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Whether you’ve got a lot or a little, the statement we most often use to convey the idea that we’re not hung up on our crown is, “It’s just hair.” Pretty much anyone on the planet can tell you it’s BS. Even when you proclaim that sentiment after cutting it all off, not having hair is usually so much more. Sometimes just a statement of style, in other instances a declaration of your comfort level with yourself and non-conventional beauty aesthetics. But whether you’ve got it or not, it’s more than just hair.

About 37 color changes in, we sort of let Willow Smith and her ever-evolving hairstyles go—mostly because we couldn’t keep up with it. One day there was colored weave, the next it was cut to a low fade, one week later it was pink, then yellow, then green, and so on and so on. Again we heard reactions that it’s “just hair” but there was also a feeling that Willow may have been acting out, her parents had no control over her, and essentially she was too young for all of that. Will and Jada pretty much kept silent about the public’s comments but now that he’s on his media circuit for his upcoming film, he’s finally explained why his 11-year-old has been allowed to change her hair as she has.

“We let Willow cut her hair,” Will told Parade. “When you have a little girl, it’s like how can you teach her that you’re in control of her body? If I teach her that I’m in charge of whether or not she can touch her hair, she’s going to replace me with some other man when she goes out in the world. She can’t cut my hair but that’s her hair. She has got to have command of her body. So when she goes out into the world, she’s going out with a command that it is hers. She is used to making those decisions herself. We try to keep giving them those decisions until they can hold the full weight of their lives.”

Will’s comments made me think about the stories so many women tell about traumatizing experiences having their hair permed as girls. For a lot of the women who have since given up relaxers and gone natural, there seemed to be a sense that they didn’t have control over their hair, let alone their bodies, but more importantly what was attractive. Many have felt that the straightening and the pulling and the tugging and the smoothing were early messages that they can’t dictate their own beauty, what’s beautiful has to be dictated to them.

The aspect of male influence is also an interesting idea. On the one hand it relates to the simple issue of hair. On a macro-level, men’s proclamation of desire for long-haired women gets ingrained in our psyches and it can be tempted to ascribe to that. On a personal level, most women have been informed by a male partner in their lives, just how he likes their hair—don’t cut it, wear it straight, get a weave, I don’t like weave, keep it like you always do. There can be real pleasure to keep a man happy with your hair and it’s a control he really shouldn’t be given. On the other hand, it speaks to our bodies in general. If we let a man dictate our hair choices, what else can he talk us into with our bodies? It seems like a far stretch, but often it isn’t one. I do think there’s a big difference between a father telling his daughter what he won’t allow and a boyfriend or even husband making those demands, but the precedent Will is setting is a good one.

Though I was initially in the camp thinking what the heck is going on with Willow, I think I applaud Will and Jada’s approach to their daughter’s hair as a teachable life lesson. It’s not necessarily that Willow’s hair is too much for her age, it’s a boldness we’re not used to seeing from someone her age. It’s really not much different to the shock there would have been at one point and time if an 11-year-old girl was to walk into her classroom rocking a natural fro amongst a sea of girls with fresh Just For Me relaxers. Most of us had been looking at Willow’s hair as sending the message she can do anything she wants, and in a way it still is, but with a positive connotation. She can be beautiful any way she wants and she can dictate the way her body is seen and used. That’s a lesson that it’s really never too early to learn.

Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.

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