My Daughter’s Fancy Haircut Became A Hard Lesson On Beauty Standards

Last week my 10-year-old daughter asked me to take her for her first “real haircut.”  I had mixed feelings about this. One one hand, her waist-length tangled locks have caused us so many arguments and tears. On the other hand, watching her run outside, her long auburn hair flying in the breeze, feels like a precious vestige of her fleeting childhood.

I decided that if we were going to have to cut it, we’d do it right.  Her hair was too long to take chances with. Bypassing our usual discount haircutting chains, we headed for an upscale salon outside of town.

Opening the door to the salon was like a portal into another world.  The air smelled like fresh peaches and rich ladies’ bathrooms, the carpet felt like a million tiny bunnies hugging our feet, and the walls were etched with long, delicate figures of beautiful women in elegant poses.

My daughter and I looked at each other with wide eyes.

“What is this place, Mama?” she gasped.

“Where fancy ladies go to get their hair done,” I answered.

Until that point, I had mostly avoided introducing her to the world of women’s beauty care. We shop at thrift stores and make it a point to emphasize her inner neshama over external appearance. I myself wear very little makeup, get cheap haircuts, and rarely go to nail salons.

It’s important for me to keep her out of the trap so many of us fall into of feeling inadequate and spending a lot of unnecessary money to meet unreal beauty standards. I know that, as much as we may tell girls looks aren’t important, they learn more by watching our choices than by anything we tell them.

Thus far, she seemed to be getting the message.  She barely gives a thought to her clothes or hair; she doesn’t have time.  She’s far too busy digging for dinosaur bones and dreaming up complicated story plots.

That focus on the internal world instead of the external world has given her such a deep sense of intuition about people and perspective on life.  When she struggles with something, I always remind her to check in with herself. Because, in many ways, she’s the wisest person I know.

But, she’s getting older and I didn’t think there was much harm in giving her a special treat.

 I was wrong…

Ten minutes into the haircut, I could see that something was bothering her.  Her face wore that plastic smile she puts on when she’s trying to pretend she’s enjoying something.  As the ladies fussed and fiddled with her hair, she looked more and more distressed. 

After an hour and a half of hair pampering, she was finally released from the salon chair.  She jumped up and turned around to face me.

 In the front, her hair framed her pixie face in soft shimmery waves. In the back, it fell long and flowing, halfway down her back.  She was an absolute vision.

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I barely had a moment to admire her before she was grabbing my hand and pulling me out the door.  I paid the hairdresser and followed her outside, confused. Her haircut was undeniably gorgeous and the ladies had been so nice.  I couldn’t figure out what was upsetting her.

“Don’t you like your haircut?”

“The haircut was fine…  But, Mama…. Those pictures! I hated them!” 

It took me a few moments to understand which pictures she was referring to, but then I remembered the drawings of women on the wall.

“Why did they bother you so much?” I asked her.

“Because they were so skinny.  I had to keep reminding myself that I am normal. That real people don’t look like that.”

I gave her a hug and listened as she explained more.

“And those ladies there…. They were so nice, but it was like they didn’t even see me.  All they saw was my hair. They kept saying how beautiful it was, but my hair has nothing to do with who I really am.”

My heart ached as she hugged me tighter.  I suddenly had the sinking feeling that I’d undone 10 years of conscientious parenting with one fancy haircut.

Before she went to bed, we talked about it some more.

“Being skinny isn’t something I worry about much now.  But, I’m afraid that, when I get older, I’ll care more. Looking at those pictures of skinny women gave me a bad feeling in my stomach.” she whispered.

I pulled the covers up and told her how proud I am of her.  I told her that her self-awareness was a real strength. We talked about how many girls have those same feelings of weight insecurity but aren’t able to articulate them and, the fact that she is so open will help her navigate the tricky years ahead. Then, we said goodnight and vowed to never go to a fancy salon again.

I’m glad we talked, but I still felt a little guilty about taking her there.  As much as I try to avoid the trappings of the beauty industry, maybe there’s a part of me that’s still a little girl wanting to do the right thing to look pretty. Perhaps the fancy haircut wasn’t really for her, but for my own inner “little girl” self who was bullied for her looks.

Then I took a few breaths and tried to be more gentle with myself.  Perhaps I made the wrong decision taking her to the salon, but the fact that she was so aware of the dangers of those images means that I’ve probably done a lot of right things up until that point. 

The truth is she will confront a lot of images that make her feel uncomfortable or inadequate.  All I can do is keep encouraging her to talk to me and check-in with herself. Because there is no one better to advise her than that wise little voice inside.