Mom: My Son 'Looks a Lot Like a Girl'

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Photos by Sasha Brown-Worsham

The first time my 3-year-old son Alan said he wanted long hair “like Rapunzel,” I shrugged it off. He had a big sister. She was into princesses. He’d grow out of it. And even if he didn’t, gender “norms” are something other parents adhere to. Not us. We were too smart for that.

So my son’s blond hair grew.

First it was shaggy. Then it became scruffy. Recently, it has finally reached shoulder length. He looks like a cross between a surfer (on the bad days) and a rock star (on the worse days).

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He also looks a lot like a girl. “Perfect,” he told us. But, as it turns out, it wasn’t perfect to us.

I began to feel judged about his hair after strangers began mistaking him for a girl more often.

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"You have such lovely girls," one said. Later that day, it was the same: "Three pretty sisters," the man who took our tickets at the botanical garden said to my kids. My son, dressed in a black pirate shirt and long gray pants shrugged his shoulders.

"Whatever," he said.

But my husband and I cringed. It keeps happening. At this point, he is mistaken for a girl at least once a day. Alan doesn’t care. Should we?

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"Our urge to control our children stems from some underlying fear: What will other people think? Will my child be teased? Will her feelings get hurt?" says California based marriage and family therapist Erica Curtis.

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I pride myself on my two daughters’ beauty, but am just as enamored of their quick wit and athletic prowess. When my son shows off his muscles, I squeal in parental delight. But I am equally thrilled when he cradles his baby sister and says he can’t wait to be a daddy. I want daughters who aim to be president and sons who think about becoming dads.

So why am I bothered by long hair?

"At heart, it’s about the expectations we have regarding gender and our kids," says Dr. David Castro-Blanco, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specializing in child development. "They begin to form before they’re even born, and we often hold these as assumptions. When something happens to upset those expectations, we tend to react pretty strongly, even if it’s in apparent contradiction to what we profess as our beliefs."

I cringe when fathers of other boys – boys with short hair – give the side eye to my son. I’m scared of what they’ll say to him in school.

"When are you going to cut that boy’s hair?" My father-in-law asked a few weeks ago.

My son, from the other room, overheard. “Never. We are never going to cut my hair.”

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His confidence is inspiring. And, Curtis says, it is exactly what any parent should wish for. “When we check in with our fears and weigh them against our child’s interests and needs, we are better equipped to make clearer parenting decisions,” she says. “Support him in developing the tools to feel confident in his choices.”

And so I do.

A few weeks ago, in anticipation of family photos, I took him to a women’s salon where they could “shape” it without chopping it. The truth is, I wanted it short. A crew cut. I wanted my one son to look like a boy. I told him so. Alan shook his head, almost in tears. And then I knew.

Long it would stay — as long as he wants. “Let him choose,” I told the stylist. He did. It’s long and shaggy. Perfect on him.

A part of me may always want him to look like my ideal. But the rest of of me knows that it is far more important for him to look like his own.

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