Tuesday, May 06, 2008

On How to Be a Girl

For the last year and a half I have worn my hair very, very short. It is practical, minimizes the gray, and gives my face no place to hide. Until recently, I have received mostly compliments, some women saying they wish they had the nerve to cut their hair this short. Over the past 2 months, however, I have had several encounters where I was told I look like a guy or a boy. But by far, my most interesting encounter was with a little girl in a laundromat about a week and a half ago.

While my neighborhood is experiencing a demographic shift from more traditional ethnic families to young professionals priced out of Manhattan, there are still many of the old timers that remain. These are mostly Greek, Latin, Indian, Asian, and Albanian families, all of which have some very deep rooted gender roles passed from one generation to the next.

Last Sunday, I breezed into the laundromat to put in the last load of wash. A little girl was sitting on a window sill next to a pair of small load washing machines while her mother folded a freshly dry load of laundry. She was probably around 5 years old, had big brown eyes and slightly longer than shoulder length hair with bangs. She was wearing a pair of jeans and a pink shirt. As soon as she saw me, she asked me if I was a girl. I must admit, I was a little annoyed, as it was the third time in about two weeks that I had to defend my appearance. But this was a little girl, so I held my tongue and checked my tone of voice. I assured her that I was indeed a girl, removing my jacket to make myself more visible. The conversation continued...

"Well, why do you have short hair?"

"Because I chose to cut it short so that it isn't in the way when I exercise."

"But boys have short hair."

"Yes, they do. But Girls can have short hair too. There is no one or right way to be a girl. Girls can have long hair or short hair. Girls can have muscles or not have muscles. Girls can become moms or not become moms. They can go to work or they can stay home. There are many, many ways to be a girl. You get to choose what kind of girl you want to be. No one can tell you how to be a girl."

Then I asked her, "Do boys sometimes have long hair?"


"Does that make them girls?"


"No, it doesn't. It makes them boys with long hair. Just like I am a girl with short hair. More than one way to be a girl, and you get to choose how."

I was speaking very softly while I worked next to this girl. I didn't want to scare her, and I didn't want her called away until I was finished.

"You can do anything a boy can do, if you want to. Don't let anyone tell you you can't. I have short hair. I am a mom. I am strong. I am the kind of girl I want to be. I chose. Always remember you can choose."

Her mother was either finished folding, or had an inkling that we were talking and came to investigate. I assured her that we were fine. The child was not bothering me. Isn't it funny that as parents, we assume that our children are annoying another adult with whom they are interacting? I finished loading the machine, put in the soap and went back upstairs. The girl was gone when I returned. I wonder if she will remember my words.



Maria said...

I hope that she does remember, because it is our duty to keep saying it until they do, yes?

I cut my hair very short too (think Jamie Lee Curtis) and stopped dyeing it. It is not salt and pepper. And I LOVE it. It was the smartest move I ever made.

I do wear bright cherry red lipstick, though.....

The World According to Me said...

"You can do anything a boy can do, if you want to. Don't let anyone tell you you can't. I have short hair. I am a mom. I am strong. I am the kind of girl I want to be. I chose. Always remember you can choose."

Wise words again Rebecca. You could have been insulted with her naivety but instead you tried to help her to understand her way of thinking. I have a feeling she will remember those words.

seagrape said...

my daughter just got a pixie cut and my son is growing his hair again - Why do you let this happen? is what I get from most moms. sometimes the children hear these comments and ask me if they are doing something wrong. ay...

Nick said...

If you normally look like your picture, anyone who thinks you're a boy needs their eyes testing! But it's depressing what rigid ideas people still have about gender - and at such a young age. Good for you encouraging the little girl to be more flexible and open-minded, rather than just shrugging it off as an annoying question.

Rebecca said...

Maria, yes, it is our duty to keep saying the words until they are really heard.

I love Jamie Lee Curtis. What an awesome woman! I think my hair might actually be shorter. And bravo for carry off bright red lipstick. I sooo don't have the guts to do that. Wayy too much bottom lip :)

FPE, thanks!! I really hope she remembers, but the messages she will receive over her lifetime will make it difficult.

Seagrape, kids should be free to explore roles as they will without same. Adults really do need to loosen up!

