ARTICLE 4 OF the Seoul Ordinance of Student Rights states that “the student shall have the right to realize his or her personality in appearance such as dress and hair” and that “the head of the school and the school staff shall not regulate appearance, hair, and more, against the will of the student, however, clothing may be limited by school rules.” This ordinance was established in 2012, and since then, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) has endeavored to promulgate this article, most recently through pushing forward on South Korean students’ hairstyle liberalization and uniform reform. This recent move signifies a response to students and parents demanding more individual freedom against what they consider “antiquated traditions.” However, regulations on individual dress and groom have a long history in South Korea, and therefore are hard to reform.
Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education
The SMOE’s motto for these initiatives has been “liberal and democratic school life culture.” Accordingly, on Sept. 27, 2018, the superintendent of SMOE, Cho Hee-yeon, presented a declaration to lift the hair regulations on South Korean middle and high school students from the second semester of the academic year in 2019. While this reform grants some freedom to students’ hairstyles by deregulating their hair lengths, regulations on hair color or hair perms will remain under the discretion of individual schools.
Under a similar motivation as the hairstyle reform, the SMOE is also currently in the process of gathering public opinion on “comfortable uniforms” for Korean students; its goal is to implement “comfortable uniforms” from the first semester of the 2020 academic year. The term “comfortable uniform” encompasses many possible changes in response to the complaints concerning the current uniform fabric, short lengths of skirts, and high costs. These changes in the regulation might appear to be minimal, but they have opened the door for re-examining students’ freedom to dress and groom in any way they wish to.
The far-reaching history
Hair is much more than just a person’s stylistic choice. Historically, confining hairstyle symbolized the suppression of an individual’s right to express oneself outwardly. This dates back to a century ago when Emperor Go-jong, the first emperor of Korea, implemented the dan-bal-ryung, which required all men to cut off their traditional topknot and wear their hair short in a western style.
Similarly, during the Japanese occupation, men were required to wear western styled short hair and uniforms in schools. Such changeover to western styles further suppressed the freedom of Koreans and fortified control over students.
Even in the 1970s, President Park Chung-hee’s regime regulated the long hairstyles, associating them with rebels and negative influences to the nation. This set an expectation for regulation of public dress and groom until President Kim Dae-jung successfully eradicated hair length regulation for the general public in 2000, according to Joongang Daily.
While South Korea’s overall liberalization has brought about deregulation for the general public, many school institutions still carry these passed down restrictions. Some parents and students still associate these hair restrictions with the suppressive past. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Lee Young-ah, a mother of a Korean all-boys middle school student, said, “It is sad to see the same hairstyle, as if cloned, on all the boys in my son’s school, when we are living in the 21st century. This hairstyle regulation stems from the shortly shaved hair forced on students during the Japanese imperial era. It has to be abolished.”
Lee went on to also criticize the long pants that her son was required to wear as part of the summer uniform. When she expressed her frustration about the impractical school regulation that disallowed students from wearing shorts, she was told that the regulations are from the school’s 100-year tradition. Her complaint demonstrates a general tension between those individuals trying to push for more liberalization, and those who defend these regulations with traditions of the past.
Students and parents’ voice
In response to the declaration, there are those who regard school regulations on student’s fashion style as a violation of students’ rights. Conversely, others argue that allowing teens to pick and choose their style creates a cost burden on parents, distractions for students, and peer pressure among students. Kim Min-seo, a second-year student at Young Dong Il High School, expressed her approval of the SMOE’s push for hairstyle liberalization and comfortable uniform. She shared that her school teacher implicitly shamed a student in front of the entire class for curling her hair. “I think these regulations violate students’ freedom, and I do not think that hair perms or dyes are related to a student’s unethical life style. Rather, I think granting freedom to the students’ hairstyles is a way to prevent unnecessary rebellious feelings,” said Kim.
While those in favor of the regulation argue uniforms serve practical benefits, several accounts tell us otherwise. Concerning the issues surrounding uniforms, Kim pointed out the impractical style of her school uniform and suggested the unification of summer, winter, and sports uniform into a single-style to maximize convenience for the students. Depending on the weather, the students can put on their own outerwear on their uniforms. The student’s mother, Noh Jung-won added that she has to purchase different sets of uniforms and wash them alternatively on a daily basis, making the requirement of uniforms costly. Moreover, Kim and her mother pointed out the challenges of regulating the application of makeup. They stated that since makeup is normalized in South Korea, banning it would be difficult, and even if it were to be restricted, the criteria for regulation will be subjective.
On the other hand, there are those who also see the benefits to the present education environment. Bae Jin-gyu, a third-year student at Jingwan Middle School, said that while he supports the SMOE’s design for school regulations reform, certain limitations to the independence of the students’ choice should be drawn. He mentioned hair colors and makeup could possibly distract other students. His mother, Kwon Soo-jung, agreed with setting minimum standards for the students’ fashion: she expressed concern of the possible detriments on the youths’ health when they choose to go with “excessive hair bleach or makeups harmful for skin.”
Coming full circle: discussion on feasibility
Bae Chang-hyun, a teacher at Haesung Girls’ High School, remarked the warnings and procedures that need to be considered before fully implementing the SMOE’s goal. “If students continue to wear uniforms, they need to improve their consciousness to wear them in accordance to prescribed regulations. Additionally, it is good to give autonomy to the students, but it is necessary to establish standards based on appearance rules agreed by school members before that,” said Bae.
In relation to all of these regulations, there is a debate over the stereotypes of “student-like” qualities. Kim Dong-hyun, a first-year student at Yangchung Middle School, asserted that to be “student-like” is not precisely defined while teachers view the concept as all students conforming to hairstyles closely similar to one another. He added, “in the 21st century, a time when people respect and encourage individuality and freedom, I think it is not right to regulate students' hair, as it follows an old-fashioned idea.”
In a nation striving towards an ideal beauty that most people agree upon, students are expected to present themselves in a certain manner, sometimes more on the way they dress than their behavior. While many teenagers demand expressions of their unique style, debate prevails, fueled by the antiquated hair regulations from South Korea’s cultural past.
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For over 20 years, movements to deregulate students’ hairstyle regulations have actively protested for a change, led by middle and high school students as well as college students. Following the point-by-point regulations on uniform and hairstyle is a common experience for most Koreans. The abolishment of hairstyle regulation is a big step that could be the first of many reforms to come. It is in the hands of each school institution to lead the change.