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Girls, mothers, hair and independence
"Is this hair fight about independence or beauty, parental control or cultural influence?"

by Kathryn Kysar

My 10-year-old daughter has curly red hair, the abundant auburn locks of my mother and sister that somehow genetically bypassed me. When she was a mud-loving preschooler, I kept her hair short in a halo of curls, but as she has gotten older, she wants long hair. Not shoulder-length, but l-o-n-g, straight hair.

My dear friend Kristin's daughter, Ruth, is originally from Rwanda. Graceful and elegantly mannered, Ruth was always an obedient child, until at 13 she found an accomplice in a female family friend and sneaked out of the house to get extensions woven into her tightly curled hair. For nine years, she wore long straight hair that whooshed past her shoulders.

Both girls live in households with limited TV and monitored media, yet somehow, this American ideal of beauty sneaked into their brains, seeped into their personages. Are these girls not happy with themselves, not accepting their own bodies? Is this hair fight about independence or beauty, parental control or cultural influence?

What girl has not fought with her mother about her hair? During grade school, I was tortured every Saturday night by having my bath-wet hair spun into brush-filled rollers poked in place by pink plastic T-shaped pins. All night I was unable to sleep, the pins poking at my head. At church the next morning, I was expected to be on my best behavior and to smile when the older ladies grabbed my cheeks and exclaimed over my artificial curls.

Why do mothers create this construct of girlhood innocence in cascading curls and pinafore dresses? Does this make long straight hair a sign of maturity? Girls must at some point pull away from their mothers and differentiate themselves. As a feminist, I want to nurture my daughter's strong spirit. Perhaps I have lost sight of her need for control over her own body, her need to jump on a bike and ride into the wind, long hair waving like a flag of independence behind her.


I recently saw Ruth, now 22, at a Books for Africa fundraiser. She was beautiful and glowing with-no extensions. Her short hair was in loose relaxed curls around her face. Preparing for a career in nursing, she wanted a more practical and natural haircut and gave up her girlhood dream-the long straight hair-for one of true adult independence. Perhaps I should give up my motherly worries. Perhaps patience and love is all that is needed to overcome the girlhood dream of long, straight hair.

Kathryn Kysar is the author of two books of poetry, "Pretend the World" and "Dark Lake," and the editor of "Riding Shotgun: Women Write about Their Mothers." She is the mother of two children and lives in St. Paul. www.kathrynkysar.com

Kathryn Kysar recommends these books for independent girls:
Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan
Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor
The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

... and these books about mother/daughter struggles:
Where No Gods Came by Sheila O'Connor
Welcome to My Planet: Where English is Sometimes Spoken by Shannon Olson
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

What's on your bookshelf?
Send us 450 words about your booklife, plus your list of four to five related books by women authors, to editor@womenspress.com.

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