In November, a high school senior in Merkel, Texas started a Change.org petition to protest the pressure he had received from teachers to cut his hair. Eighteen-year-old Nicholas Clark said that despite his 4.0 GPA, Merkel High School’s vice president, joined by some teachers, told him his long hair was a “distraction.”
“I am an 18 year old man with hair that is roughly 2 to 3 inches away from my shoulders,” Clark wrote in the petition. “Nothing extreme.”
“In case you were wondering,” he continues, “no, women do not have the same treatment. The females of our school do not have to cut their hair the same manner that men do, they have completely separate rules, it’s ridiculous. […] This is basic discrimination and the primary reason why we have gender inequality in this country.”
Clark isn’t the first student to call out schools’ dress codes as sexist, but the complaints usually come from, or on behalf of, female students. The question of whether or not it’s sexist to restrict young women from wearing certain clothes has been debated by Scholastic Magazine, investigated by the Atlantic and the Women’s Media Center and is even the subject of a documentary made by a Kentucky student called Shame: A Documentary on School Dress Code.
Thanks to a 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District, it is legal for schools to restrict what students can wear. In that case, three high school students in Des Moines, Iowa wore black arm bands to school to protest the Vietnam War. When they were told to remove them, they claimed that the school was violating their First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The Supreme Court ruled that schools can restrict students’ expression through clothing when there’s a legitimate concern that the clothing will be disruptive to the learning environment or violate the rights of others.
Limited definitions of masculinity are harmful to women because they stall progress toward gender equality.
That language has since been used excessively to justify restrictive dress codes across the country. But whereas dress codes have historically discriminated foremost against female students, who are often barred from showing as much as a collarbone, Clark is claiming that his high school’s rules about hair length are discriminatory toward male students. At first glance, that argument may seem frivolous—but Clark is onto something. His school’s attempt to force a stereotypically male hairstyle on him is not only personally oppressive, but it plays into the larger foundation of gender inequality—just maybe not in the way that he meant it.
We as a society still view typically male traits as the superior default. Limiting men to those traits might not seem as oppressive as barring them from typically female traits, but it is. There’s a lot of discussion about what’s expected of women—that they’re supposed to be demure and fragile, desirable but not slutty, smart but not opinionated—but rigid definitions of femininity create, by default, equally limited definitions of masculinity. If women are supposed to be the damsel, men must be the knight. If women are defined as emotional, men are left with stoic. If women are coy sex objects to be pursued, men are expected to pursue. And just as women label their prescribed roles oppressive, insulting and stifling, so do some men label theirs.
Clark said in an interview that he started growing his hair out around fifth grade. “My grades started improving,” he said, “and I think that’s because I felt more comfortable with how I looked.” He noticed early on that living up to outdated ideas of how men—and boys—are supposed to look was a drain on him, and his petition was his way of standing up for his right to present himself whatever way he feels comfortable, even if people at his school find it offensive or “distracting.”
The term “toxic masculinity” is used to explain how binary gender roles are harmful and restrictive to both men and women. Earlier this year, a group of students at Claremont College created a group to discuss the effects of toxic masculinity on young men in particular, stating on Facebook that “Masculinity can be extremely toxic to our mental health, both to the people who are pressured to perform it and the people who are inevitably influenced by it.”
The people they’re referencing as being inevitably influenced are, of course, women. It’s established that toxic masculinity is harmful to women particularly because one of the expected traits of maleness is aggression and violence, which is often aimed at women. But limited definitions of masculinity are also harmful to women because they stall progress toward gender equality. A dichotomy can’t be defeated by broadening the limits of one side while keeping the other side static. In other words, we won’t be able to expand the colloquial definition of woman if the colloquial definition of man doesn’t budge.
Clark may be outraged about his school’s opinion on his hair style, but he’s stumbled onto a bigger issue than he may have realized. As long as dolls and housework—and long hair—are considered off-limits to men, they’ll remain strictly feminine domain, making female deviation from them outside the acceptable norm. It may seem small, but Clark’s petition to defend his right to have long hair really is a small step in the long and important journey toward gender equality, for both men and women. You can’t knock down barriers without letting people cross them from both directions.