Tangled: On hair dye, politics, and the CCSD

The politics of hair starts early. In fact, it starts when you’re born. It’s why there’s a market for teeny tiny hair clips and baseball caps for newborns. With the exception of pink and blue onesies, it’s the first chance society gets to start the complicated process of indoctrinating us in identities involving gender, race, and ethnicity. We scarcely get out a newborn caterwaul before the rules about who we are supposed to be start to get branded upon us.

Still, as pigtails and fades start to, well, fade into adulthood, many of us are still shackled to ideas about our own identities based on our hair. It’s 2016 and I still hear people talk about how girls with short hair are dykes or see headlines of another black woman being fired for wearing her hair the way black women have been wearing their hair forever. I mean, when I type “black woman fired …” Google auto-fills it with “for hair.” Hell, it would take a year to read all the think-pieces and watch all the movies/docs about black hair politics alone.

The hair thing extends beyond race, too. My husband, whom I met in high school, started losing his hair in college. Luckily, he has a sense of humor about being bald by 25. Still, there’s no denying that for women in the exact same situation, shaving it all off just isn’t an option without constant societal pushback. Even actresses who shave their heads for a role – Charlize Theron, Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, Demi Moore, et al – often complain about how much it messed with their own feelings about beauty, gender identity, and confidence. If women who are celebrated as (traditional) beauty icons feel pressure to get their locks back, what hope do everyday women have?

Then there’s the seemingly infinite number of magazine articles, beauty columns, and commercials that tell us in no uncertain terms that (white) women are only “worth it” if they chose the right kind of haircut and color for their age and station in life. I mean, there’s a very specific woman that media is for. I acknowledge that I fit into that demographic, in that I’m a middle-aged white woman. But I don’t feel age-panic about grey hairs – even as commercials assure me that there won’t be any if I use their product. Society is very clear on this point: Stop looking old, you aging hag.

The confusing thing about entering the middle era of life is that the conversations about my fuckability are still present, but now they skew toward making sure that I have an appropriate level of societally approved conventional beauty. Whatever the hell that is. (I’m guessing my penchant for faux-hawks and generally giving zero fucks is a no-no.) If I am to believe media hype and twitter feuds, as a soon-to-be 40-year-old woman, I must strive to be vaguely fuckable (even though I’m married, so I’m good, thanks) — but definitely not too fuckable. Since I only turn 40 this year, I probably have one or two days left before my Last Fuckable Day, but the end is nigh.

I suppose that’s why there are so many pages devoted to exactly how I should do my hair. Just do a search for “best haircuts for 40 year old woman” and you’ll find pages of posts about how middle-aged women need to cut their hair into bobs and lobs with an occasional pixie cut in the mix. The message is clear: Stop trying to have bedroom hair, you unfuckable hag!

Maybe that’s why so many of us spend a lifetime trying to dismantle the so-called rules we’ve been told to accept as unbreakable laws. And it’s probably why so many see their hair – the cut, color, and styling thereof – as not only a form of self-expression but as a locus of identity. It’s why stories about coming out as queer or trans often include a makeover. We’ve all heard the story of the lesbian who felt liberated by getting her first butch cut. Or what about the stories about trans people feeling authentic and validated when they can finally express their gender by growing out or cutting off their hair?

Hair. It’s a big deal.

So now we come to this modern era in which models are on catwalks with candy colored hair and the internet is blowing up with images of opal, galaxy, and secret-cat hair color trends. Whether you call these colors unnatural, bright, unusual, or just plain fun, it was probably inevitable that the equal and opposite reaction would rear it’s head. What I call self-expression and harmless, some school administrators are calling a “distraction,” at least in the Clark County School District.

[Side note: Pink’s “Trouble” just came up on my Spotify radio. Not kidding. LOL, the universe has got a sense of humor!]

This particular trouble started when a Ralph Cadwallder Middle School student named Lorelei was told by school staff that a new dress code rule had just been enacted that prohibited “unnatural” hair colors because they are “distracting” in the classroom. She and other students with such hair colors had a handful of days to dye their hair a “normal” color or face disciplinary action, according to Lorelei’s letter which accompanies her Chang.org petition that protests the policy.

Lorelei’s petition went viral, garnering more than 1,500 signatures by the time of the CCSD school board meeting last week. Lorelei and her mother Rebecca Newberry – who both decline to speak to the media – reportedly asked the school board to reconsider the dress code change at that meeting on April 14. (Out of respect, I did not try to contact either Lorelei or Rebecca Newberry.)

