Splitting Hairs

They say marriage is about compromise. My daughter is wearing ours on her head.

In Nicaragua, where my husband’s from, it’s customary to shave babies’ heads on the theory that their hair will grow in longer, lusher, and healthier.

In New York, where I’m from, it’s customary to shave the heads of convicts and privates in the army, to break down their sense of individual identity. I would never want my precious, four-month-old little lady to look like an extra from a preschool production of Full Metal Jacket.  

But as the robust moptop little Amalía was born with started to fall out, leaving her bald on the sides of her head and with what looked like a not-very-artful toupée on top, my husband kept bringing up the idea of a quick razor cut.

“It’ll help her hair grow in more even and thick,” Emilio swore.

“That’s an old wives’ tale,” I insisted. I used to be a beauty editor for women’s magazines; I’ve interviewed trichologists. All the experts agree you can’t change your hair follicles; stubble only looks thicker and darker than the hair that was shaved off.

My husband had his own expert: “My mom said it works.”

“Babies don’t want buzzcuts,” I insisted. Emilio looked unconvinced, so I added a warning: “When we shave her head, we shave yours, too.” He backed off, literally, walking away still facing me so I couldn’t sneak up on his scalp.

I thought that was the end of it. Until we visited his family in Managua. “She lost all her hair!” a cousin said, kissing Amalía hello. “Don’t worry, it’ll grow back thicker when you shave it; go to my salon—they give the baby’s first haircut for free.”

It wasn’t just my husband. His entire country was so devoted to the idea of depriving little ones of their hair that stylists were willing to do it gratis.

Everywhere we went we were surrounded by adorable babies with shaved heads. They looked cute. But they also looked just a little bit pissed off.

Still, I started to doubt myself. Could an entire nation…a nation of people with, I had to admit, pretty enviable heads of hair, be wrong? My side of the family didn’t bring much to the genetic pool, hairwise. In fact, my mother’s hair is pretty thin. No one had taken the time to shave her as a baby. Was I dooming my daughter to a lifetime of stringy hair?

“Am I depriving Amalía of good hair down the road?”  I asked Emilio.

“Sos una mala mama,” his goddaughter interrupted. “You’re a bad mother.” She’s seven years old, and a bilingual evil genius.

Would Amalía hate me one day? I wondered. It’s safe to say she will, but I don’t want it to be because of the hair thing.

“So no one in your family had their head shaved?” Emilio asked, no doubt wondering what kind of people he had married into.

None of these are my dad...but I bet they all have great hair.

I couldn’t lie. In the Greek mountain village where my father grew up during the post-World-War Two famine, they shaved little kids heads’ so that they wouldn’t attract lice. Truth be told, the man’s in his mid-seventies now and he still has a fabulous mane of hair. But my baby is fat, happy, and lice-free. And I plan to keep her that way.

“Of course, sweetness,” my husband said. “If you have that kind of cultural baggage associated with head-shaving, I can see why you wouldn’t want to do it.” He smiled at me benignly, as if I were the one with the weird hang-ups about babies’ hair. “But how about a trim, just to clean her up a little?”

Do four-month-olds even need trims? And wouldn’t that defeat the whole purpose—wasn’t it the shaving that was supposed to magically empower hair?

“She’ll go from looking like Adolf Hitler to Audrey Hepburn,” he continued.

 Amalía did have a bit of a Chaplin-in-The-Great-Dictator combover happening. And, like I said, marriage is about compromise. So my husband, my mother-in-law, and I brought our little Greekaraguan angel to the salon. The stylist had her sit on my mother-in-law’s lap in the adjustable chair, and draped a smock around her. Amalía grinned. She may not have opinions about her hair—yet—but she knows how she feels about lots of attention.

“We’re not going to shave her head,” my husband began.

The stylist raised her eyebrows but said nothing—she is a hair care professional, after all, and she could tell this nice man was married to a crazy foreigner, so his judgment was impaired.

“We just want the ends shorter while the top grows in.” He knelt a bit so he’d be eye level with Amalía’s hair and the stylist’s scissors.

Amalía smiled throughout the entire procedure. But I was frowning, at least internally. What if this wasn’t just a haircut, but the beginning of an entire lifetime of cultural mores to be fought over, with my daughter’s tiny body as a battlefield. How did my husband feel about lower-back tattoos? Mohawks? Acid-washed jeans? None of which I would ever want Amalía to desecrate her body with. Why had none of this come up when we were dating? Whatever Emilio thought about these issues, I now knew a whole tribe of relatives, and, perhaps, a whole nation of people, would stand behind him, sharpening the razor.

When the haircut was over, I felt a fraction of what Abraham must have when the good Lord told him, just kidding, you don’t have to sacrifice your child. It had been a close call, but Amalía had come through just fine.

“She’s even cuter now,” my huaband crowed. “Admit it, this was the best idea I’ve ever had.”

I had to give credit where credit was due.

“She looks adorable,” I admitted. “Although…do you think she looks like a boy now?”

He stared at her precious little face. “She won’t,” he said. “Not if you finally let her get earrings.”


  1. Your daughter would be beautiful if she were as bald as a billiard ball! She is just adorable.

  2. Thanks, Sue! I humbly agree. It’s those good Greekaraguan genes! But I still think I would be sad every time I looked at her if her head were shaved. I would feel like she was in basic training.

  3. amalia’s first haircut story was laugh out loud hysterical! she looks adorable…god bless…my granddaughter lucy eleni hasn’t hair to speak of but i can’t wait to forward this story to my daughter in law!

  4. Neil Cunningham says:

    Love this piece, Eleni. Amalia is beautiful, hair or no hair. I truly enjoy your Facebook posts and reading your writing here. Can’t wait for the new book.

  5. That’s a lovely picture of Amalia. She’s a gorgeous little girl, with any length hair. That sure is a winning smile!!

  6. Thanks everyone! I’m lucky my husband (and his family) don’t mind my writing about them! I bet Amalía is going to start objecting as soon as she can speak!

  7. I do not know how you can convince the Central Americanos about the hiar follicles.Baby is losing her hair now and it will grow in as stronger baby hair,but not bk you shave it. I am sure the idea of shaving came from the lice situation way back when. Lice are international, my kids had them till sixth grade. Any time I saw a girl with long hair I mentally applauded the mother for the work involved.

  8. Love this post, love you, love Amalia. Can’t wait to get my copy of your book in the mail from Amazon!

  9. Being that you love folklore and tradition, I thought you might find this interesting. Traditionally, babies do not receive any trim or haircut until their baptism where they receive their first trim from the priest at the baptism when he tonsures the newly baptized with four snips (in the form of a cross, from the front of the head, the back and from each side). This is then followed by the Chrismation, where the Holy Unction is placed cross-shaped in various places on the body.

    Most people miss these details as they are focused on the crying and usually screaming baby.

  10. Evi, I remember my mom braiding my hair diligently before school every morning.
    Glenn, we all love you back!
    And Matthew, it will amuse you to know that I messaged my Presvytera on Facebook before the haircut to see if it was OK to cut Amalía’s hair before the baptism…everyone agreed we shouldn’t if she said no, even Amalías’s hair-obsessed Papi. But she said that it was tradition not to cut the baby’s hair, not dogma, so to go ahead with the haircut if we wanted to do so. Now her hair is falling out so I just hope she has enough to cut by the time we baptise her in July!

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