Monday, 21 November 2016

Girls just want to wear pants: the push for gender-neutral uniforms

by Evelyn Tsitas,

Girls suffer from conformity and societal expectation from a very early age. It begins as early as primary school, with the uniforms spelling out the inequity – boys get to wear practical shorts and tops that are easy to move in, while girls get dresses that curb their physical activity.

From 2017 female students at Melbourne private school Carey Grammar 
will be able to opt for gender neutral uniforms. In the UK, 80 state schools, including 40 primary schools, allow girls to wear pants and boys to wear skirts. This is part of a government initiative to encourage LGBTQ rights in the classroom.

Even with most school students in American able to wear casual clothes rather than uniform, dress codes throughout the country tend not to be very accommodating to transgender or gender-fluid students.

The moves to gender neutral uniforms are part of a wider recognition of the importance of building a culture of inclusion and diversity. The current school uniforms for girls are part of a legacy of inequity in which women are seen as ornamental accessories first, equal members of society second.

School uniforms prescribed for girls are uncomfortable, impractical and downright stressful – I have been there, and I applaud any school that enables girls to wear a uniform that allows them the freedom of dress boys take for granted.

My own school uniform is seared into my memory, and that of all my friends. Every school reunion, talk will inevitably turn to the uniform and the notorious ‘knicker checks’ and skirt length checks at the girls’ school I attended.

In these enlightened times of equity and diversity, it will seem strange indeed, and a violation of all sorts of rights, when I describe how the Middle School Headmistress would line the girls up and make us expose our underwear to check we were wearing the regulation school colours and sturdy cotton knickers, brown for every day and bright yellow to go under the obscenely short yellow sports tunic.

You lost House points if you turned up to school wearing non-regulation knickers. Those detested Bonds Cottontails that make my stomach turn if I see them lined up crisply in a shop, full of their intentional virginal overtones. Double points were taken off for the naughty fashion forward girls who provoked the Headmistress’s ire by turning up in brightly coloured Witches Britches, which created a shock of static electricity from belly button to knee.

But we girls were not outraged. We were suffering too much to be outraged. Oh, how we suffered in our uniforms. Suffering from the uncomfortable, humiliating, unflattering and restricting school uniform. Suffering from the sports tunic that was so short it meant every girl opted to wear tracksuit pants underneath no matter how hot it was.

How we avoided heat stroke was a miracle. In the middle of summer, on the sports oval, there we would be – dark brown tracksuit pants affording us a modicum of modesty and ability to move without everyone looking at our nether regions.

If that wasn’t bad enough, any girl who had the misfortune of actually having a bust ended up wearing the heavy wool dark brown jumper all summer as well, as the summer sports uniform was cut so that it gaped in the middle buttons across one’s chest, save for those who had not yet entered puberty.

Did I mention this foul ensemble was poly cotton, so mercilessly clung to our puppy fat? I can’t recall if the school produced any sporting champions. It would appear unlikely given the clothing restrictions.

The general uniform was equally as bad. Let me describe it in all its glory – an A lined poly cotton dress, with buttons down the front so each could gape apart in turn, especially if you had a bust. Under a totalitarian regime, peons will find a way to subvert the system, and so we did – we wore the thick jumper year round as a mass protest against ‘the gape’, and the more radical among us would roll the top up so it sat firmly under the bust.

The winter uniform was marginally better because the cold weather afforded us a degree of comfort. We still had to wear jumpers to cover ‘the gape’ in the button down beige shirt, which made us all look like we had jaundice and restricted our movements, but girls with older sisters had it worse. Understandably to save money their parents made them wear their older sister’s heavy wool tunics, which hobbled any activity.

The rest of us ‘got away’ with a flared brown shirt that sat fetchingly on our stomachs, and clung to the thick wool tights that complemented the look. As our parents reminded us, they were paying school fees, so the inevitable tears and snags on the tights had to be stitched up like a scar on Frankenstein’s creature. Younger girls were cautioned against imaginative play in the school gardens lest they snag their hose.

The fact is that at the girls’ school I attended, the uniform in turn infantilised and sexualised us all, and at the end of our last exams, many of us felt compelled to burn the beastly garments which had caused us so much suffering over six long years. I would like to find the people on the School Board and force them to wear that bloody uniform. Did they think it made us more ‘ladylike’? Did they not give a damn?

Despite my experience, I am a strong supporter of school uniforms. Get it right, as they do for boys, and it really is a wonderful democratic form of dress for students. As a working mother, it is one less thing to think about.

As the mother of sons, I have not had a reprise of the misery I suffered for someone else’s vision of what girls should look like.

A school uniform shouldn’t inflict misery on one gender, which is exactly what archaic girls’ uniforms do. Let’s be honest, a dress is a fashion statement, nothing more, and while I admit to being very partial to a fetching dress and high heels in the workplace, I am doing nothing more physically stressful than sitting at a desk, or going to meetings.

Clothing should be appropriate, and at school, girls should be afforded the same comfort and practicality in clothing as boys. Indeed, all children should have the right to be comfortable, and warm, and cool, and able to move without feeling awkward about their bodies or revealing too much flesh because of ridiculously cut outfits.

Anyone who objects to gender neutral uniforms should be forced to wear a school girl’s dress for a week and try and do what we expect girls to do in that unsuitable attire.  It is said that Ginger Rogers could do exactly what Fred Astaire did, but while dancing backwards with high heels on. Let’s not make education a similar exercise for girls because of what we expect them to wear.

This article was originally published on the Online Opinion website


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