Raising a Feminist Son, One Ponytail at a Time.

My son told me, a few weeks ago, to wear my hair down and when I tried to put it up, he said, “No, Mommy, I like it down!”

I was touched, at first: he sees me! My son is taking me in, memorizing what I look like, he really knows me! So I didn’t put my hair up. I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but I just laughed and said, “OK, sure,” and even though my neck was hot, I put the elastic back on my wrist and did what my two-year old asked. I kept my hair down.

Then it happened again and then, again, at home and at the playground and when I picked him up from school. And the whole thing hit me in the face, the same way my own stupid horse mane did whenever the wind blew: THIS is the patriarchy. I am witnessing it, I am HARNESSING it, every time I let this little boy tell me what I can and cannot do with my hair. And this is the moment, right now, when I begin raising a feminist outright. I don’t have to just set an example, I can teach an actual lesson. I can remind this self-important bully, MY TODDLER, what is outside his jurisdiction.  

Look, I get it, I know my son was probably just looking for the comfort of the familiar. He wanted my hair down not because he thinks I don’t deserve to wear it up but because I wear it down a lot and he likes what he knows. When my husband shaves his stubble, it takes me twenty minutes to remind myself he is still the same person.  


Couldn’t this be the moment where it all starts? The trouble? Couldn’t this be the reason a boy gets the idea that he can tell someone what to do or, more specifically, what to look like? And if that someone is his mother and she says, OK, and she is the first woman he knows and loves, couldn’t that inform his entire understanding of what he can ask for and get when it comes to women?

I think I was a feminist girl (as all girls are, aren’t they?) before I knew what the word meant, but then, around age eleven, after I got my period at the state fair, grew out my radically short haircut, and started looking at myself through the eyes of everybody else, I lost my nerve. Since then, I’ve been alternately self-possessed and deeply insecure. Like all humans, I guess? I know I can’t undo that or fix whatever internal and societal disdain sent me on that obsessively self-aware course.

Or can I?  

I at least owe my son’s generation a man who doesn’t hate women. And I am pretty sure that starts with me loving him and at the same time telling him I can do whatever the fuck I want with my hair.

“Sorry,” I said curtly, sitting on the bathtub while he peed in a tiny toilet. “But I like it up.”

“I like it down!” he yelled.  

“Well, I like it up,” I yelled back, twisting my hair away from him.

He stood up, circling me. He grabbed at my ponytail with his tiny fingers. “No!”

“Yes!” I said.

It became a game.

Before I could explain to him that women can do what THEY WANT and he did not have a right to tell them what to do and he could wear HIS HAIR HOWEVER HE WANTED I DON’T CARE JUST STAY OUT OF MINE, he stopped being mad. I did too. It was lovely and then he screamed and koala’d me when I tried to give him a bath.  

The next time, I said something like, “I decide how I do my hair, not you!” And he said, “No, I do!” and I said, “No, I do!” and he smiled with all his teeth. (My repetition bit kills with only one person on earth and that is him.)

Yes, this is all standard issue toddler business, being finicky and demanding about inconsequential things. And sure, if I had a daughter, maybe she’d be saying the same stuff, barking at me to KEEP IT WAVY, DON’T STRAIGHTEN IT, MOMMY!

But that would be different. Or at least, I would feel differently about it. I am certain of that. I am certain that I would hear my daughter tell me what’s up with my hair and I’d think, that’s right, speak up, say what you want, demand it, tell me what to do!

Men have not been told for centuries how to look, dress, live, think, feel, love, bear children, birth children, get angry, die. But women have. I am certain – as certain as someone who does not actually have a daughter can be – that I would not want to encumber mine any more than history has already done, forever and ever.

My son, however – all our privileged sons really – could use some encumbering. So in my very miniscule effort to realign civilization against oppression and inequality, I will tell my son that, on this issue, he does not deserve to speak up.  On the issue of my hair, he can be quiet. On the issue of my body, any woman’s body, he can keep his opinions to himself, thanks, because we DO NOT NEED THEM. And I hope, I really, really hope, that every time I remind him of this, kindly but firmly, warmly but assuredly, maybe I am, in some slow but affecting way, chiseling into being the kind of man who is afraid to mess with a woman’s body, the kind of man who respects that body, the kind of man who knows how to fight, the way his mother fought with him about her hair, but who chooses to fight for gentleness, for women and men who are silenced by force, by rape, by assault weapons, by bigotry. This might be totally deluded and romantic. But for better or worse, I am deluded and romantic.

There are bigger battles than my hair and I know that and I hope he fights them all. I ought to start fighting more myself.