Willow Smith’s Shaved Head: Why Does This Child’s Short Haircuts Get Black Folk So Riled Up?

Willow Smith debuted a freshly shaven head last week—a new down-to-the-scalp hairdo that, of course, elicited all kinds of uproar across the internets, as the internets are wont to do when Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith’s daughter, she of “Whip My Hair” fame, is involved. Typically, black folk are alternately accusing The Smiths of bad parenting, calling the 11-year-old media darling a spoiled, unruly, rotten child and acting as if Willow’s haircut has thrown the Earth’s rotational spin off its axis.

Really, folks, it’s just hair.

Of course, as an African American mother of two girls, I understand just how loaded that statement is. It’s never “just hair” for black girls; length, texture, cut and style is everything, and, revival of the natural hair movement notwithstanding, nobody even remotely entertains shaving a little girl’s hair down to the scalp. It doesn’t matter how perfectly her head is shaped, how much it makes her eyes pop, how beautiful she looks—as Willow does—in all-too-many eyes, a girlchild should never, ever be bald.

I speak this from a very personal truth—one that involved my then-3-year-old daughter Mari, her twists, a pair of scissors and her cousin Miles’ idle hands. I’ve written extensively about that fateful day when the two of them worked together to give Mari a reverse Mohawk. All of us were shaken. Nick cried. Literally cried. I took my baby girl upstairs, washed her hair and decided after getting a gander at all the bald spots cut from her forehead to just beyond her crown that the only logical thing to do to fix the mess they’d created was to shave her head all the way down and start growing it all over again. Honestly, I didn’t think it would be a big deal; I figured her pierced ears, uber-girl wardrobe and a few choice headbands would help minimize the number of people who would think she was a boy while her hair grew back in, fuller and prettier than it was before. Besides, we’d had examples in our family of little girls and women who wore their hair super short; Nick’s sister, Angelou, got married with her hair shaved all the way down to her scalp, and his other sister, Adrienne, didn’t hesitate to cut her daughters’ hair low when they were little girls. All of them were every bit as stunning as Willow is in the sassy pictures she posted on her Willow Smith WhoSay account.

Still, Nick was adamantly, patently against my shaving our daughter’s hair. He was too afraid that, no matter how cute, people would constantly mistake her for a boy and that, he reasoned, would give her a complex—make our already reserved daughter retreat into a shell. Rather than argue, I took her to a natural hair salon, where the stylists were more than happy to McGiver braids into her wisps of hair rather than shave it down—which they, too, argued against.

But why? Really—what’s so deep and foul and wrong about a little girl with a shaved head? What about it says, “her parents are too lenient” and “she looks too grown”     and “ew, she looks like a boy” for so many people? Why can’t it just be a hairstyle—like cornrows or afro puffs or pigtails with bangs or a press-and-curl or twists? We give nary a second thought to black boys wearing cornrows, thick curly hair (see Jaden’s pre-haircut pics and any photo of practically every pre-teen boy band) and earrings in both ears—don’t say a word when a mother slaps a relaxer or synthetic hair or clip-on’s in a 4-year-old girl’s hair, but mercy, let a little girl show off her natural features and… yeah.

 I showed pictures of Willow Smith with her newly-shaved head to my Mari and Lila and though they think she looks “way cool,” both agreed that it takes a certain kinda girl with a certain kinda personality to pull it off. “She doesn’t have to worry about anybody making fun of her because she’s famous,” Mari said. “On her, it’s just cool.” I agree. And I wish we could give all little 11-year-old girls the space to wear their hair just the way they want and feel cool about their choices, sans the judgment. Sans the ridicule. Sans having to worry about other peoples’ conventional standards. After all, it’s just hair.


1. Willow Smith & The Stripper Pole: Kids Will Be Kids—Even Will And Jada’s
2. That New, New: Willow Smith, The Hair Whip, and Coloring Outside the Lines
3. Angelina Jolie Put Synthetic Braids In Zahara’s Hair. And We Care Because… Why?
4. A Beautiful Black Girl Finally Says, “I Love My Hair!”

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Black people especially men still think a woman’s hair is her crowning glory. I don’t know if I like the shaved head, but it’s not my child so it doesn’t matter what I think. They are going to parent in whichever way that they think is best. If more people took the approach of worrying about their own kids more than what other people are doing maybe some of their kids would be in better shape. Moral of this story: take care of your kids and stop telling others how to raise theirs. Gets off soapbox now.

