Thursday, May 24, 2018

Decoding the Dress Code

My daughter's junior high school has a dress code policy that includes a prohibition on unnaturally-colored hair. I've always been somewhat aware of this rule and thought it was stupid, but it was never an issue because my daughter never expressed any interest in dyeing her hair--until recently. She was approaching the end of ninth grade and wanted to do something fun with her hair for the summer, and she really wanted to do it before the end of school so all her friends would see. I wasn't sure how strictly the dress code is enforced--I hoped it was one of those things where they have an outdated rule on the books, but in reality people are more reasonable than to enforce it--but I knew that she would be taking a chance of getting in trouble if she did it. We talked about that risk and she decided she was willing to take it. I was excited to share the joys of dyed hair with my child and I was proud to see her challenge a rule that shouldn't have existed in the first place, but ultimately the decision was hers: her body, her choice.

I dyed her hair last Friday. She only wanted a little bit in back done, kind of a peek-a-boo splash of color. I loved it. She went to a band festival at Lagoon on Saturday and had fun showing off the new colors. She went to school on Monday and Tuesday. No problems. Tuesday night she had a band concert. When she came up front for her jazz band solo and again for her symphonic band Most Valuable Player award, her colors were very visible. She looked beautiful. And, as it happened, the principal was sitting on the front row.

How do you expect students to learn while her hair looks like this?!

The next morning Daughter was called into the office and told that if she wanted to participate in any of the end-of-year activities over the next week, she would have to cover the unnatural-colored dye with spray-on natural-colored dye. I was furious. Following is the letter I wrote to the principal, who is retiring after this school year, as well as to next year's incoming principal, annotated for your enjoyment and edited to protect the identities of the innocent and guilty alike:
Hi Current Principal (C.P.) and Future Principal (F.P.)--
I am emailing both of you because this morning my daughter was dress-coded for having colored hair, and this raises both immediate concerns I hope C.P. will address, and long-term concerns I hope F.P. will address. I am not surprised that this happened--I know the rules and I discussed the potential consequences with Daughter when she asked me to dye her hair two weeks before school was out, in order to show off the colors to her friends--but I am nonetheless upset, disappointed, and frankly a little sickened. I recognize the dress code is an Alpine School District rule*, but whether and how you enforce the rule is your choice, C.P., and it will be your choice, F.P., so I will hold each of you directly responsible for your choices. 
A dress code that restricts what color a student's hair is--or for that matter anything related to how they use their own bodies to express themselves--has no right to exist in 2018. Enforcing this rule sends the message to children that others have the right to tell them what to do or not do with their bodies, and that is a very dangerous message to send. I would hope that in the wake of the #MeToo movement, we all know better than to seek to impose our own values and desires on someone else's body without their consent. Clearly that isn't the case or the movement wouldn't have been necessary in the first place, but at the very least I expect educators to send a very strong message to children--and especially to young women--that their bodies are their own. Period. 
I imagine the dress code had a purpose at one point, to prepare children to succeed in a professional environment where conformity was valued, but that is no longer the world we live in. As you've seen, I typically have my own hair dyed in bright, unnatural colors, and this has had zero impact on my career. In my role as a director** for a global technology company, I have worked with clients at major companies in Silicon Valley, and neither my employer nor my clients care what color my hair is. They are only concerned with the quality of my work, my integrity, and other such things that actually matter. 
Daughter is a straight-A*** student taking multiple AP and honors courses, constantly receiving awards for her art and music, in the process gaining the respect of her teachers and peers, and you, C.P., have chosen to penalize her for expressing herself creatively in a way that literally harms no one, only because it violates an arbitrary, outdated, harmful rule. To be clear, Daughter does not come by her success without challenges: Among other things, her parents are divorced and she is the child of a gay father living in an extremely heteronormative community. Through no choice of her own, she is different in a community that does not value difference. As a gay atheist in Orem, Utah, I have some idea of what that is like, but I can only imagine how junior high school intensifies that experience. I would not blame Daughter for hiding her difference in an attempt to fit in, but she chooses to be open with her friends about herself and her family with a quiet courage that I did not have at her age. Her choice to dye her hair was an artistic way of saying, "I am different, and I am proud of who I am."**** As a father, I could not be prouder. 
My point is not to say that my daughter has special reasons for coloring her hair, so you should make an exception for her. My point is that every child has reasons for expressing themselves the way they choose to, and so long as they are not harming themselves or others, we should encourage that, not punish it. It is one thing to tell children what they can wear to school*****, but it is something else entirely to tell them what they can and can't do with their own bodies--this affects their lives outside of school, and considering that school is mandatory this imposes your values on their lives in a way that is unfair and unhealthy. My children don't often break rules, but I can promise you that if they did break a rule that actually had a reason to exist, I would be 100% with you. However, so long as my child is breaking a rule that is unjust, I will defend and support her decision to do so. 
C.P., I realize you are about a week from the end of the school year and retirement, but it is never too late to admit you were wrong and make things right. Recently, when Daughter was chosen to be a section leader in the high school marching band, I told her one of the most important things a leader can do is admit when they are wrong. I imagine that with your leadership experience, that is a lesson you already know well. I know you love the children you work with****** and you want what's best for them, and I am here to tell you that attempting to exert control over their bodies is not what's best for them and it does not show love. 
F.P., I know that a survey recently went out asking students how they feel about dress code enforcement (among other things). I hope that is a sign that you are seriously considering abandoning this ridiculous rule. If you need more convincing, I'll be happy to discuss further with you. 
*I have since learned the district's dress code is pretty vague. It is the junior high's own rule that explicitly forbids unnaturally-colored hair. 
**I actually switched from the director role into my current instructional designer role last September, but that didn't seem as relevant as the client-facing role I was in for three years. 
***I have since been reminded that she got one A- in eighth grade. 
****I should clarify, that's my interpretation of what she's saying with her hair. She didn't actually tell me this. She may well have only been saying, "I like pretty colors." That is also a worthwhile artistic statement. 
*****To be clear, I feel pretty much the same about restricting a child's clothing as I do about restricting their hair color, but I figure one battle at a time, and I do think there's a significant difference in the degree of invasiveness of the two. 
******She told me so the night before, when we were chatting after the band concert. 


