For students, hair length is point of stressHair often has a special meaning ― the site of a person’s strength, for example, as in the tale of Samson and Delilah, or the location of the soul.
In Korea, during the Joseon Dynasty, men and women were forbidden to cut their hair, since it was viewed as a legacy from parents and thus something to be preserved.
Today, hair length still is a significant issue in this country, as middle and high school students challenge school authorities to allow them greater freedom in determining how they wear their hair.
Hair length regulations have a long history in Korea. In the 1970s, President Park Chung Hee’s military regime viewed long hair as decadent, associated with the “hippie” lifestyle. There were strict rules regarding school attire and hair length, and the male students’ hairstyle was close to an army cut. In 1982, the military government of President Chun Doo Hwan lifted the rules, and suddenly old Japanese-style black caps and school uniforms were gone. Students grew their hair a bit longer. But schools continued to impose restrictions, a practice that persists today.
While the debate over liberalizing hair length has been going on for a while, the issue recently surfaced along with the controversy over new college entrance guidelines, which prompted nationwide student protests. School Web sites and a teenager community site (nocut.idoo.net) have become important venues for expressing often strong opinions about the issue. Students wrote on the community site that forcefully cutting students’ hair or burning it with a lighter is not educational guidance but a crime or act of violence.
Students held a demonstration near Gwanghwamun in central Seoul on May 14, although teachers threatened that those participating in the protest would be subject to reprimands, and went to the area to try to discourage students from rallying. That day, 200 students gathered to protest, along with 400 teachers and, reportedly, 2,000 riot police.
Students say the strict rules violate their human rights. Proponents of the restrictions, in turn, contend that longer hair interferes with studying and could lead students to indulge in bad behavior. As a result, schools have been reluctant to eliminate the rules, despite students’ objections.
After the protest, some schools set new rules on hair and attire to calm students down. One of the prominent public schools in Korea, Kyunggi High School, recently posted these new rules on its Web site: When pulled down, hair should not touch the eyebrows, it should not cover the earlobes, and should barely reach the collar. The use of mousse, hair wax and gel is not allowed, nor are permanents or dyeing permissible. The site also contains specifics about the hairstyles that are permitted.
Other schools have more stringent rules. Munmyeong High School, an all-male boarding school in North Gyeongsang province, requires that hair length be short enough to allow the scalp to be visible, according to one student. The student said the school requires that hair be no more than 3 centimeters, or 1.2 inches, long in front, and no more than 2 centimeters on top ― short enough so that it cannot be grabbed by hand.
Inspections are held every Monday morning, and those caught violating the rules must get a haircut by a “not very skillful” stylist in the school. If not, they will be given demerits and may even be hit by the teachers, the student said.
For girls, the rules are a bit more relaxed. At Dukwon Middle School in northwestern Seoul, a senior student said girls with bobbed hair are permitted to have it as long as 7 centimeters, while those who tie their hair back can grow it as long as 15 centimeters. Permanents and dyeing, or using wax or mousse, are prohibited: teachers spray water on their hair to determine whether it has been permed or not.
The methods of implementing the restrictions are notorious among the students, although the forms vary.
Often, students are told to line up on the school grounds in the morning and teachers inspect the students’ hair with clippers or scissors in hand. If a student’s hair length exceeds the school’s limit, or the personal criteria of the teachers, they clip hair off in spots without much consideration about how it looks, creating what students call “freeways,” or bald spots.
An incident at Songpa Technical High School, a vocational high school in southern Seoul, on May 19 clearly shows how far students have pushed the movement to liberalize hair length limits as well as how strong the school’s reaction can be.
Hundreds of students, shouting slogans, sailed paper airplanes out of the classroom windows with messages demanding the easing of hair length rules. This was a protest against the school’s failure to consult students and parents before making the decision to allow students to grow their hair 0.5 to 1 centimeter longer, despite guidelines by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education to have such consultations.
A senior who led the protests was allegedly hit 20 times with a stick by a teacher, though the school denied the assault. Students also claimed that the school tried to expel the student and seven others, but it again denied that was the case, seemingly because of extensive media coverage of the incident.
School officials now say they no longer try to restrict students’ hair length. “It is completely liberalized,” said Baek Duk-hyun, the school principal. “We voluntarily allowed the study association to deal with the issue.”
After the outcry by students over hair restrictions, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education began encouraging schools to iron out the issue with parents and student councils, and set new guidelines, but many schools continued to impose their own rules.
“Restrictions on students’ hair helps them study,” said Yun Gyeom-ro, a teacher who is in charge of disciplining students at Kyunggi High School. He said not all students opposed the restrictions, and those who demonstrated in central Seoul to protest the hair limits are radicals.
“Forcefully cutting hair with clippers is an insult and humiliates the students,” said a middle school senior whose last name is Ryu. “I hope that teachers understand that at least we deserve some respect and individuality.”
by Limb Jae-un