Saturday, April 3, 2010

Battle of the Beard: What Matters Most? Appearance or Ability?

Occasionally I write about issues I face as a parent. And for the most part, these posts have been well accepted. However, I have received email and other feedback from readers who thought these posts were too highly personal to be posted on a blog. Yet, I do so because first and foremost, I desire this blog to be a place to exchange ideas, to work through questions and issues that although may be personal, others might be going through the exact same thing and asking the exact same questions.

That being said, when I was a young man, before I left the house each morning, my mother would give both me and my brothers and sisters the once over. When we left, we were expected to be well groomed and neatly dressed. My mother stood between us and the door and made sure our hair was combed, and we were all lotion-ed or Vaseline-ed up and shining like a new dime, and our clothes were neatly pressed, and our shirts tucked securely in our pants which were cinched tightly around our waists with a belt.

She would even do that annoying thing where she would wet her thumb with the tip of her tongue, and then wipe off any real or imagined debris on our faces.

Mother had three reasons for being so fastidious about our appearance. She reasoned, and perhaps rightly so, that our appearance had a bearing on our conduct, and that people often judged others by something so utterly superficial as their appearance. Lastly, and of most importance to her, she believed that how we looked and how we conducted ourselves outside the house was a direct reflection on her and my father.

Now let’s flash forward to the present. The summer before my youngest son’s last year of middle school, he begin grooming a beard. I don’t know. Blame it on the hormones in the food or whatever, but one day he was this little baby-faced middle-schooler, and the next day he looked like Grizzly Adams.

Shortly thereafter he sought me out to teach him how to shave. And we had this beautiful father and son moment. We stood in front of the mirror, and I taught him to treat the area to be shaved with a thin coat of Vaseline or lotion so that the razor didn’t come in contact with the skin. And to wet his face before applying the shaving cream. And to shave with the grain to prevent razor bumps.

It was a beautiful moment. But then a few months later, the summer before he was to enter high school, he declared that not only was he done shaving, he was not going to cut his hair anymore either. And over the course of the summer, he proceeded to grow this scraggly, nappy beard, and allowed his hair to grow into this unkempt, raggedy, pyramid-shaped afro.

I said nothing at first. I figured that sooner or later he would grow tired of it all, and then shave and seek out a haircut of his own accord. But when school started, he still had not changed his mind, so I took matters in my own hands and ordered him to the barber shop. However, he resisted, and my wife defended his decision with some argument about individuality and self-expression, so I eventually capitulated.

That was about eight months ago, and now he looks like an absolute wild man. Not only that, his wardrobe now consists of blue jeans, t-shirts or polo-styled shirts, and Chuck Taylors. He refuses to wear clothes with corporate logos or wear leather tennis shoes because of his concern for animal rights. And oh yeah, he has become a vegetarian.

In his defense, though, he may look like a vagabond, but he is a really good kid. He has never gotten into any trouble throughout school, not even a teacher phone call, and he makes good grades. Not only that, he attends a high school for the arts, and when I go to his school, all those damn kids look and dress weird to me, so he is not that out of place. In fact, amid the crazy tattoos and the piercings and the colored hair, he looks almost normal.

But in the same instance, this is my child. Every morning as he walks out the front door and I see his appearance, I grit my teeth. Nevertheless, I love him, nappy beard, raggedy afro, and all. But I do know how harshly African American males are judged because of their appearance; sometimes people can’t and won’t give them credit for the power of their intellect because they cannot get past their appearance, and I want him to be able to take advantage of every and all opportunity that comes his way.

Not only that, I see a number of young African American men, and women, too, for that matter, who fail to see how their appearance affects the opportunities available to them. But I'm being told that I am old-fashioned, that the world has changed since my youth. However, even as I look around, I don't see the world as being so different.

Am I being too harsh? Am I being too judgmental?


Renee said...

