Time and time again I am reminded that our outlook on beauty—or should I say our perception of what should be deemed beauty—is forever dictated to and influenced by our environment, culture, history and social upbringing among other factors.
As a result of such contributing elements and the media’s ability to play up their favourite and profitable components, some groups and beauty standards get side eyed for not aligning with the majority. We should never be naïve to think such a thing doesn’t exist even if it is elegantly disguised as ‘suggested protocol’ or ‘the right way’.
During the course of the past week, I came across two things that left me stunned and disappointed. One was a Facebook dispute over hair policies at the Bishops’ High School that involved Minister Nicolette Henry and other was lewd and disgusting commentary shared by Facebook members over pictures that surfaced from a concept party called ‘Bad and Boujee’.
Though the contexts from both stories are on two different ends of the spectrum, it got me to thinking how our society systematically produces elitism and encourages inferiority complexes. They are different stories but they both sought to determine the acceptable look of a woman whether through clothing or hair styling.
Through the commentary I learnt that there seems to be a natural hair movement that is being embraced by students at the Bishops’ High. The movement is met with much resistance from teachers as students are being asked to not celebrate their hair to put it mildly. Bishops’ isn’t the first school where there has been a rebellion about hair policies. Last year, students from a prestigious high school in South Africa staged protests against their school which upheld rules such as limiting cornrows, dreadlocks and braids to a centimetre or less in diameter. The young girls were even encouraged by their teachers to use chemical straighteners.
Teenage years are hard. For me, it was a fickle time. Most young people want to fit in. I remember I visited a makeshift salon next to my school to have my hair straightened. I did so because even though there weren’t any rules policing me at school, the Eurocentric beauty standard was favoured among students; it helped your status in school. My time, however, was different. Teens today are way more informed which allows them the ability to make better choices for themselves when it comes to standards of beauty that they want to upkeep. Not to mention they are better informed on how to take better care of hair.
Fast forward to the party, where some women got body shamed and were slapped with words such as “stinka” and “dutty” among others because they were clad in skimpy lingerie. I realised there is no reason why I should be surprised. From a young age we get programmed how to leverage respect and chuck praise onto women.
Your hair is too frizzy, is automatically seen as bad. You are probably promiscuous if you wear short pants commonly known as ‘batty rider’. While I get that institutions have a right to set their own rules and such, institutions owned by the state should not police girls over such trivial matters as how to wear their hair. We shouldn’t be giving our students the opportunity to demonize each other’s personal style and beauty, because we would allow them to grow up thinking that is okay, as opposed to learning the concept of to each his own. We must be mindful how we train individuals to merit respect and dignity on outlook.
Not only does it infringe on the individual’s values and identity but it doesn’t add to the student’s educational experience. I not only say this as a past student, but now as qualified teacher (yes, I teach as well). One’s hair does not contribute to one’s academic success, neither does one’s clothes determine one’s self-worth. This isn’t only a lesson for teachers like myself but for anyone who serves the public. We must remember that our personal values, beliefs and biases must be left aside when in the line of duty especially if we are servants of the public. Our policies must never infringe upon or seek to hurt anyone’s identity. Everything is connected and there is a knock-on effect for all of our actions.