It is a truth universally acknowledged that the first week in September, the press are obliged to write outraged articles about school uniform.
You may have seen some interest in the past week or so in the story that a school has introduced gender-neutral uniform for their Year 7 cohort–and this, coupled with John Lewis’ decision to make *some* of their clothing for children gender-neutral, has made gender neutral clothing the hot topic on the lips of every interested parent and teacher. Or rather, it has made banning skirts the hot topic on the lips of every interested parent and teacher–and it’s time we talked about the issue properly.
“We are constraining girls in a physical as well as a metaphorical sense.”
The main thing that these new school uniform policies highlights is that schools are starting to recognise that protecting transgender and non-binary students is the number one priority, and that safety trumps almost anything else–including complaints from people who want to uphold the status-quo. Kids–especially transgender kids— are depressed, harassed, bullied, and attempting suicide at an alarming rate, partly because we are forcing them to wear clothes that amplify their gender dysphoria. Gender neutral uniforms are therefore an important and positive step in the right direction when it comes to supporting young people.
Gender neutral uniforms also help close the gap between girls and boys. Having separate uniform policies for boys and girls tells them in the strongest terms that they are different and that we expect them to behave differently. Flimsy, tight, fitted and pocketless uniforms constrain girls in a physical and metaphorical sense, while sturdy, well-made, pocketed clothes let boys run free. But boys and girls’ bodies differ between genders less than they do across genders, and as such ‘physical difference’ is a pathetic excuse for uniforms that display and retrain girls.
“Pupil or parent complaints don’t necessarily indicate a problem with the policy.”
Moreover, gender neutral uniforms also make teachers’ lives easier. Teachers and schools have a notoriously hard job with uniform policies. Balancing the needs of pupils, parents and teachers with attempts to ensure that uniform is not too expensive, not too varied, not too unusual, and not too bland is difficult in itself, and the multiple agents at play here (teachers, parents, pupils, and community) mean there’s always going to be at least one critic.
What’s more, uniform is the proving ground for children negotiating relationships between teachers and pupils–particularly at secondary level. *Whatever* the uniform policy is, kids will try to push, flaunt, test, or break it–and that’s normal. Changing a uniform policy is a difficult thing to do at the best of times, and plenty of people will complain whatever. That means that a school has to do what a school thinks is best, and recognise that pupil, parent or community complaints don’t necessarily indicate a problem with the policy.
So, to the school that introduced their policy for year 7–great. The head commented that “Respecting people’s rights are very important. We believe in rights and responsibilities, we believe in equality and we believe in fairness. We want to treat everybody the same”, and that’s fantastic.
But it’s when we head into the second reason the head gives for gender neutral uniforms that we dive into the murky waters of ‘modesty’:
“Tony Smith, head teacher at the school, said the decision was made in response to comments from parents and the community–including concerns that the skirts were being rolled up and worn in a way that promoted the ‘sexualisation of young women'”. (Ed Note: We’ve not hyperlinked this article in the text as it is from the Daily Mail, but if you really, really want to read it, you can do so here using this handy nofollow link.)
“For me, the skirts issue is a straw man – a grass skirt if you will.”
Watch my eyes roll back into the dark, dark recesses of my exasperated mind. As a feminist, I will argue that this victim-blaming, lack of awareness about consent attitude is perpetuating society’s obsession with how women dress and their consequent responsibility for stuff–including ACTUAL CRIMES COMMITTED BY OTHER PEOPLE–that happens to them. As a teacher, I will argue that it makes no logical sense to ban skirts because pupils were rolling them up, because if you’re struggling to enforce a policy that (presumably) specifies skirt length, I’m not sure why you won’t continue to struggle to enforce a policy that bans them altogether. Like I said, pupils test uniform boundaries to their limits because that’s the fringe of school rules they like to fiddle with, the hill they like to martyr themselves on for cool points. We’ve all done it.
For me, the skirts issue is a straw man–a grass skirt if you will–because it plays right into the hands of people who think we are somehow erasing gender by neutralising policy. Restricting options and limiting pupil choice is usually a surefire way to piss off parents; so why not just allow any gender to wear anything in the uniform shop? Oh right, because then we might get–OH DEAR LORD PLEASE NO–boys in skirts. Although, I’m sure good ol’ toxic masculinity and playground ‘banter’ will put a stop to that, eh?
“Society booms loudly that ‘feminine = skirt’ and when we continue to go along with this in uniform policy, we endorse clothing that is simply less practical.”
There is one argument against skirts as uniform that I think bears consideration, however. I’ve written about wearing menswear several times, and come to the conclusion that I find it better in many ways–it’s more practical, it’s more well-made, and it’s generally more comfortable–and I also quite like the aesthetic, although that’s secondary to me. I personally don’t like or want to wear skirts that much–ESPECIALLY WITH NO GODDAMN POCKETS–but I’m not here to tell other adults that they can’t.
But with children, especially young children, the truth is that we are dressing them–explicitly with our hands or implicitly with our expectations–and, more often than not, if skirts are on the menu, the girls are getting them. Our uniform policies tend not only to be gendered, but not even equal: skirts, dresses and tights are undoubtedly further along the spectrum towards ‘decorative’ and away from ‘practical.’. Society booms loudly that ‘feminine = skirt’ and when we continue to go along with this in uniform policy, we endorse clothing that is simply less practical and by its very nature discourages activity and unrestricted movement for pupils that are already disadvantaged by stereotypes of members of their gender being less practical and active. We are hobbling our girls, and displaying them, and if we say ‘but they can choose’ we are denying that that choice isn’t really a free one–not yet.
“Skirts are not all that great for school; just like enormous dangly earrings and fairy wings and dresses with trains and codpieces.”
I suspect, in time, if boys were allowed and encouraged to wear skirts, we might decide fairly mutually that they’re fun and beautiful and interesting, but are not all that great for school; just like enormous dangly earrings and fairy wings and dresses with trains and codpieces.
I also suspect the greater argument about uniform in schools *at all* needs to make its way into the public consciousness in the UK. But for now, I suspect the word ‘ban’ is derailing this debate and bringing out all the ‘tabloid’ arguments, which is unsurprising but utterly dull. This particular school has gained press attention because
P*ers M*rgan the Sentient Ham actually attended it, which feels beautifully ironic; I told the BBC that made me like the policy that bit more, because ‘anything that leaves Piers Morgan spluttering with indignation is almost always a kind and human thing’. I leave you with one of the comments (DON’T READ THE COMMENTS) from an article about me in the gutter press:
“We’re suffering the same symptoms Rome had before its fall. Homosexuaily, transgender (sic) and hedonism all rampant and leads to destruction of civilisations”.
If that’s the best argument you’ve got, folks–deconstructing gender somehow makes empires decline like underpants make profit–then jog on, pal.