When my daughter was four years old, she told me she wanted to cut her gorgeous, long, blond hair off.
She was sick of brushing tangled hair, she declared, and was ready for a change.
I understood, but I was horrified. Her hair was so beautiful, I couldn’t imagine her getting rid of it.
But I also knew I couldn’t stop her from doing it.
Technically, of course, I could have told her no. She was only four, and I had full authority. But I knew this was a pivotal moment.
Would I tell her how pretty her hair was long, and try to impose my idea of beauty on her? Would I insist that I make the final decisions and give approval on something as basic as her hair, simply because she was a child? I could exert all kinds of control, persuasion, and manipulation over her in order to make sure she did what I wanted her to do with her body, but should I?
I didn’t think so. I chose to use this moment to teach her a valuable lesson.
“Your body is your body,” I told her. “Nobody gets to make decisions about your body except for you. Not even me.”
And then: “You’re beautiful, no matter what.”
You see, I knew my daughter would face a lifetime of people telling her how she should dress and wear her hair. I knew she would hear about how she should look from peers, from men, from society.
She would be told how she should look, speak, and act in order to be desirable, how she should sit, pose for cameras, smile, and be sexy (or not-so-sexy).
In a million small moments, the world would try to convince her that her understanding of her beauty and her worth is to be found in the perception of others, rather than within herself.
She would face a nonstop barrage of pressure to conform and make choices about her body that wouldn’t come from her heart’s wants, needs, and desires, but from what others told her was “right” and “good” and “expected.”
I did not want to be the first person to instill society’s beauty ideals in her. I wanted to be the person who taught her to fight against them.
So I gave my four-year-old daughter full autonomy over her own body. Since then, the words “your body, your choice” have become a mantra in my household.
There have been times when this was difficult for me. When she decided to get her ears pierced, I agreed. When she wanted to start dying her hair fun colors, I said okay.
When she wears an outfit I consider ugly and mismatched, or when she wants to run around the house naked, I don’t say a word. When she decides that she doesn’t want to hug someone, or says stop during a tickle fight, I listen.
I remind her constantly that she is the owner of her body, and that nobody has a right to decide what she does and doesn’t do with it. I remind her that she should always look inward to make decisions about what feels comfortable to her and what she considers to be beautiful, to be affectionate, to be safe and loving.
I’ve worked to teach her that she has the right to say “yes” and the right to say “no,” and most importantly, I’ve worked to instill in her a belief that the answer to those questions always lies within herself, never in another human.
So last week, when my daughter decided she wanted to partially shave her head, I told her what I always tell her: “Your body, your choice.”
It gave me anxiety to watch her do it. What if people were mean to her? What if she regretted it? But I also felt a fierce sense of pride in this nine-year-old girl who knew that some people might think her new hair was ugly, or weird, or different, but who wouldn’t let that stop her.
I felt confident in her ability to own this decision as her own, and I knew she would learn from it even if she woke up regretting it the next day. She checked in first with herself and what she wanted, and then made a thoughtful decision about her body from a place of power and alignment with her emerging values.
She was owning her body, her own ideal of beauty—and doing so with style and grace.
In the end, it’s just hair. She’s only nine. There are no real repercussions of whether she shaves her whole head or dyes it hot pink.
To be fair, there would be no obvious repercussions of me telling her that she couldn’t do any of those things, either. But what we sometimes forget in our parenting is that childhood is all just practice for when they aren’t children anymore and have to face things as an adult.
I wonder now how my daughter will respond when someone tells her that she needs to change, to compromise her values, or her comfort, or her wants and needs and desires, in order to make them happy. Will she have the strength to say “no” when she’s pressured to change her body—or use it—in ways that feel uncomfortable to her?
Because this is not a question of if; it’s a question of when. And our teenage girls don’t magically develop the strength to set boundaries, or stand up for themselves, or believe that they are beautiful no matter what when they get old enough to face these adult situations.
They have to learn these skills beforehand.
So I let my daughter shave her head.
I tell her that only she has the power to make decisions over her body, and that nobody, not even her parents, has a right to make those decisions for her.
I teach her to set her boundaries, and to explore her ideas of what beautiful is.
I tell her that her worth will always be found internally, and will never be affected by the length of her hair.
I tell her that she is beautiful— and she is.
But the most beautiful thing about my daughter is the strength she is showing in her ability to step outside of what others say she should do and make decisions for herself. Her beauty, and her power, lie in how she lives in her own body the way that she wants to, rather than how she feels that she should in order to make others happy.
And that is a lesson that I hope she carries with her—forever.
Author: Jennifer Underwood
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Callie Rushton