Sometimes I wish all women with long hair would wear head scarves.
Friday night, close to 11 pm, and the metro was packed — though that in itself was not unusual. I was squeezed between two young women who seemed to have taken a lot of trouble to dress up for thank-god-it’s-friday socials rather than for work. Nothing wrong with that, except that I think the one at my left elbow had had too much to drink. With every jerk and sway of the train, she lost her balance. Between her and the one on my right who was speaking animatedly with her friends, swivelling her head ever so often, my face was repeatedly swept by hair.
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The Minister for Education had to intervene personally. Only then did the principal of St Margaret’s Secondary School relent. The kerfuffle was over two students who took part in a Hair for Hope event, raising funds for the Children’s Cancer Foundation. They had their heads shaved to demonstrate solidarity with kids who have lost their hair as a result of chemotherapy, and to raise awareness for the cause.
But this drew the ire of their principal, as they had not donned wigs, as they had promised earlier.
The school’s rules do not allow “punk, unfeminine or sloppy hairstyles”. Said principal Marion Tan: “It’s very clear in our mission: it’s about their turnout as a young lady.”
— Straits Times, 2 August 2013, Girls’ bald move a no-go at school, by Grace Chua
The two Secondary 3 girls were called out from class and made to purchase a wig each, at a reported $70.
While the principal’s chief justification was that the girls, when they sought permission to shave their heads had earlier promised to cover up, and promises must be kept, it is not hard to discern that underlying the whole issue was Marion Tan’s determination to impose her idea of “feminine” appearance. Why else would she have made the girls promise to wear wigs in the first place?
But the students and parents, including Leia’s mother Emily Chia, argued that covering up was against the spirit of Hair for Hope.
Said Madam Chia, 41: “The purpose of Hair for Hope is to show children with cancer that it’s okay to be bald.”
Singapore schools put too much stress on conformity at the expense of originality. This is a criticism that many have levelled at multiple aspects of our education system, which has been known for producing adults weak at critical thinking and problem-solving. When it comes to social roles and sexuality education, the conformity demanded tends to be of the embarrassingly conservative kind. Rigid rules about gender appearance are only the most obvious examples, as this case shows.
These things never stand alone. Demands for genderised presentation are inextricably co-mingled with expectations of gender roles. And these dovetail with insistence on hetero-normativity. Ultimately, they result in closed minds. Yet, Singapore’s education system seems not to have noticed.
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Look around and one of the most striking things is how just about every young woman in Singapore keeps her hair long even when it’s not very practical in our hot and humid weather. When working with machines, it is downright dangerous; in fields such as catering or healthcare, it is unhygienic.
And in crowded trains, it is patently anti-social.
Yet you’d be hard-pressed to spot an exception. The women with short hair are almost always over 35, when, I suppose, looks don’t trump everything else. Still, the point remains: granted that young adults care a lot more for looks, nonetheless why must looking good equate with long hair? The sheer uniformity of it suggests a tacit norm. It may not be one that the individuals themselves are conscious of, but the visible result points to its existence.
At once, some readers will take exception to my opinion. “I choose to wear my hair long,” they will insist.
Yes, you did, but what influenced this choice? What subliminal standards of femininity are at work? Who introduced and propagated these standards?
As the photos here (easily obtained from surfing the web) attest, short styles can be very good-looking indeed. Yet we rarely see them around in Singapore. Are we lacking in imagination? Actually, we don’t even need imagination; any number of fashion magazines will have models with short hair. I think it’s more a case of being conditioned to groom ourselves in a certain way in order to live up to certain implanted gender and social roles. In other words, even when we see examples of good-looking shorter-haired girls, we still feel ‘it’s not me’, and not even pause to examine what it is that boxes us in.
Lest you think I’m saying only girls are so affected, let me also recount an incident. I was with about seven or eight guys, varying in age from early twenties to their forties. As far as I can tell, all straight. Every single one of them wore black — and I pointed it out. No, it wasn’t a funeral. Partly, I reckon, the colour choice has something to do with perceived fashion and lazy defaulting to a ‘contemporary-enough’ shade, but partly too there is a sense that brighter colours aren’t very masculine (now, why is that?).
Coming back to girls, there is one exception that I should mention. When I am with a roomful of lesbians and other queer women, I see a diversity of hair styles, short and long. And it’s not hard to discern why, for these are the ones who don’t accept — can’t accept for the deepest personal reasons — heteronormatvity and all the gender roles and rules that go with it. Liberated from all this rubbish, they are also free to choose how they’d dress their hair. Diversity is the result.
Generally I don’t give a fig how other people wear their hair — until they swish it around my face — but I suspect it doesn’t stop there. The troubling possibility is this: that the uniformity in hair styles we generally see in young women here may indicate that inside their heads, they’ve been equally conditioned too and not just in standards of beauty. Uniformity may indicate a deep insecurity about non-conformity and a fear of venturing afield. Thinking outside the box, the willingness to experiment, desire for originality, and the courage to be different — all these may have been compromised.
That would be sad. So perhaps, the day we see some relief from the bondage of tresses may be the day we can have a bit more hope.