do this. Ryan and I had told her that she had to pay for it, so the salon wasn’t going to be an option. Which meant that she was buying it from the drugstore and that I would actually be doing all the work. So she wasn’t so much “paying for it” as taking advantage of Free Mom Labor.
So we were doing this. Or more accurately… I was doing this.
Soon we were in the hair aisle at Kroger and we were picking out hair color and praying it didn’t turn her hair green. And then suddenly we were in our kitchen on a Friday night, listening to music while I squirted the goop onto her head. I had never done this before, so I was nervous and overly reading the directions and I didn’t realize that you could actually see the color changing as you rubbed it in. It felt surreal and painful and hard.
I could feel myself letting her go a little bit more in that moment, watching her walk into something new that was just hers. She beamed so much she glowed, she radiated joy, she was doing her very own thing. And she was totally loving it. It started to feel less hard and sad and started to feel more courageous and exhilarating.
Before the hair dying, when we were sitting in her room, I asked her why she wanted to do this. She said was inspired by someone she saw online, that she wanted her hair to match her dark eyebrows and she thought her blue eyes would pop even more with dark hair. And, really, she just wanted to try something new.
What I learned while I was coloring her hair, is that independence is found in many different places, even in a bottle of brown hair dye. And that’s what this was really about. It was about my rule-following, people-pleasing, sensitive kid bucking the whole system and making a u-turn.
So much of childhood is having other people tell you who you were, who you are, who you might grow up to me. And sometimes you want to look back at the people and say, “Hold up a sec. Actually, I get to decide.” Even if it’s something as simple and basic as hair color. So it all gets to be hers: her hair, her decision, her courage. There is power and confidence in that and she gets to own it all— the excitement, the exhilaration, the consequences. She gets to keep walking deeper into herself, who she decides she is, and there is nothing more beautiful than that.