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Beards. BYU. Battlestar Galactica.

Sunday, February 1st, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, Ruth asked if I’d heard the news about the change to BYU’s beard ban: they now allowed exemptions for religious reasons. But this wasn’t really news because it wasn’t that much of a change. They’d offered such an exemption once upon a time, and it only recently became public knowledge that they’d quietly done away with it at some point.

You see, a few months ago, I read a story in Brigham Young University’s student newspaper, the Universe, about students petitioning to lift BYU’s ban on beards. Several weeks later, the story had made the New York Times. Incidentally, the Times story noted that there was no longer an exemption for religious reasons, which understandably upset a lot of people. Apparently BYU back-pedaled and reinstated the religious exemption. And while doing so was the right move, it once again highlighted the silliness of having a beard ban in the first place.

For those not in the know, BYU requires its students to abide by an honor code, and that honor code includes a section on dress and grooming standards. Those dress and grooming standards require, among other things, that men be clean shaven (though mustaches are allowed if they don’t extend below the corners of the mouth and sideburns if they don’t extend below the earlobes or out onto the cheek).

The beard ban dates back to the ’70s, when anti-hippie sentiment was high, and it codified what was an unofficial rule against facial hair. But most Mormons would agree that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with facial hair and that it’s mostly a fashion issue that could change. But when people ask for the policy to change, they’re often met with some surprisingly hostile reactions that boil down to a few basic arguments: just because the world thinks it’s okay to have beards doesn’t make it right; even if there’s nothing wrong with beards, the Church—and BYU in particular—holds itself to a higher standard; you agreed to follow this rule, so you have no right to complain about it; and if you really hate it that much, you can always leave.

The first argument is pretty easy to rebut. Just because the Church has a policy against beards for some people doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. After all, many early Church leaders had beards, and most members today are allowed to have beards (unless they’re BYU students, Church employees, missionaries, or Church leaders). This has never been a doctrinal issue—it’s just a policy that codified what was then the norm for most members. There’s nothing wrong with beards and never has been. Unsurprisingly, though, banning them leads people to think that there must be something wrong with them. Else why would they be banned?

The kind of thinking in the second argument isn’t that different: even if there’s nothing really wrong with beards, being clean shaven is still somehow better. That is, maybe people with beards aren’t necessarily wicked, but maybe they’re not as righteous—or at least not as obedient—as those who are clean shaven. This kind of standard doesn’t actually serve to lift us up above the world—it just encourages us to be critical of anyone who isn’t toeing the line. The clean-shaven standard isn’t necessarily higher or better; it’s just different. Just because we can make up a rule and make people follow it doesn’t mean that following it has any real value.

The third argument—that if you’ve agreed to follow the rule, you’ve forgone the right to criticize it—really rubs me the wrong way. I attended BYU for nine years between college and grad school, I worked at Church headquarters for a year, and now I work at BYU. I’ve been required to be clean shaven for a total of over ten years now. If the Church and BYU want to make that a condition of attendance and employment, that’s certainly their right. But I still have the right to think that it’s a silly and outdated rule. This doesn’t make me a hypocrite or a narcissist—it just means that I think that my former school and current employer has a stupid policy and that it should change.

After all, when the ban was first instituted, BYU’s president at the time, Dallin H. Oaks, said, “Our rules against beards and long hair are contemporary and pragmatic. They are responsive to conditions and attitudes in our own society at this particular point in time [and] are subject to change. I would be surprised if they were not changed at some time in the future.” Unfortunately, the current administration doesn’t seem so flexible. BYU spokesperson Carri Jenkins (who famously said that there was no demand for caffeine on campus) said, “The dress and grooming guidelines that men are to be clean shaven has not changed, and I do not foresee it changing.” So the question is, will it ever change unless people ask for it to change?

Jenkins has also said that the beard ban is “just part of how we have chosen to represent ourselves,” but that’s just as untrue as the claim that there’s no demand for caffeine at BYU. Being clean-shaven is how the administration has decided that the students should be represented. Students have no choice in the matter. And that leads to the fourth argument, which is that if you really hate it so much, you can always leave. It’s usually paired with some statement about how there are so many people who apply to BYU and weren’t admitted, but they’re willing to shave, as if the willingness to shave when others aren’t is a sign that they’re more worthy to attend BYU. (Of course, it’s not even that some people are unwilling to shave—they just shave and complain about it or petition for change.) (And, frankly, if your academics weren’t good enough for you to get into BYU, it’s not like being willing to shave everyday somehow makes up for it.)

This argument bothers me even more than the last, because it’s based on such an un-Christlike attitude. Christ invited all to come unto him, not just those who were willing to adhere to an arbitrary standard that has nothing to do with righteousness or worthiness. Isn’t the real solution here just to admit that the beard ban is pointless and get rid of it, not to tell those who have a problem with it to leave? Why drive people away over something so pointless and trivial?

Again, this isn’t a doctrinal issue. I’m not asking for anything heretical or controversial. And especially in light of the Church’s ongoing efforts to highlight its diversity with campaigns like I’m a Mormon, it seems odd to insist on such old-fashioned conformity among those who work for the Church or attend its schools. The hippie era is long over, and beards have become respectable again. The world has moved on, and so should BYU.

Addendum: I just came across this fascinating chart on facial hair trends from 1842 to 1972. Note that the BYU beard ban was implemented when facial hair was already at a low point. I really wonder what the data from 1972 to the present would look like.

Posted by Jonathon in Blog at 10:54 pm | 5 Comments »