I feel you on this post completely. I had very old school parents and I was taught that appearance is very important today I understand it is how they tried to shield me from some of the hardship that I was going to face in life. Now years have passed and I am watching over my own children. I see how my son roles his eyes when I tell him to go and get a belt, no sagging pants in my household.

I understand the desire to express your individuality and it really is a delicate balance to strike. Your child is older than mine and as long as he willing to deal with the consequences of his appearance I would allow him to make the decision. Soon enough he will have to decide whether is individuality is more important than getting a job. This is a choice that we all have to make as adults. I say give him to the time to be himself because soon enough he will have to march to the same drum as everyone else

Anonymous said...

I do believe that the way you present yourselves is vitally important in everything you do but reflecting back to my own childhood the unkempt hair look for the guys and the inappropriate clothing for the girls was a sort of rite of passage. When you are at that threshold of adulthood and are defining your independence the only way you can at that age...through your appearance.

But, this too shall pass. Either he'll decide he is tired of that look or nine times out of ten, a girl will eventually come along and say, "I want to see what you look like clean cut" and poof he'll be all shiny and new again lol. But, it's great that he has what many don't, a great example of a father to default to when he's really read to "man" up.

ProfGeo said...

[putting on my adult hat]

Max, as your school visit confirmed, your son's appearance helps him fit in with his peers. Let me add to your fears by suggesting he may already have tattoos or piercings you don't know about (though my personal family experience is that kids don't necessarily hide those from parents). I say it's too bad that as adults we have to live with decisions made by some idjit teenager.

I teach at a leftish campus that has the full range of hair and clothes amongst students, and a pretty wide range for faculty. (Ex-hippie tenured faculty can do what they like.) None of that bothers me except for students who may think they're going into certain "clean-cut" career paths without cleaning up their appearance.

I have two close relatives (NOT college grads) who do quite well working at Target, Safeway and delivery/warehouse jobs where appearance isn't much of a factor. Since middle/high school their hair, clothes, and tattoo status have been their own business. One is contented enough with his lot as a low-achieving young adult. The other hates his work and is quite frustrated.

Anna Renee said...

Dear Max, dealing with teens! It's hard! My son wore baggy jeans for more than 5 years!! It was stupid to me because they dragged the ground and became ragged! And that was the style! Anyway, when he went job hunting he ended all that around 21 years old.
Your son fits in at school but when job hunting time comes, I bet he'll come to you and get a shave and haircut!
Kids these days think they're wiser and smarter than their parents and so they just dont listen. Sometimes this makes it harder for them, if they don't have the right family structure, but that's not your case.
He's quickly growing up and then we only have our old pictures of our cute babies! He'll be alright, because his parents are alright! BTW is that him in the picture? Handsome! Despite beard and afro!
I don't think you're being judgemental because that was your upbringing, and mine. It's just a different time with different influences. This one is mild by comparison. He probably likes how he looks so much like a man! Let him be Grizzly for a while, he'll tire of it I bet!
As for your posting personal issues, I was just on another blog talking about this and I think that this is what blogging is about. What YOU want to talk about. And we all talk about different things. Personally, your blog is at the top of my list of favorites, because you are so real with it! Those who don't like that can skip the personal posts and allow you to be yourself!!
Anyway, much love!!

CurvyGurl ♥ said...

I understand your concern too, Max. This statement sums it up perfectly "But I do know how harshly African American males are judged because of their appearance". I'd add females to this also. I think my generation and those before us know how superficial and biased this world can be. My parents and sister used to try to gently suggest I tone it down a bit back in the day, that only made me frustrated and determined to have my own style no matter what they said.

I literally cringed as my sister told my niece that she should wear a conservative hairstyle because others judge us on appearance first. Here we are in 2010 dealing with the same issues. No matter how successful we've been, how much money we've made, contributions to the community and world...we'll always be judged on appearance, heck, this included our own people.

