There Once Was a Little Girl with a Bad Haircut

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

I never had a sister. But I had a girl cousin.

She was 16 months older and she was cool and she was beautiful and she was resourceful.

She could make our combined $5.59 last all day, come up with the most amazing storylines for our pretend lives, and plan out elaborate schemes to convince our parents we should spend the summer together (though they rarely said, no).

She taught me important things like how to put on make-up, shave my legs without getting red bumps, and practice kissing on my knee cap.

When we were age 8 and 10, she and I decided to open up an imaginary beauty salon, but pretend became reality when I gave her a haircut she couldn’t sport in public.

My Aunt took her to a real salon to fix the damage and the next time I saw her -- she looked like a boy. Her once long, silky hair became a short, crew cut and she was devastated.

I sat on the edge of her bed as she hiccuped sobs into her pillow, "Everyone is going to -- make fun- of -me. Everyone is -- going to think I’m a boy!"

She wasn’t wrong.

That Fall when she started 4th grade she was made fun of and bullied for her short hair and for looking -- like a boy.

Yet it wasn’t just classmates who were confused by her appearance. We went to the grocery store with her mom once and the check out lady -- looking at both of us -- asked my Aunt, "Is your son or daughter older?"

I remember feeling horribly as I was the one who had cut her hair by mistake. Each time a family member, friend, or stranger made comment about her boyish appearance…. I froze. I was terrified by the way a haircut could so greatly define self-esteem. And for the longest time, I had a fear about having short hair.

My cousin’s hair eventually grew back. Within a year, her hair was long enough for people to assume her correct gender, but the experience stuck with me.

Recently a friend of mine shared how her daughter (age 6) cut her own bangs with scissors and I was reminded of my cousin’s experience. We chatted and shared similar stories of children cutting their own hair; friends of ours chiming in with their own stories.

We all agreed it is a normal childhood experience -- to cut one’s own hair. We laughed about the "drama" of it all and tears shed over something as silly as -- hair.

But what if this experience wasn’t considered ‘normal’ at all?

Just for a second, imagine that my cousin’s features, physical body, and hair never depicted the person she was.  Imagine her experiences at school, at the supermarket, within her own family didn’t just happen because of a bad haircut. But as a rejection of who she knew herself to be.

I want you to imagine that my cousin is transgender.

Are you able to feel the same sorrow for her now as you did when she was simply a little girl with boyish hair?

My cousin is not transgender. But her experience resembles a fraction of the betrayal, rejection, and disapproval someone who is trans must feel for simply being them.

I have met many LGBTQ persons who have cried sobs in my office with similar proclamations of shame as my cousin did at the age of 10.

I am not going to debate politics, religion, causation, biology, diagnoses, or any other factor associated with gender identities. That is not what this blog is about.  

But I will make the case for empathy.

Empathy is what makes us human. It allows us to imagine one another’s experience and to actually-- feel it. It is not feeling sorry for someone or passively watching them struggle from afar. To empathize is to completely forget your own experience and engross yourself in another.  

Empathy is what allows us to love and be loved. It allowed you to feel my guilt in my part of what happened to my cousin and allowed you to feel my cousin’s shame, confusion, inner-conflict, and incongruence between her inside and outside self.

Without it, little girls with boyish haircuts become victims.

Without it, the woman in your bible study who believes differently than you is a heretic.

Without it, that coworker with a different political orientation than yours becomes an enemy.

It’s funny how certain details (transgender, LGBTQ, old, young, atheist, Jewish, male, female, white, black, Asian) can over-power the empathy inside us.

Maybe you were able to empathize regardless of whether my cousin is transgender. Or maybe changing this detail allowed you to empathize even more.

To you, I say -- well done.

But for those of you who held back, stopped short, and turned your empathy switch into "off" position: I implore you to reconsider.  Before you let any judgment, morality, bias, beliefs, or values creep into your heart -- trust your human instinct.

Let empathy lead.

And the next time you see that person who looks, acts, thinks, feels, believes differently than you -- 

Remember my little cousin and her bad haircut.

This is a true story from my childhood, yet some details have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.  All commenting for this post has been turned off in an attempt to keep this blog a positive and safe place for anyone looking to find wit, wisdom, and wellness.  If you have questions, comments, or concerns, please feel free to contact me via this blog or by email at  I would be love to connect with you! Thank you!

Heather is married to a funny blue devil, mom to three lively boys, and singer both on stage and in her child's ear. She is the owner of Kaloupek Counseling, LLC a private practice offering mental health services to children, teens, and adults in Decatur, IL.  You can read more about her, her blog, and counseling practice here.  Want to reach out? Send her an email!  She would love to hear from you!

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