  2. I really love her new do! When my youngest was a little over a year I shaved her head down to the scalp. She has severe eczema and food allergies and she was having bald spots and hair that refused to grow, so one day I just got tired of it and just went snip crazy. It took some getting used to, it didn’t matter what color she wore or what I had in her hair people already called her a boy and so I just kindly corrected them and kept on moving. My husband didn’t really have much to say because he felt he wasn’t the one that had to do her hair. Even to this day with all of her hair, pink and purple clothing, and jacket and hearing aids… people still call her a boy. That just gives her the opportunity to assert herself and say, “I’m a Girl!” and she says it just as enthusiastically and excited as I wrote it. We celebrate our girls and if they so choose (besides wearing synthetic hair, daddy doesn’t like the style on his girls) to wear their hair in a Frohawk, Mohawk, Twists, Cornrolls, Natural or Blow dried and curled. By golly that’s what we are going to do. The only thing we will say no to is a Perm, and we will stand by that until they are old enough (16-17) to take care of or pay someone to take care of their own head of hair…

    So Willow keep whipping your hair and ignore the nay sayers, I think her parents are raising her right. Because they have instilled in her the confidence to be herself and to buck the little box people like to put girls into…

  3. politicallyincorrect

    Its b/c people think Willow acts “grown”. Mel B had her daughter w/ shaved head and mohawks and she was a toddler, no one said anything.

    • actually , many things was said about Mel B parenting also. It says more about the people criticizing than it does the parents.

  4. When I was 12, I had a jheri curl misshap that resulted in my mom taking me to get all my hair cut off. I really believed my mom and my hairdresser when they oohed, and ahhed and gasped, and told me I looked like a nubian princess. I felt beautiful. It was only when I got to school that kids teased me and I freaked and became self-conscious; or when strangers would mistake me for a boy. As painful as that period was, it gave me an inner strength that I wouldn’t trade for nothin’! No one was surprised when at 19 I cut off my shoulder length permed hair, and went back to wearing it shaved. I really had come to a point where I needed to accept that the way God made my hair was just fine, and I didn’t need to alter, chemicalize or straighten any part of it to appreciate it. That self acceptance is something I wish for all Black women, regardless of how they choose to wear their hair. Good for Willow, that she’s learning this at 11!

  5. It’s a combination of fear and fear. Fear that she’s growing up too fast, and fear that she’s messing with something that “everybody knows, don’t grow.” In our community we have deep deep fear around our baby girls being fresh. Well, we used to anyway. Nowadays we see some parents encourage it as a form of expression.

    My daughter’s best friend was six when her mother dyed her locked hair reddish blonde. By 9 she allowed the child to shave her head and to dye the few little locs she had left purple. I took this sweet girl and my daughter up to my church to run an errand, and an old school member said to me before he even said hello “what have you done to this child’s head?” I laughed if off, but later I couldn’t shake how saddened I was that he said this in front of the baby.

    What happened that day was part of why we have a fear of giving children hairstyles that are usually reserved for teenagers or adults. We don’t want children to feel any kind of way that is outside of the realm of innocent. We want them to be kids. We especially don’t want adults to view our babies any kind of way outside of the realm of innocent because they might hurt the babies.

    Now, the story you describe above about your little baby getting her head shaven is a whole other kind of fear. We fear our children looking un-cute. We think short hair will lead others to view our baby as un-cute. We want our babies to look as cute as possible because we know as adults that they will experience the inevitable backhand of not being viewed as beautiful as other races or skin tones of women. It’s deep, but it’s real. Not much we can do about it, but instill self-worth and self-confidence in the babies. I cut my one year old’s hair into a small afro because she had uneven hair and because she hated me combing it. I received all kinds of side-eyes and wagged fingers from every direction. Today that child is 15 and she still wears a fro. She receives those same side-eyes and wagged fingers, but somehow she takes it in stride and loves every inch of her fro.

  6. I personally think this is too grown for a little girl. Yes, she is still a little girl and she’s got a little too much sassiness in her and I don’t think it’s cute at all. But she ain’t my child but if she were, it wouldn’t be allowed in my house.

    • Girl it’s just a fro. It’s not “too grown” at all. It’s. What. Her. Hair. Looks. Like. It’s what all Black women’s hair actually looks like when it’s not permed. There is nothing “too grown” about wearing one’s hair the way it grows out of our heads. You really need to remove that attitude from your lexicon. That’s crazy.

  7. If black parents stop raising their children to be so hateful of one another, the average little black girl could wear her hair short without fear of ridicule. But ignorance and stupidity has followed many from the plantation and has had a chokehold on sensibility through the generations. Until black folks without the economic advantageous Willow Smith was born into are willing to accept themselves as is, then those of us who break from the sheep mentality will have to instill self confidence and self esteem into our children ourselves and let them know it’s ok to go against the grain. Quit worrying about what other “races” think! Blacks are blacks worst enemy.

  8. john poloboy jackson

    this girl is good lookin good and all but if she wanna rock low hair she would look good with waves probaly if doesnt change her hair for the 1000th time

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