Chief among Lorelei’s well-articulated complaints was that the school had arbitrarily changed the dress code without notice to students or parents and that this change comes just weeks before the school year is set to end. At issue was not only the rights of students to freely express their individuality, but also the veracity of the timing of a seemingly capricious rule-change.

When it comes to the lack of notice, Lorelei’s pushback is very reasonable. If bright hair colors are a distraction, as school officials (allegedly) said, then why not publicly announce that the rules would change at the start of the new school year in a widely distributed policy that applies to all students? Furthermore, where is the data that backs up the assertion that hair colors are disrupting class? And how could a change of dress code happen without at least a cursory communication with parents as well as students?

So many questions … and so few answers.

CCSD does have a basic dress code and also allows for school administrators to opt-in to a more strict Standard Student Attire dress code, which specifies colors and types of clothing. However, there is no mention of hair or its color in the rules. And the dress code expressly states that school officials are responsible for communicating with parents about dress code rules and any changes thereof. In fact, there’s a lengthy section pertaining to changes to dress code policy (PDF), which includes ensuring “student/parent/staff input and involvement throughout the decision-making process.”

For its part, the school district has remained mum on the issue. However, Newberry sent out a message today via Change.org that said after the ACLU of Nevada met with school administrators this morning, a note was sent home with students about the dress code. The note, printed on pink paper, reads in part:

[T]he decision has been made that students do not need to have natural colors in their hair. However, for future reference, if these unnatural colors begin to distract the environment or cause a campus disruption in any way, we have the right to take appropriate action to eliminate the disruption.

Whether this change came as a result of Lorelei’s petition or comments at the school board meeting, the resulting media attention, or the ACLU’s advocacy – or some combination of all of those – is unclear. Whatever the reason, it’s the right call.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ACLU is mentioned often in the numerous accounts of students battling schools for the right to wear their hair as they chose including in cases in Rhode Island, Virginia, and Missouri. The Rhode Island ACLU had this to say on the subject of school dress codes on hair color:

In the 1970’s, a federal appeals court that has jurisdiction over Rhode Island ruled in favor of a student who had been suspended for violating a school rule banning long hair on boys; one could argue that the same rights apply to students who dye their hair.

It’s interesting to me that this battle about hair, in various forms, continues decade after decade and often at the middle school level. What does it say about our society that at the first point at which young people start experimenting with their style and identity, society swiftly moves in to correct any behavior that is deemed deviant or threatening? The short answer: a lot.

When I put this question about hair dye to my personal social media feeds – which are populated by parents and teachers of all different political persuasions (even Republican and Libertarian, gasp!), the overwhelming feedback was that kids need to follow school dress codes but that those rules need to be very well circulated so parents and students know what is expected of them.

As my friend Kelda, who is a social worker, said, “Personally, I like the bright colors and don’t care about hair color. I call BS on it being a learning issue. However, I do think schools are responsible for establishing a dress code. … Dress codes should not be surprises, [regardless if they are] lax or strict. Changes in dress codes cost parents money and need to be planned in advance.”

My conservative friend Alex had a similarly pragmatic take. “I am all for dress codes and hair control policies if school administrators can apply them intelligently. Unfortunately, intelligence and school administrators is an oxymoron so they should probably just opt for either (a) uniforms or (b) free to be you and me.”

Meanwhile, my teacher friends seemed to care even less about hair color. High school English teacher (and mom) Kris said, “I have a few students with brightly colored hair. It causes zero distractions. … I have much bigger issues to deal with than brightly colored hair.”

And Linda, a retiree who was the oldest of those who responded, said, “Let them look how they want. They will have to be 9-to-5 conformists all too soon.”

I admit, this is not a scientifically viable sampling of society. However, it speaks volumes to me to see people who are often philosophical and political opposites have very similar views about this issue. People who responded to my query were religious and atheist, very liberal and very conservative, parents of young children and grandparents, activists and those who are apathetic about politics. Honestly, I have rarely seen an issue concerning kids have such a generally universal response.

It makes you wonder why any school administrator would disrupt the status quo to the extent we’ve seen with Lorelei’s case in Las Vegas – or that of any of the cases happening around the country right now.

Then again, let’s not forget how disruptive some adults find braids or baldness or hair length. If we are still giving adults this much guff for how they wear their hair, I guess it’s not surprising that pink hair is setting off alarms.

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