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Series Six: 03. Red Yellow
Braids and Bodies
After three and a half years, we finally gave E his first haircut.
That’s just about three and a half years after we gave his sister D her first haircut. We knew we wanted to wait until after she turned three, and finally got around to it after our extended family had a bout with head lice. After diligently pulling a fine-toothed nit comb through her uncut locks just days before I gave birth, I was very ready to see her hair go. We visited our dear friend who happens to be a retired hairdresser and D started her first day of preschool with a sophisticated bob.
We waited to cut their hair mostly out of reverent curiosity: let’s see what these new creatures grow out of their heads! But we were also inspired by a Jewish tradition. Admittedly, it’s a tradition practiced almost exclusively by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who at three years old cut all of a boy’s hair except the payes (dangly sidelocks) at a ceremony called an Upsherin. The timing comes from a law in the Torah that forbids harvesting fruit from a tree until it is at least three years old. While I didn’t follow other laws in the Torah dictating ritual cutting of boys, I’m moved by any observance that honors my child as a tree, regardless of gender.
Though perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise, the first haircut was a bigger deal for E. But we’ve moved past gender with regards to hair length, haven’t we? My cismale partner has long hair and I have short hair. I actually relished that E was constantly misgendered at the playground. Especially because we use gendered pronouns with the kids, other people calling him “she” felt like a nice reinforcement that gender is a construct. Keeping it long felt like a gesture of freedom for E’s body to do what it wanted to do and for E to be whoever E is.
But E’s hair was a bigger deal than D’s mostly because he had so much more of it. While she was born basically bald, he was born with a full head of hair, red hair that eventually turned the yellow that it is now. By the time he turned three, his head was like a flowing golden fountain of hair. When his third birthday rolled around, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to cut it.
Though his hair was beautiful, it was a pain in the ass to maintain. By the time he was going to school we has to physically restrain him for daily brushing and braiding, which he hated and told us so. We couldn’t just let it go free either. Once we experimentally let him go to school with his hair down and at the end of the day, the teacher ever so politely requested that we not do that ever again. He is constantly drooling, and hair falling in his face turns into a wet tangled mess. E has so much to say, so much to do, so much zest that he didn’t need all that hair to fully express who he was. The hair that had been a symbol of his freedom had finally become a burden, and it was time for his parents to let go.
If it wasn’t his birthday I knew we needed some other kind of milestone. Magically, this year his half-birthday lined up with the Jewish birthday of the trees: Tu B’Shvat. Why is there a Jewish birthday for trees? Well, if you can’t harvest from a tree until it is three years old, it’s handy to have one date when all the trees turn a year older to keep better track of when it’s okay to harvest. It would also a year to the day that my grandfather passed away. So for the weekend he turned three and a half, we lined up a visit to the same friend who had cut D’s hair for the first time. Appropriate for the significance of the occasion, she is married to the person who officiated our wedding. We emotionally readied ourselves for the coming transition.
The days before the haircut I turned into a one-person photo studio, following E around taking pictures of his hair: flowing around him in the bathtub, while he lay in his favorite spot on top of the heat vent, while he stood there looking like my baby. When we cut D’s hair, we also had a newborn. We were ready for her to be a big kid. Even though he still occasionally poops his pants, E’s hair felt like the last vestige of his babyhood. Cutting it would be a transition not only for him but for all of us. No more baby trees in this orchard, just mature stock.
The day of the cut, we borrowed a high chair to keep E relatively still. We sat E in it, then our friend draped a professional haircutting cape on him and started combing his hair. Suddenly, I felt panicked for ritual. “Wait!” I shouted. “I want to save his hair in a braid, let’s braid it!” Okay. She started to braid.
“Wait! Remember how we had D stand against that green wall for a Before and After picture? Let’s get E down and take a Before picture too!” Okay, take out the braid, take him out of the chair, take a picture. Put him back in the high chair, braid his hair again, take out the scissors.
“Wait! Maybe one of his parents should take the first cut!” I had cut both of the umbilical cords, so Justin insisted that he cut the braid. And suddenly it was happening, no bracha or blessing, just me holding up my phone to video Justin cutting and cutting until he was practically sawing while E wiggled in the chair.
Then the braid was off. E turned around to look at it with half a second of shock immediately replaced by a huge grin. The cut from where the braid had been was definitely shorter than we had anticipated, but our friend is an artist so she made it work. She gave him a proper haircut, and underneath it was E. Whatever rites we did or didn’t perform, the cutting was its own ritual, taking him from a past to a present version of himself. There he was: independent, free.
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Body Power. The power in your body, the power of having a body. Your body not only belongs to you, your body is you. What you do with your body is your choice.
As the first color cycle of Rainbow Squared, Red can also relate to youth and primary experiences. As the first instance of Yellow, Red Yellow can be an initial claiming of Power, stepping up to be embodied as your full self. How are you still becoming your own person? How can you honor your inner child and its freedom? How can you honor the inner children of those around you, or even actual children?
A braid can represent the uniting of past, present, and future, combining in your physical body as the braided strands in your cells, your DNA. How does your body connect you to those who came before you? Even if you don’t know anything about your many ancestors, you are braided to them just by being alive in your body.
How might ritual honor or heal your connection to the bodies that created the bodies that created you? Perhaps you even have access to ancestral practices around braiding or weaving. Making challah, a braided bread for Shabbat, is one example of a Jewish ancestral practice. Even if it's something your parents or those who raised you never claimed, might there be a tradition you can embody as your own? What practices do you find yourself drawn to without quite knowing why?
If this card appears in a reading, ask yourself: how are you honoring your body’s power? How are you ignoring or suppressing it? Do you or your dominant culture have beliefs about your body that sap that power? What physical actions can you take to honor bodily autonomy for you and the communities around you?