Point of View

At the YMCA, valuing image over helping someone in need

December 13, 2013 

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ALEKSANDR UGORENKOV — Getty Images/Hemera

I have mentored wild and snot-nosed kids off and on as a YMCA counselor for a few years now, loving every minute of it. There aren’t many things that bring more joy than positively affecting a young person’s life, and there are few better opportunities to do it than being a counselor.

When I recently returned to training sessions at the Y after a year away, my co-workers hardly recognized me with a mop-top that dragged down past my shoulders. I was on my way to donating my hair to a cancer victim. My roommate did the same with his hair last year when his grandma underwent chemotherapy and could not afford a wig to disguise her baldness. I loved the idea and wanted to help someone else in a similar situation.

To complement the mane, an overgrown goatee sprouted from my chin and infamously earned the nickname “the goat.” My newfound look received mixed reviews, but it drew mostly high-fives from fellow counselors and even from bosses in approval of my rebellion from the status quo.

As the training sessions continued, my superiors began to hint that the new ’do was not growing on them. They personally had no problem with it and knew it was a mullet for a good cause, but they were conflicted by the dress code that states that male counselors cannot have hair past their shoulders.

A few suggested that I wear a ponytail or sport a headband so the length did not flirt with the forbidden shoulder line. Ultimately, a camp director regretfully informed me that I had to cut my hair to keep my job. She didn’t agree with the decision, but some higher-ups told her that the locks of love had to be sacrificed for a more generic style.

I pleaded for the chance to attend the next training session with “the goat” gone and my hair tied back. I explained how it was just a hair away from the 8-inch minimum donation and how it had been a long growing process. She told me to try, but it would have to be approved by another one of the directors.

After untangling and tying the hair and exhausting a half a bottle of shaving cream, I showed up to the next session looking sharp. My face was clean cut, and my hair was pulled back neatly into a bun, kind of samurai-warrior-like. I looked good.

“It’s gotta go,” the director said immediately.

My stomach dropped. He continued by saying that I should have shorter hair to obtain the “role model look” of a counselor and sourced one of my peers with a near-buzz as a good visual example. I stood there frozen, short of words.

He would not accept the fact that my hair was weeks away from the minimum donation and that I would have to sacrifice over a year’s worth of awkward growing. He looked past the fact that I had been an actual role model for two years as a Millbrook High Young Life leader and worried only about whether I had the look of one. It was either I get a cut or I get cut.

The irony was more painful than the raw nicks on my freshly shaven face. The YMCA is a fruitful organization that preaches morality and virtues such as responsibility, integrity and care. I felt I was caring for someone in need by doing something that wasn’t necessarily flattering.

As much as I wanted to stick it to the man, fleeing from my oasis of income would have been ill-advised. So I got a trim.

The moral of my experience is that the glorification of image can overshadow concrete actions. That is not what the C in YMCA stands for.

Weston Gregory Suggs lives in Raleigh.

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