Sexist bullying forces mother to cut boy’s hair

// 17 March 2012

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Photo of Iggy Pop in a black evening dress and carrying a smart, snakeskin print handbag.

“I’m not ashamed to dress ‘like a woman’ because I don’t think it’s shameful to be a woman” – Iggy Pop (full image here).

Earlier in the week, the Telegraph ran this article about a five-year-old boy, Rean Carter, who is having his long blonde hair cut for the first time after being bullied at school. Apparently the other boys wouldn’t play with him because he “looked like a girl”.

There’s so much wrong here it makes me shudder. That five-year-old boys already think that looking like a girl – and therefore being a girl – warrants bullying and exclusion, is a deeply sad reflection on our society. That simply having long hair calls a boy’s sex into question, and that his mum feels it necessary to assure us that he “is a proper little boy who likes Scooby Doo and cars and is getting into football”, shows how desperately we still cling to traditional gender stereotypes.

This gender policing is steeped in sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Sexism because little boys’ masculinity must be carefully constructed and controlled to ensure they don’t suffer the shame of being associated with women and girls. Homophobia because if little boys display traditionally female characteristics or desires it’s assumed they might end up – horror of horrors – gay. And transphobia because there’s a chance that if he wants to dress “girly” he may actually view himself as a girl, which makes him a freak in the eyes of society.

But instead of tackling sexist, homophobic and transphobic bullying in our schools, instead of teaching children that there’s no one way to be a boy or a girl, that there’s not such thing as boys’ toys or girls’ haircuts, what do we do? Force children to fit into a sexist, homophobic, transphobic system, and blame the parents. The Telegraph headline actually reads “Mother finally allows five-year-old son to have hair cut after playground bullying” (emphasis mine). Yes, the poor lad’s mother was cruelly preventing him from having his hair cut short. Let’s just ignore that fact that he was quite happy to be mistaken for a girl before the sexist bullying and gender policing started. Because of course a little boy must innately want short hair.

Rean, I think your hair is beautiful, and if you ever want to grow it back again, remember no one has the right to tell you who you are or what you are because of the way you choose to present yourself or live your life.

Comments From You

Eddy Anderson // Posted 18 March 2012 at 1:45 pm

I’m not sure I entirely agree with the thesis of this post. Rightly or wrongly, cultural norms exist and we ignore them at our peril—and yes, some of those norms are related to gender. Granted, these norms are often oppressive, misogynist, and artificial, and as such should be challenged; but some of them, at the other extreme, are just norms. To attack all norms as ‘traditional[ist] stereotypes’ and ‘gender policing’ seems misguided, and, ironically, directly opposed to that right to self-expression which this piece so ardently strives to protect. If it is wrong to ‘enforce’ gender stereotypes as far as how girls and boys dress, I can’t see how enforced androgyny, the alternative, is any better.

And if we’re going to talk about a child’s right to self-expression—and actually, to what extent can one honestly claim this is solely Rean’s decision, as opposed to, at least in part, that of his mother?—what about a child’s right to protection from harm? This right surely trumps all others. An example: say a boy wants to dress up with fake beards and moustaches. Fine, right? Okay: that boy dons a toothbrush moustache, combs his hair into a side parting, and goes for a stroll in Stamford Hill. If we ignore cultural norms and adopt an ‘anything goes’ approach to self-expression, and, in doing so, put our children’s safety at risk, that doesn’t seem to me like responsible parenting.

It’s telling, I think, that Laura Woodhouse ends her penultimate paragraph sarcastically by suggesting that ‘of course a little boy must innately want short hair’. The crux of the matter lies in the word ‘innately’. Just because something is not innate does not mean it is not important.

Laura // Posted 19 March 2012 at 9:05 am

Hi Eddy,

Feminism is all about ignoring (or, rather, challenging) cultural norms, regardless of the “peril” that may befall us. If we allowed this “peril” to stop us challenging social norms, we’d never make any progress. To me there’s no such thing as “just norms” – all norms come from somewhere and I think it’s important to explore how they have developed, what they say about us as a society and how they control our lives, in order that we can live as freely as possible.

“Enforced androgyny” isn’t the alternative to rejecting gender stereotypes. Kids could still engage in what are currently viewed as masculine or feminine behaviours, but we wouldn’t encourage boys to conform only to the masculine ones and girls only to the feminine ones. Eventually I’d hope these behaviours/activities/standards of appearance etc. would lose all gendered meaning, so I suppose my social ideal is androgynous in that sense, but the right to self-expression wouldn’t be restricted because previously gendered behaviours wouldn’t be banned, just freed from the gender restrictions.

You talk about a child’s right to protection from harm, and I agree that’s paramount, but I think we need to tackle the prejudices that would cause someone to want to harm a child if he chooses to have long hair or walk down the street in a fake beard and moustache, not prevent the child from doing so.

I referred to the idea of a child wanting short hair being “innate” because this is the argument that those who enforce gender stereotypes often use, not because I think that non-innate things aren’t important.

onemu // Posted 28 March 2012 at 1:56 am

I am going to raise my children gender neutral – this doesn’t mean making them neither male nor female, it doesn’t mean hiding their gender or giving them unisex names – it just means giving them the choice. Example, if they want to have long hair, they can, if they want to play with certain toys, they can etc, and let them choose. After reading the article it seemed like the little boy in question hadn’t actually choosen his hairstyle, though.

JericaLily // Posted 7 December 2012 at 3:26 pm

My nephew is 4 and a half and already he rejected my (equally aged) daughter’s attempt to play Power Rangers with him because she had the Pink and Yellow rangers. He just instantly (Instantly) and flat out refused to play with the dolls because they were the female rangers. He’s up the wazoo with sexist man/boy stuff where my daughter has all the PR dolls (the boys too OMG), trucks, cars, Ninja turtles (of which none are female), fake swords and so on.

I think his parents are teaching him to be sexist (though perhaps not knowingly.) One of their older sons already remarked that he was going to have his wife cleaning up after him (and he was 12 when he said this.)

Jessica // Posted 25 May 2014 at 8:42 am

Wonderful post and I wholeheartedly agree. What is wrong with little boys having long-hair? What does hair have to do with gender?

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