Monday, 3 December 2012

The Samson factor

Today's trigger article in The Sydney Morning Herald really did strike a chord, so after a long time away from this blog, I really did feel the need to write about this. Kasey Edwards, a journalist who writes in the Lifestyle section of the paper wrote a piece that, on the one hand taps into the ongoing celebrity watch/criticise that is rampant in the press these days, and on the other hand, highlights the issue of when it's OK to give our kids free reign on the choices they make - and which choices can be left to them without risk or potential harm, depending on their age and the circumstances.

The piece centres on Will Smith's eleven year old daughter, Willow, and her recent decision - upheld by her parents - to shave her head. You can read the full article here.

Those of you who follow the celebrity press may be aware that Willow Smith has been hailed as a budding fashion icon, and there has already been considerable flack leveled at her parents for some of the outfits she's been seen wearing. Will and Jada Smith have been extremely vocal defending her choice of self-expression, taking some pains to make it plain that they are not pushing her into notoriety. Characteristically, both parents have publicly defended Willow's new haircut, Will stating in a statement in Parade:
If I teach her that I'm in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she's going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world...She has got to have command of her body.
And this letter from Jada Pinkett Smith on Facebook:
This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don't belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination’, wrote Jada Pinkett Smith. ‘I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are HER domain.
She goes on to add the following, qualifying her sentiments about the length of Willow's hair:
... even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother's deepest insecurities, hopes and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be.

It is this last that really got to me, because I have lived this story with No. 2 son. When he was five, he up and announced that he didn't want a haircut the day I was making appointments at the hairdresser. He wouldn't tell me why, but when I pushed to get him there, I found myself dealing with not a tantrum, but a very determined small boy who refused to budge on the issue. In the interests of peace, I let it ride that day. However, when I revisited it a week or so later, I met exactly the same determination. It took me weeks to get to the bottom of it, and I was sworn to secrecy... He had a crush on boy band, Hansen, made up of three brothers who all had glorious manes of thick blond hair. Seems No. 2 HAD to emulate this particular fashion statement. I was sworn to secrecy because No. 1 son had already given him a considerably hard time about liking the band, so he didn't want any more ridicule.

The hair lasted four years. During that time, No. 2 endured teasing and condemnation from classmates, teachers, his brother, his father, and random members of the public. His father hated it and refused to help him keep it tidy, following that up with castigating him for having messy hair. I went to war with the hierarchy at his school when we were passing through the phase of getting the fringe past the point where it's going to be in the eyes because it's too long to not be and not long enough to tuck behind the ears... I made him navy blue bandanas so it could be tucked out of the way and keep his head neat. The school said they weren't uniform and he couldn't wear them. The school had recently supported the Canteen Fundraiser, which sells brightly coloured bandanas to raise money for child cancer sufferers, and half the student population at the time were sporting a wide array of pink, red, green, yellow and bright blue bandanas, while No. 2 was the only child in a plain navy one, which matched the school colours. As I said to the principal, in a somewhat heated exchange watched in wide-eyed amazement by then six year old No. 2, it was completely discriminatory on his part to single No. 2 out when all my efforts were to ensure that his hair was neat and tidy and out of his way so he could work without distraction while the school was peppered with small girls with loose hair that was all over the place as, being a public school, there was no hair code... Those small girls who were groomed sported a variety of clips, combs and headbands, none of which would have been suitable for a boy. The word 'discrimination' worked like a charm...the last thing the man wanted was a situation where that became a factor, and the navy blue bandanas were passed.

My issue with No. 2's father and stepmother was that, had he been a girl with long hair, neither of them would have hesitated to assist him, and would probably have gone out of their way to help make it 'pretty'. That didn't go down very well. By this time, No. 2 had realised the value of regular trims at the hairdresser, once he'd realised that that was what I - with my then waist-length hair - did. He had the added bonus - which wasn't extended to me (!) - that the hairdresser would do him a fabulous braid at the end of his session - and I wish someone had taught me how to do the fishtail he left with one time. Once his hair was long enough, he went to school with a ponytail. Eventually there was enough length to do a proper braid that kept all the ends in. He went through the same regime I had as a child with long hair - it was brushed out in the morning and braided for school, and then brushed out again and braided to sleep. He wore it out on weekends, unless he was doing something where it would be better in a braid.

So, why did I allow this 'anarchy' from a five year old? No. 2 is a highly gifted creature. He had an enormously turbulent time throughout his time at school - all twelve years of it. There was often conflict and trouble - with schoolmates and teachers. He didn't connect well with his peers, was often on the receiving end of resentful teasing, and he didn't always handle that well, resorting all too frequently to violence. Yet, for the four years of wearing what was a most spectacular mane of thick, streaky, ash-blond hair, he never once retaliated inappropriately to jibes about that. He did everything I suggested to keep it clean and tidy. He put up with the discomfort of having me wash it - how THAT experience came back to me from my own childhood... - and combing out wet tangles. He was never rude to people who, seeing only the hair and the big blue eyes, mistook him for a girl. I do believe that because it was his choice to grow his hair and wear it long, he was equally prepared to deal with the consequences of that choice in an appropriate manner, no matter how trying other people could be.

I have a lovely memory of watching him walk across the tarmac to a waiting plane, en route to a visit to his father who was then living interstate. He was nine, the hair had reached his waist. He'd pleaded with me just to have a ponytail for the trip instead of a braid, and as he cleared the building, the wind caught his hair and blew it out into a shining, blonde banner. Two weeks later, I walked past him in the airport...missing him completely when I arrived to pick him up. I didn't recognise him. The hair was gone, chopped by a hairdresser ordered by his father to cut it off, replaced by a messy layered crop. His posture was diminished - the proud, head-tossing swing was gone from his stride, and wordlessly, he placed the ponytail, still with its elastic grip, in my hand. He changed after that. There were increased issues at school. He hated his hair. He wouldn't speak to his father when he rang from interstate. He wouldn't discuss his hair at all.

Growing his hair was an exercise in self-expression that, for No. 2, in the midst of an often very difficult childhood, was a positive choice on his part with a number of very positive personal achievements for him. He wasn't given a choice about having it cut off, and that damaged something in him. Someone in the media frenzy that followed Willow Smith's crop made the comment, '"it's just hair", etc....It's not the hair...Kids not only need boundaries, they WANT boundaries...’ I remember having stuff like that leveled at me. Thing was, No. 2 had boundaries being placed all around him, many of which he challenged on a daily basis. With his hair, there were boundaries he then placed on his own behaviour, which were all to the good...because he didn't hit kids who teased him about his hair, he didn't smart talk teachers who said stupid things to him about it, and in the face of the campaign waged by his father, he knuckled down and learned to do his own neat and tidy ponytails much earlier than a lot of the little girls we knew at the time. Having made the choice to grow his hair against the prevailing trends for boy's hair, he empowered himself, learning alternatives to his usual knee-jerk reactions.

These days' No. 2's hair changes colours frequently. Now it's me who lives interstate and I still have moments when I meet him at airports as to whether I'll recognise him... He said to me recently that now he's settled in his job and new apartment, the next plan is to lose some weight and grow his hair again...