Triggers: Sexualised language – talking about being bullied and shamed over your appearance

Language: minor swearing.


Hi there lovely people of the internet

I’m doing something I really don’t often do and am writing from scratch on a topic I didn’t feel the need to until ten minutes or so ago. This, as those of you on social media will know, is a somewhat dangerous endeavor. Words spoken hastily can be both inaccurate and damaging. Still, the world I want to live in is one where there is both room for hasty mistakes to be made (so they can be corrected and learning can happen) and where there is room for Marx’s fierce-hearted scientist, who learns and understands through the medium of her passion and connection to the situation.

So, there’s been a recent issue with Pretoria Girls High, in Gauteng, and accounts and allegations of discrimination and structural racism on a number of levels. Its in the competent hands of our MEC for education, and my hope is that we’ll all be sadder and wiser people for these experiences coming to light.

This post was sparked by the stories around this issue, but is only dealing very specifically with one narrow aspect of it: hair and discipline.

See, some of the feedback I’ve seen over this keeps talking about how important it is that young adults (because as much as I will joke about high-schoolers as tiny, tiny children, they’re really that), do not wear their hair as they choose.

(There is an important and related issue about the disparity of standards of tidiness, histories of suppression, and ignorance of the differences in hair care practices and standards between learners of different races. That needs to be talked about, but its not what I’m talking about here.)

What I’m struggling to understand is why its important to the maintenance of discipline in schools that kids do or don’t wear their hair a certain way. I mean, sure, if you don’t know that manipulating certain things about your appearance will affect the way that people see and respond to you, that’s an important thing to learn. Even as an adult, I’m careful about where I put tattoos because I’m aware that ink that I can’t easily cover up can close doors for me.

You don’t get to set the rules of what things mean to other people, whether those things are how you wear your hair or the length of your skirt or the scuff marks on your safety-shoes. Sometimes people who see what you mean to look rocking as slutty, or what you mean as comfortable as sloppy, or what you think is beautiful as challenging. And people who have a different view of your aesthetic will often be in positions of power over you, and no, the two of you will not sit down and have an enlightened discussion about the meaning of ‘office-wear’. This is the world, its naff sometimes and people don’t talk to each other like they should. So yeah, cognizance of this difference in aesthetics and power and understanding that how you choose to look can and will have consequences is something important to learn in this world.

But is it really the case that kids have no idea of that? They have friends to teach them that, they have families to teach them that, they have media and stories to teach them that. Is this really an ignorance that school must remedy?

And, is it really remedying it?

Does not being allowed to wear a sparkly clip, or synthetic braids or have blue fringe-tips teach you anything other than what you look like is more important than what you learn? How threatening to a classroom’s concentration is a boy with long hair? A girl who shaves? An afro?

By all means, teach young people that the world is an unfair place where people react badly to difference sometimes. That’s not an excuse to BE those people reacting badly,  and saying its in the name of teaching.

Sure, feel free to think, or I suppose tell (although I judge you for telling) a young woman that you think her bangs make her look like a slob. Or a slut. Or a trouble-maker. Feel free to think that a boy’s ponytail makes him look like a girl. Or a wimp. Or an air-head. But that’s you speaking, not the truth. You have the right to hold opinions in a position of power, like as a teacher or a principal. You don’t have the right to abuse that power and force other people to behave as those opinions were true. Just because that sort of shitty thing was done to us routinely as young adults, (and hated by most of us too), does not mean its a part of adolescence worth preserving.

Can we at least start asking questions about the difference between what’s good for young people in school, and what’s done to them?

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