Hair

A little story (adapted and paraphrased from reports from real life) about two children. The dramatis personae:

Child 1: a 7-year-old girl

Child 2: a slightly younger girl

Setting: the women’s locker room of an exercise center, where both children (with their mothers) had been swimming and had just showered; they were mostly naked.

The exchange begins: Child 2 admonishes Child 1, “This is the women’s locker room. Boys are not allowed.”

Child 1 agrees, and there’s a side exchange about the fact that boys under age n are allowed in the women’s locker room, to be with their mothers. Child 2 observes that Child 1 is clearly not under age n; Child 1 agrees, but obviously doesn’t see the relevance of the remark.

Eventually Child 2 exclaims hotly, “You’re a boy! You don’t belong here!”

Child 1 is dumbstruck. “But I’m a girl”, she protests.

Child 2 is not swayed. “You’re strong, and you have short hair.”

Child 1 brushes this off: “I’m a strong girl with short hair.”

Remember that Child 1 is mostly naked. Her primary sexual characteristics are on display. But Child 2 is not fully satisfied, even after the two mothers intervene; her judgments of girl vs. boy are based on what are technically secondary (or even tertiary) sexual characteristics: hair length, gait, clothing, strength, energy/activity, assertiveness, interest in ceretain kinds of play, and so on.

And reasonably so: the categorizations of people into two gendered groups (GIRLS vs. BOYS, WOMEN vs. MEN) in ordinary life are grounded in social judgments, using cues of many kinds (though once we get to breasts, Adam’s apples, beards, broad hips, broad shoulders, higher vs. lower voices, and pretty sharply differentiated gaits, gestures, and clothing, things are easier). The technical dichotomy of FEMALE vs. MALE (applicable to other animals) is something else again.

Little kids deal with the world via the social categories, and for them vaginas vs. penises isn’t the issue. They notice these differences, but for them these are peripheral characteristics. (And nobody treats X vs. Y chromosomes — imperceptible characteristics — as central or definitional for the purposes of ordinary life.) Even for adults, classification of people into FEMALE vs. MALE categories in everyday life works almost entirely on easily perceptible characteristics (and self-identifications), with a fall-back to genital characteristics only for possibly disputed cases in special contexts.

On haircuts: here’s a photo of Child 1 (with a rainbow serpent wrapped around her for Halloween):

For haircut comparisons, consider the gamine cut of Audrey Hepburn:

and of Child 1’s grandmother roughly 55 years ago:

In fact, Child 1’s mother reports that she gets admiring comments from people about the kid’s haircut — people who want to know where she got the cut, and are taken aback to hear that the kid’s father’s did it himself, with the clippers he uses to keep his own hair short.

The kid likes her hair this way: it’s comfortable and doesn’t get in her eyes and doesn’t take a lot of care. Sounds good to me.

One Response to “Hair”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Mary Ballard reports a similar story from Sandra Bem about her young son, here.

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