Nick, I do look just like that, pretty much all the time (well, my profile photo anyway). I don't know how anyone'd mistake me for a boy either. Oh well. Everyone's a critic!

Kate said...

Well done. You made your point well when you reminded her that boys can have long hair.

Uncle Phatato said...

I see skater boys all over our school with the longer hair...doesn't anyone remember the sixties? I mean, I wasn't a part of it, but...

Everything we do is a choice, really. It's almost mind-boggling.

This is one of my favorites.

Bridget said...

I had short hair for many years and got the same comments. I was a kid though so it was hard to not be really hurt. My third grade teacher even told me on picture day to not put my hair behind my ear or I look like a boy.

That's great you explained this to that little girl.

SOUL: said...

i couldn't tell you how many times i have been mistaken for a boy-- even a man..in my older years-- and ya know what-- i've grown to be "ok" with it. it is usually kids who who who don't notice the woman in me-- but like you-- i do have the short hair-- cuz i like it that way-- i don't wear make-up-- cuz i don't like to mess with it-- and i suppose i'm just ok with the way i look.
does it bother me sometimes that i look like a dude? of course it does. but i have never been feminine. ever. tomboy since birth.
do i need to explain that-- or anything else to anyone? no--
i think it's ok for kids to wonder if they are confused-- kids will ask questions-- such as -- why is he in the girls bathroom?"
that's one i get a few times a year-- :((

but when it's a grown woman.. and it really is women or children 100 percent of the time...
but grown women? i think they're jealous-- just cuz they can't feel comfortable enough with their own self-- without the layers of make-up-- and the 100 dollar hair... and 90 dollar dresses or shoes.

hey-- gimmee a 15 dollar haircut, some slip on vans , levi shorts, and a fishin rod...and i am one happy LADY!

to each her own.. as they say -- right?

HAPPY MOTHERS DAY--to a great LADY!!!!

Foster Communications said...

You go GIRL!!!!!

suesun said...

Nicely said. And even better to remember, despite all of its problems, that we live in a country in which we (girls and women) DO get to choose. It will take our vigilance to keep it so.

My older son is growing his hair out, and the irony is that my husband, who has long hair, doesn't want him to. Why? Because he doesn't want him to have to deal with the teasing that comes from a boy having long hair. Weird.

Happy Mother's Day to you!!!

see you soon!

SOUL: said...

just checkin in---
how are ya?
happy humpday!

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering what do you mean for "ethnic families"? Aren't Manhattan professionals belonging to any ethnic family? No family at all?
Another question: do you believe that those "ethnic families" are unic in having "some very deep rooted gender roles"? Don't all people have any gender role?

Sorry if those questions sound too direct or ungentle (my english does not allow me to be more polite)

I love your blog.

Eastcoastdweller said...

Rebecca, my heart filled with joy when I read this post. You shared some very important information with this young Lady and I hope that Your words sunk deeply into Her heart and will take root there.

In a world where Girls are taught that They all must look exactly the same in order to be beautiful, that boys have options that Girls don't have and perhaps vice versa, You spoke up and shared the truth.

And You did it in a gentle, loving way.

This is my favorite post on Your entire blog. So much so, that I would like to borrow it for Isis, if I may.

Rebecca said...

Hi, Anonymous, and welcome. When I say Ethnic families, I am referring to families that identify themselves as of their homeland first. They are not Greek Americans, they are Greeks living in America. They teach their children the language of their country of origin before English. They carry on the customs of their homelands. They discourage mixing outside their group.

There are gender roles to be sure, in just about every culture. However, I find that if a family identifies itself as separate from their country of origin, and allows more assimilation with the "American" culture, then some of those gender roles begin to relax or change. I was not brought up with no strict gender roles at all. As far as I knew growing up in the 70s and 80s, women were powerful, capable, and could do whatever they wanted to. I was never told I couldn't do anything--ride a bike, throw a ball, climb a tree, get dirty, no problem. I was quite a tom boy. My mother worked, made and enforced rules. So, no, gender roles are not so rigid here.

The Real Mother Hen said...

I like to have conversation with kiddo, but sometimes I get some questionable look from their parents... wanting to know why I'm so interested in talking to their child.

Well, maybe I look like a human trafficker?