On Containing Identity

One pleasure amid the shifted normality of school in lockdown is to have the opportunity to teach a module in Gender Studies as a pre-university elective opportunity for boys who would, in normal circumstances, have been completing A Level exams and jetting off on post-school holidays together. It has given me the chance to formalize some of my own informal interests in the area, developed from a social justice and personal perspective, and to translate into my teaching previous study as part of my previous Classics PhD and current Theology MTh work. However, such reflections inevitably begin to develop one’s thinking beyond the academic – indeed a lot of our discussion has hinged on a particular issue: the potential disjunction between the academic/theoretical and lived experience.

In truth, it is less the academic ramifications of this module that have been of interest than the practical consequences that have surrounded it. I should perhaps begin with a note of gratitude: teaching as I do within a Roman Catholic school, I was thankful to be allowed to run the course at all, given the tensions that it might seem to pose with Catholic teaching. I am also grateful to have found the students on the course not only to be open-minded, but also to be well-informed, and keen to learn and to challenge themselves. In general, few colleagues have made much mention of the course or its themes, other than to express (often considerable) surprise at the fact that any boys have chosen to take it. However, on the one occasion when I was asked about it in front of a couple of senior colleagues I’d run into on site, the response I encountered was one of homophobic joking between these two men (within my earshot but not directed to me), including derogatory comments about the possible sexuality of one of the participants. This I knew was the basis from which I would be working in trying to normalize any progressive discussion of gender within this community, but I was nonetheless struck by the blatant way in which their homophobia was manifested.

However, it is in an at once more subtle and more blatant way that gender prejudice has been exposed as part of this experience. In part this was brought about by my own naivety. To set the scene, I have long worn my hair in a short and high-maintenance pixie crop. When lockdown began and hairdressers closed, I was left with the prospect of an unappealing mullet or investing in clippers and doing my best to manage it myself. I had been doing this with semi-successful results until this month, when I made the decision, perhaps unwise in hindsight, to crop all of it to half a centimetre across my whole head.

I suppose in part I was full of my reading of Judith Butler and discussions about gender performativity. Although happy in my own female identity, I have long since adopted a look that moves somewhat fluidly between masculine and feminine aesthetics: short hair and heavy makeup; waistcoats and stiletto heels; floral tops with leather jackets; piercings and tattoos with dresses. None of this has ever seemed either controversial or unusual, though I have had responses that veer from compliments on my ‘androgynous style’ to unpleasant comments about my ‘lesbian hair’. And so to me, armed with my clippers on a Sunday afternoon, it didn’t seem a big step to cut off all my hair into a traditionally ‘masculine’ style: I had often wondered in the past how it would look and feel, and lockdown seemed like a good time to give it a try.

I am not so naïve as to have thought it wouldn’t be controversial. It even took me a while to stop the double-take whenever I caught sight of my reflection. At the same time, I liked the results: it felt empowering to have stripped away an aspect of my appearance that I and others were so used to. Nevertheless, at the same time I also found myself applying extra lipstick, checking my face more carefully than usual, implying not only increased self-consciousness but also a desire to make sure I was maintaining the ‘feminine’ aspects of my appearance to their utmost.

I reflected a lot on my own responses and tried to anticipate those of others. I forewarned my parents before their weekly Skype call, for fear of heart attacks. I assessed responses from my friends carefully, to try to predetermine what more hostile responses might look like. My regular circle were kind, and some friends and colleagues were very positive: ‘punk’ and ‘cool’ were the more generous adjectives, though more cautious responses spoke about associations for them between shaved heads and recovering patients. My parents, primed as they were, restrained their horror admirably, but were most concerned by how ‘unfeminine’ I looked and what ‘message’ I was trying to send. One friend also asked me whether I thought I would be more at risk of arrest if out and about in public! I had an honest conversation with my students, where we analysed how we felt it changed perceptions about me, and one of them shared the experience of a female friend who had acted similarly after a hair-dyeing disaster and now felt almost unable to leave her home. I became more aware of the strength of feeling that lies around self-expression through hair, and how much it affects people.

In spite of what I thought I had done to assess likely responses, I was nonetheless unprepared for the email from the Head Master, subject line: ‘Hair’. I should perhaps add a little context: there is nothing in the staff policy prohibiting women having short hair. Furthermore, the clothing policy has been suspended while we are teaching remotely, and we are not returning to school physically this term. Male colleagues in my time here have had long hair, shaved heads, and everything in between. In normal circumstances, I conform with little objection to the clothing policy, even wearing a jacket at all times (a rule that strictly seems to apply only to male staff), and always covering my tattoos during the school day.

However, the Head wished to enquire ‘what had happened’ to my hair. When I expressed that I had cut it off for the rest of lockdown, he raised concerns about parental perception. He was concerned specifically with the fact that he has just promoted me, with effect from September, into a role with a considerable public-facing element, implying that relationships with current and future parents would be undermined by the image he felt I projected. Clearly he must have realized that there was little he could do in the short-term, but he evidently wished to make it apparent that such a hairstyle would not be appropriate in the future. However, he did not express to me what he actually thought was wrong with a woman sporting very short hair.

In writing this, I have given a lot of thought about the extent to which I should be ashamed of my response. Because all I did was to assure him that it would have grown back by the end of the summer, acknowledging that I understood it was not uncontroversial (while also expressing my frustration at that fact). I did not raise the question of the discrepancy between his treatment of his male and female staff. I did not ask him to explain to me what exactly he considered to be wrong with my appearance. I did not protest my right to express my identity in a way that I choose, especially given that it does not contravene regulations. I did not object to the perpetuation of only conservative aesthetics or heteronormative gender performance. I just tried to quash the issue in the way that I felt would cause least damage to my own position and relationship with my employer.

If this were just about me, I don’t think that I would feel so bad. However, in the same week I had published a statement as part of a press-release regarding my new leadership role that had expressly referred to creating an environment at the school in which all pupils could grow into their own identities. And yet I had just colluded with the limitations that we place upon what those identities should look like. Like many independent schools, we have a strict uniform policy, and, as we go co-educational, this will include different uniforms dictated along binary gender lines. Our hair policy is not as strict as many schools’, but certainly draws implicit lines along traditional gender expectations for boys’ hair and girls’. Although identity expression is obviously limited in all ways by the very existence of school uniform and appearance policies, the effect these have on freedom to perform gender is particularly palpable.

My decision to cut off my hair was not a strong statement of my gender identity, although it is certainly a manifestation of certain important aspects of how I perceive and present myself. As much as I like the look, it will not be hard for me to let go of this period of self-expression once my hair grows out again. But for others this might not be the case. I have learned the lesson that to survive in the contemporary workplace it may well be necessary to comply with the unwritten rules as well as with policies, and, in this sense, I suppose uniform policies prepare our students well. A part of me knows that just to have presented pupils, even for a short period and only via video calls, with an alternative view of a woman’s appearance may help progress acceptance of difference. But I must now accept that, on this occasion at least, I have also failed to stand up and ask those who create and perpetuate rules that may be harmful to those whose identities fall further outside traditional norms how they justify doing so.

I am not unsympathetic, or at least not without understanding, of the position of a Head Master trying to attract parents to consider a fee-paying school with a conservative identity. He is not wrong that people balk at the presentation of non-normative identities. And yet we are educators and, furthermore, we are Christian educators, whose love of the individual for who they are in the image of God is supposed to be at the heart of everything we do. If we seek to police and indeed close down the expression of individual identity in this way, are we really fulfilling our calling and our duty?

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