  1. Here is the principal's response:

    Hi Ben,

    Thank you for letting us know about your concerns.

    As you are well aware, our purpose as a school and school district is to educate students. Our dress code is not designed to restrict creativity or to embarrass students, but to keep distractions at a minimum so the focus is on learning.

    I completely agree that the current trend is colored hair. Trends come and go, and it is now common to see many people with colored hair. One of the problems with allowing colored hair is where do we draw the line? When it is okay and when is it distracting to learning? The only consistent way we have found is to not allow it.

    School Community Council and PTSA have brought up and discussed our dress code in the past. At the end of these discussions, both groups supported the dress code, including not allowing colored hair. Our planner was printed in June of 2017 with the dress code in its current form. On page 18 of our school handbook, it shows the hair policy: “no shaving lines or designs in hair or colors that are not found on humans.” We are not against looking at changing a policy, but altering during the school year, or not following through, creates inconsistencies that make it confusing and difficult to deal with.

    I hope you can appreciate that as a school and administration we are responsible for 1250 students. If we start ignoring rules selectively and allowing students to choose which rules they follow, it would have a negative impact on our learning environment. As a PTSA member, you are aware of our focus on learning and our school policies. There are also correct ways to petition a change in school policy which would be to get on the agenda of any meeting you attended this year. Not going through proper channels and waiting until the end of the school year to voice your concerns, especially on a special day for our 9th Grade students, is not the most productive way to go about it.

    We hope you will give much thought to, and perhaps reconsider your position because tonight and the end of the year should be about celebrating the success of all of our students.


    [Principal and assistant principals]

  2. Here is my response:

    Hi C.P.--

    I did not have a concern until you called my daughter into your office yesterday. When I had a concern I voiced it. Telling me that I didn't do so at the right time or in the right way is not very helpful. I attend PTSA meetings when I can but dress code has never been discussed in any meeting I attended. If it had been, I would have said at the time that I find the policy ethically wrong, because it is. Asking me to go through proper channels and wait for the proper time when my child is suffering right now because of a rule that never should have been in the handbook in the first place is putting more value on rules than on human beings. When a human being is suffering, we don't make plans to act later; we act now.

    Where do you draw the line? That is an easy question to answer: You draw the line at exactly the point that one child's self-expression harms herself or any other child. That point is far beyond coloring hair. The argument that colored hair distracts students from learning is a silly argument--I do not know of a single instance where someone was unable to focus on learning because of someone else's hair. If that were the case, the problem should be addressed with the student who has attention problems, not with the student harmlessly coloring her hair. To say otherwise is like blaming rape victims for dressing too provocatively.

    If by asking me to reconsider my position you're asking me to change how I feel about you telling my daughter what to do with her own body, the answer is no, I will not reconsider that position. If you're asking me to tell my daughter to cover up her colored hair in order to jump through your arbitrary hoops, that's not my decision to make because it isn't my body. That said, I bought Daughter the spray-on dye you requested yesterday, even before I emailed you, and I told her she could choose whether or not to use it. It's important to teach my children bodily autonomy, but it's also important to teach them that sometimes people in positions of power abuse that power, putting us in positions where we have to choose between conceding to unreasonable demands or suffering unreasonable consequences. This is an unfortunate lesson that everyone has to learn sooner or later; it's especially unfortunate that Daughter will remember you as someone who put her into one of these Catch 22 situations, rather than as the kind, loving person I know you are.

    Daughter chose to cover up the colors this morning in order to participate in tonight's celebration. We will be there to celebrate with her. I hope you spend the remainder of your time at the junior high focusing more on celebrating students' successes and on learning, and less on inconsequential things like the color of a student's hair.


  3. I have not yet heard from the incoming principal on his plans for the dress code next year. I will follow up with him if I don't hear back, then decide how to proceed from there. I don't think we'll see any change happen in the next week before the school year ends, but I am hopeful we will change the policy for future students.