My daughter’s first haircut was over six months in the making. When she was almost two-and-a-half, we began to talk about cutting her hair. She’d sit in the tub, conditioner slathered into her honey-blonde ringlets, as I gently combed the tangles out. It helped the wide-toothed comb glide through her hair more easily, but no matter how much conditioner I used or how gentle I was, the process was painful.
“Ouch, Mama!” she’d yell. It was a routine she grew to hate, so we began talking about what we could do to change it. “I have to comb the knots out of your hair,” I told her. But I explained that if she really didn’t like having her hair combed, she could get a haircut. She was intrigued.
The next time I went to the salon for my own cut, I made an appointment for her as well. She watched as locks of my hair hit the floor. Despite the fact that she’d talked about nothing but getting her hair cut during the week leading up to the appointment, she changed her mind and opted for just a fancy ponytail.
We left the salon hand-in-hand, my daughter beaming as she walked down the street with her hair piled high on the crown of her head, topped with a big, white bow. “You are in charge of what happens to your body,” I told her. “That means that you get to decide when you’re ready to cut your hair.” This is one of the ways I am teaching her about boundaries and consent, and that her body is her own. In our home, that also means asking permission before hugging, kissing or touching someone and never forcing her to give kisses or hugs, even with relatives.
When I was in third grade, I thought my dark, wiry leg hair was gross and I asked my mom if I could start shaving my legs. It took hours to remove all my leg hair and I cut myself around my ankles, all because I thought something was wrong with my body for not looking like the smooth, blonde, hairless girls held up as the ideal. As I got older, I spent hours primping, squeezing, tweezing, wobbling in heels and putting myself on display because my body was not mine; it belonged to the patriarchal lens I was taught to see it through.
Every time I have been catcalled on the street or have tried to have a conversation with someone who was staring directly at my breasts, my body was not mine. All the times I have been groped, grabbed or ogled on trains or in bars and nightclubs, my body was not mine. All of the times I felt I couldn’t say “no” even when I wanted to, because I didn’t want to be a tease, because he’d bought me drinks or paid for dinner, or because I knew he wouldn’t listen and I didn’t really have a choice, my body was not mine. The time my freshman year of college when I couldn’t say “no” because I was passed out, the time I did say “no” and he didn’t listen, my body was not mine.
It has taken me a lifetime to figure out what it means for my body to belong to me and no one else. I am still learning it. And because of that, I have been hurt over and over and over. Some of that pain could not have been prevented no matter what I did, but lots of it could have been if only I had known that I was allowed to say “no” and that my body could exist for my own approval and my own pleasure. I want to teach my daughter the things I have spent decades learning.
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