My son, Michael, turned sixteen on August 2. Old enough to be ordained a priest. Our bishop placed one condition on that ordination: Michael needed a missionary haircut. In fact, our bishop said, Michael would look best in a crew cut. (Apparently, there were some ward members who had commented disapprovingly on our son’s hair.)
Our oldest son had received similar instructions when he asked the bishop if they could talk about missionary preparation. The response “Not until you get your hair cut” became this son’s excuse for leaving the church, and he “went inactive” (what a phrase!) almost immediately.
Of course, I was nervous about how son #2 would react to the condition. I personally loved his long hair. It was red and wavy like mine, and an inch or so past his jawbone. And how was I to respond? I have spent the past several years dealing with a daughter’s eating disorder, and have been hyper aware of the exaggerated significance we place on appearance. I wanted all of my children to understand that their appearance would not be relevant to God, who would look on their hearts. Then again, I am called with my husband to the MTC, and the dress code there is very strict. The missionaries know that their appearance needs to be in line with what and who they represent. There is a mirror in the sisters’ dorm, with the question written above it: “Do you look the part?”
Michael announced matter-of-factly that he would be getting a haircut. Of course, he had his own conditions. He would allow only one person to perform the deed: Tamu Smith. (You can see Tamu in the trailer for Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons. “It’s only hair,” he said.
I was relieved, proud of him for putting priesthood advancement above hairstyle, but still conflicted.
Tamu cut his hair beautifully, and he was ordained the next Sunday. After his ordination, we took him to the MTC for dinner. The missionaries were all very complimentary. But one of them expressed some real surprise that our bishop had set that condition. “They do things like that out here in Utah?” he said. (He’s a farm-raised kid man from Virginia.) “My bishop was just glad when I finally wore clean pants to church.”
I happen to love my bishop, who walked a long and winding path to where he is now. And I know there is a huge variety in what bishops will request or insist upon. Yet I wonder about the message we send to our children. What we typically say is, “You are representing Jesus Christ.” The answer, as any teenager will tell you, is “Then my hair needs to be lots longer.”
I suspect that the bishop’s request was an easy excuse for my oldest son to leave the church. But I can’t help wondering if anything would be different had the bishop answered my son’s request to talk about missionary preparation not with the condition of a haircut, but with the words: “Wonderful! I’d love to have that chat. You will be a marvelous missionary!”