A girl has short hair. So what?
Posted June 9
Around the world, people have expressed outrage that 8-year-old Nebraskan soccer whiz Milagros "Mili" Hernandez and her team were disqualified from her tournament finals last weekend. Someone, presumably a parent of an opposing teammate, complained that a boy was on the roster of Hernandez's all-girls' team, Omaha's Azzuri Cachorros, and thus the entire team shouldn't be allowed to participate.
But there was no boy on the roster. Hernandez simply has short hair. She and her team were prevented from playing largely because Hernandez looks like a boy; that is, she looks like what many people think a boy should look like, and not how a girl should appear. They can't watch a kid with closely cropped hair navigate a ball across a field without assuming that kid is male. Even when Hernandez's father offered proof of her gender, and cleared up a clerical error that had her listed as male on one form, the disqualification remained.
Hernandez's story has a happy ending: Soccer stars Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach reached out to her, inviting her to their camps and supporting her on social media. "You don't look like a boy," Wambach, who sports a short hairdo herself, said in a post on Instagram. "You look like a girl with short hair."
But the kerfuffle belies a serious problem: the stiflingly narrow views we hold of what little girls should look like, the limitations we place on what they can do and be. Because to many people, and certainly to the parent who complained about Hernandez, she does not look like a girl at all.
Shorthaired little girls are rare and, according to Kurt Stenn, author of "Hair: A Human History," always have been. American boys and girls had long hair until they went to elementary school in the 19th and early 20th centuries, he said in an interview, "In history it would be deviant for a little girl to have short hair."
Why deviant? Short hair communicates both liberation and deviation. Girls with short hair may appear masculine or butch, a look embodying what gender studies professor Jack Halberstam has called "female masculinity." Many people feel unsettled about connecting those words and ideas to young girls.
Long hair, on the other hand, communicates femininity in a number of ways, some of them related to how women should not just look but behave. Long hair can be cumbersome and requires upkeep. It can be seen as an extension of clothes we think of as feminine - frilly dresses, tight skirts, high heels - which make free and fast movement difficult. Those garments are anathema to sportiness. They are, literally, the trappings of femininity.
Go forth and be sporty, we seem to be saying, as long as you don't look masculine doing it. Think about it: Wonder Woman couldn't really kick that much butt with her perfectly set wavy locks and her sparkly cuirass, girdle and skirt, but she is allowed to be a superhero precisely because she still looks like a supermodel. We are in a time when we celebrate women's athletic achievements but still expect those women to be "feminine." Is girl power only for the girly?
A clear duality exists: Hair has a social connotation, yet it is a form of self-expression. At times, the two can be at odds. Hair can communicate age, wealth, health, religion and even politics, and the message changes depending on the times and who wears the hairstyle - their age, class, gender and race.
The shorter flapper 'do became popular during a period of women's (relative) liberation in the 1920s, and in the 1960s and 1970s, as the women's and civil rights movements unfolded, the pixie cut took hold, especially in style icons like Mia Farrow and Twiggy (though not in little girls).
The musical "Hair" focused on that same period, when many white men who grew their hair long or African-Americans who grew out their Afros were also rejecting a set of values, refusing to look and behave in narrowly prescribed ways. The buzz cut and the beehive were the status quo; the shag and the Afro were rejections of it.
Since the Beatles descended upon America with what we thought then was their shockingly long hair, our rigidity about hair length and what it means has faded some; now their mops would be unlikely to turn heads. But apparently you still can't be a short-haired 8-year-old girl like Hernandez without upsetting some people. If you're going to have short hair, you best wear lots of makeup, and don't get caught heading the ball on the field.
Take stock of the elementary school-aged girls you know. How many have short hair? Oddly, while we tolerate tomboys who wear boyish outfits more than we do boys who like to wear girls' clothes, we're much more forgiving of little boys with long hair than little girls who wear their hair short. Would someone have called in if a long-haired boy was seen zooming across the soccer field?
We need to tell little girls, and we need to remind each other of, what Wambach told Hernandez: "You can do anything you want to do, and you can be anything you want to be, and - guess what, you can look like whatever you need to look like to do it."