Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Why Ban the Beard?

I walked into Midway ISD's job fair, having just moved to the Waco area, anxious to make good first impressions and find a position. As I stepped up to the registration desk, the receptionist bent over the computer asked for my name and looked up. She frowned. She stared a moment at me, making me feel quite uncomfortable, and then said, “You know you’d have to shave your beard if you came to work here, don’t you?”

I thought she was joking. I chuckled until she said, “No, really. It’s school board policy.”

“No, I didn’t know,” I responded.

She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, it is.”

I spent the morning making contacts and talking to principals, each of whom told me as we discussed my potential employment, “You know you’d have to shave your beard, don’t you?”

That evening my son asked me if I had gotten a job. I told him that things had gone pretty well and that, if I got the job I hoped for, I would be shaving my beard. He looked stunned. “Don’t shave your beard, Daddy,” he said. “We like your beard. Why do they want you to shave it anyway?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “Let’s go look it up.” We pulled up the internet, and began to look into the matter. What we found surprised us both.

The first thing we found was that many occupations have an excellent reason for banning facial hair. People in occupations where workers need to wear filtration masks, gas masks, or similar gear need to be clean shaven to allow those devices to make a good seal on their faces. It is an important safety issue, but teaching high school requires no such equipment. Nor is teaching the kind of job where my beard might get caught in machinery or otherwise cause me injury.

Why, then, ban facial hair? We dug deeper. Successful men with facial hair can be found today in every professional career. The pages of History books are overflowing with great men who just happened to have hairy faces. It was the norm in the late nineteenth century, but in the early twentieth century men with beards were considered too conservative and old-fashioned and the clean-shaven look came into style. That changed in the 1960’s with the counter-culture movement, but long gone are the days when beards, moustaches, and sideburns were associated with “dirty hippies.” I’m too young to even remember the 1960’s.

One interesting tidbit our internet search turned up was a web forum for ministers (of a popular American Christian denomination) who were discussing beards in the light of their own profession. The question came up, “Does a man have to be clean-shaven to qualify for salvation?” It nearly shook my faith in Christianity when several ministers said “Yes” or “I’m not sure.” Others responded that they expected bearded men to shave if they wanted to join their congregation. To be fair, most answered “No,” but that this was considered a topic for serious discussion made me wonder if these fellows might not have too much time on their hands.

It is important for certain professions that deal with the public to avoid an extreme and/or distracting appearance. We can all understand that. A law firm might require its members to avoid dying their hair blue and shaving it into a Mohawk. What jury would take them seriously? Wouldn’t it be difficult for students to concentrate on their algebra test if they kept staring at their teacher’s multiple facial piercings and tattoos? But can a neatly-groomed mustache or beard honestly be compared to such things? Has anyone ever heard: “He must be guilty; his lawyer has a beard” or “I can’t learn math from a teacher with a moustache.” (Okay, honesty forces me to admit that my own 9th grade math teacher’s moustache was a tremendous distraction, but she was an isolated case and the distracting nature of her prodigious lip fur does not weaken my argument.)

So, if there are no safety issues, no lingering negative associations in our society concerning professionals with facial hair, and most Christians can agree that a beard will not condemn its wearer to eternal hellfire and damnation, why the ban? The only reason my son and I were able to divine was personal preference. The people in charge of enacting the employee policies at this organization feel it is appropriate to compel their employees to look a certain way due solely to their own personal preferences.

“What about mommy?” My son asked. “Mommy prefers your beard. We all do. If there’s no real reason but what some people prefer, why can’t it be what we prefer? Don’t we count? We’re your family. It’s your face, not theirs. It’s not fair.”

After our research session I admitted to him that he was right that it was not fair that everyone who worked for this organization to live under this ban just because the policy makers themselves (or their spouses) preferred to be clean-shaven. The courts have said that this is not a civil/human rights issue, but even my young son could see the intrusive nature of this kind of policy.

Children often complain, “It’s not fair,” when told to finish their broccoli or clean their room. “Life’s not fair,” is the perennially popular parental rejoinder to this complaint. Every now and then, though, I guess it is good for them to see that ‘life’s not fair’ for adults, either.