The rise of 'haircut shaming' and why the punishment doesn't work

Elise Solé

A teen girl who received highlights as a birthday gift from her mother was punished by her father, who gave her an extremely short haircut.

Mom Christin Johnson from Ohio shared Facebook photos of her daughter Kelsey’s haircut on Jan. 31, writing, “This is what my daughter looked like Sunday when I took her home and the other two pics is what happened today before she was brought to me… all over me having highlights put in her hair for her birthday!” The post went viral with 35,000 reactions, almost 25,000 shares, and 1,500 comments, with most people expressing their outrage over the severity of the father’s punishment.

The before-and-after photos depict Kelsey with highlights in her long hair, and later, a super-short haircut. In one image, the teen hides her face in her hand, clearly devastated.

The haircut occurred while the girl was under the care of her father and stepmother, both firefighters who were placed on leave from their jobs, pending an investigation by local police and Wood County Children’s Services for potential child abuse.

“I’ve been doing this since ’92 and I’ve never had a case I would say that’s like this,” Haskins Police Chief Colby Carroll told Cleveland local news station Fox8. “Mom was upset with how her child was being cared for — lack of better terms.”

Johnson did not return Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment; however, according to her Facebook page, Kelsey now wears a wig.

Shaming kids with humiliation tactics — forcing them to wear intentionally unflattering outfits or hairstyles — has spiked with the rise of social media. In 2013, a mother in Utah made her daughter wear so-called ugly thrift store clothing to school after learning the girl mocked a classmate’s wardrobe. And in South Carolina, a mother who caught her 13-year-old son smoking pot made him walk along the interstate wearing a sandwich board sign that read, “Smoked Pot, got caught. Don’t I look cool? Not.”

Haircut shaming is uniquely harsh because it can strip children of their gender expression, the outward manner that one conveys their gender identity.

“We see this when boys are forced to cut their hair before joining the military or when girls are forced to grow out their hair,” Deborah Gilboa, MD, a parenting and youth development expert, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

And social media glorifies this type of discipline. In 2016, a video of a mother shaving her teen daughter’s head after the girl bullied a classmate with cancer went viral, as did footage of a father in Tacoma, Wash., who cut his 13-year-old daughter’s hair as punishment for sending a racy photo to a boy (the girl later committed suicide).

There’s even a barber in Atlanta who specializes in haircut shaming, giving his own 12-year-old son the “Benjamin Button” a.k.a. an old-man cut, when he misbehaved in class in 2015. “Parents are at a loss,” Russell Fredrick told the Washington Post. “When you go to discipline kids these days, they can’t necessarily use physical punishment the way parents did in the past, but they have to do something. If you don’t, and your kid ends up doing something crazy, everyone is going to say the problems started at home.”

Unlike taking away a gadget or privileges, cutting hair as punishment affects a child’s autonomy over his or her physical body, potentially damaging a crucial developmental stage, and it could also blur the concept of consent. Research shows that teens whose parents who use “psychological control” (employing guilt trips or otherwise creating anxiety) as punishment are more prone to peer-pressure.

Feeling shame does serve a purpose — one study conducted by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst found the emotion can be a powerful motivator in changing negative behavior. And according to Gilboa, some parents who employ shaming are genuinely trying to instill consequences. “However, humiliation tactics such as hair-cutting debase children without imparting lessons and can damage the relationship between parent and child,” she says. “What does cutting a girl’s hair actually teach her?”

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