I agree with everyone, give him some time, he'll understand that he can embrace individuality in different ways but starting out requires some sacrifices until you're able to call your own shots. I pray this changes on day, but am not very hopeful.

Max Reddick said...

@ Renee

"As long as he is willing to deal w/ the consequences of his actions..." I have a 32 year old nephew with a master's degree in criminal justice, but he can't find a job. Why? Because he has dreadlocks, and there are very few jobs in the criminal justice field that will allow you to wear dreadlocks.

So he has taken a stand on principle. But in the meantime, his mother and I and the rest of the family must help him take care of his wife and children all because of his "principles."

The upshot of the whole situation is that I hope he will grow out of it. But because he is persuing a career in the arts where oddity seems the norm, he just may not have to.

@ Toya

He and I had a long talk, and what I got from the talk is that his refusal to cut his hair and shave his beard had everything to do with control. At this time in his life, his hair and how he dresses is the only real thing that he has any control over. I tell him when to go to be, when to get up, when he can leave and where he can go. So, it seems to me he is using this situation to gain control of something. Maybe when he is out on his own, he would be able to find this control in other areas of his life and let this go.

@ ProfGeo

I know he doesn't have any tattoos or piercings. He hadn't gone completely crazy.

But I agree with you about those tenured people. I go to work every day with at least a shirt and a tie on, and the guy next to me comes in Jesus sandals, shorts, and a Grateful Dead t-shirt. It just doesn't seem fair.

@ Anna Renee

My wife always says that I am angry because he doesn't walk around in khakis, button-downs, and loafers. And perhaps she's right. When I took him school shopping, that's what I picked out for him, and I was just a bit hurt when he rejected them all.

@ Curvy Girl

Perhaps, you are right. Perhaps time will take care of it. Perhaps I am just too impatient. I do remember wearing a mohawk for about a month when I was fifteen much to my parents chagrin.

ProfGeo said...

RE: dreads on principle @ age 32

Sorry to tell your nephew, Max, but at this point it's not principle, he's playin' everybody including himself, and he may just be afraid to enter the adult world. He is old enough to know better. (~30 is my cutoff for adult judgment to kick in and align with one's formal education.) It'd be tough-love time in my family!

If your son's going into the arts, he may be just fine in the long run, but there's still a bit of a dress code (OK, class distinction) within the arts world.

msladydeborah said...


I am the mother of three adult males. Let me share this thought with you.

Maybe your son is thinking about having his hair braided at some later date. I am raising this possibility based on the experiences that I had with my youngest regarding his hair. He started growing his hair out and he stopped going to the barber shop.

It took him awhile to finally let me know that he was going to wear braids. I was cool with the idea but my mom cannot wrap her head around this at all. I have to admit that his hair looks pretty good most days.

Maybe your son is thnking about heading in this direction and just hasn't mentally committed to it yet.

Danny said...

Yeah that whole "the clothes make the man" thing is rather bothersome. (And besides that mentality of appearance equals respectability/talent is exactly why organized gangsters, lawyers, and con men/women are the best dressed people).

As a young black man professional I have to say that I often worry about how I look and really think its not right. I have an afro and goatee and there is no reason they should have any bearing on my ability to work.

But as has been said we are all gears in the machine and after a while even the most resistant may succumb to the necessity to just fall in step.

Sean said...

I think that the way one carries oneself is important. How people percieve you is very important for the message you are trying to convey.

Let's take the Trini lawyer/politician Fitzgerald Hinds. As a rasta, he appeals to the roots people and yet if you take a good look at him... he aint that much of a rasta really. He is a well groomed gentleman, with rasta type hair.

It is understandable that the Prime Minister would not want to promote him to Minister status. He still thinks of Rastafarians as undesirables. I grew up with the movement all around me and see some very sucessful and intelligent Rastas.

I always think that is is interesting to note that (Ras) Tafari Makonnen, for whom the movement was named, was always well groomed (with beard and) with a descent haircut.

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