Today it seems everyone on the internet is up in arms about a news report that a secondary school is making its uniform “gender neutral” by prohibiting students from wearing skirts. Priory School in Lewes, East Sussex, made the change after “concerns” raised over the length of skirts, and catering for a handful of transgender pupils.
The majority of what I’ve seen on social media has been against the decision. Saying that it’s gender neutrality gone too far or is just ridiculous. Personally, I think the school needs congratulating for at least trying to do something. Has it got it right? I’m not sure.
Right to choice
As a feminist, it’s so important to me that women get to right to choose. Even if their decision is different to mine or yours. Even if I don’t think they are right. Informed choice is queen. So I do have an issue with the choice being removed. I’d certainly be outraged if the girls weren’t allowed to wear trousers at all and could only wear skirts (still happens at many schools by the way). Gender neutral shouldn’t mean default ‘male’. However, how many kids do have a real choice when we live in a patriarchal society?
The problem with letting the boys wear skirts
I’ve read some saying, just let the boys wear skirts. The ideal policy is of course that clothes aren’t dependant on gender. I want to live in a world where boys/men wear skirts too. But let’s be honest, how many school aged boys would have the confidence to wear a skirt? Pre-school boys seem to have no problem wearing skirts and dresses but something seems to happen around school where boys seem to absorb the message that skirts/dresses are just for girls.
My son is only in year 1 and when I’ve suggested that he wear a skirt or dress he has found that ridiculous and says ‘skirts are for girls’. Indeed, just recently we were in Scotland and he embarrassed me by laughing at a man in a kilt, shouting loudly (so a whole restaurant could hear him saying) ‘that man is wearing a skirt’.
We all know that it’s more acceptable for a girl to dress ‘like a boy’ than a boy to dress ‘like a girl’. Like Madonna said in ‘what it feels like for a girl’ back in 2000 (17 years ago now, I feel old):
‘Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots ’cause it’s okay to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading…’
Do (young) girls really have a choice?
At secondary school, perhaps, but at primary school, I would say not always. I’m sure they think they have choice but we are all influenced heavily by what’s around us, more so when we are young. If most of the girls are wearing skirts, then there is a lot of pressure to fit in and not be different.
My daughter is 2 and for a while now she will go and get a dress or ask for ‘pretty’ which means she wants a dress. She puts one on and twirls and says ‘pretty’. It’s very cute, but it just serves to show how early children absorb these messages. As a feminist family, this obviously isn’t something that we have taught her but that she has absorbed from mainstream media.
The vast majority of princesses/heroes and main female characters wear dresses/skirts on tv and in films. Little girls often see these characters (who are always pretty) and absorb the message that they should look pretty too. Princesses are good, slim and pretty, pretty is good. Witches are often ugly and bad. Therefore, ugly is bad. We should be good, we should be slim and pretty.
Then, combined with that, they then constantly receive subliminal messages that girls ought to strive to be pretty, that should be their end game. That is why there was such an uproar recently about the Clark’s girls shoes being called ‘dolly babe’ whilst the boy version was called ‘leader’. This happened around the same time as Morrisons getting rinsed for their sexist t-shirt slogans:
— ShelleyRoche-Jacques (@RocheJacques) 24 July 2017
These are by no means unique or new instances, nor is it confined to just clothing. It’s everywhere. Girls get called bossy while boys are called leaders. Girls constantly absorb the message that being pretty matters. I’d go so far as to say that girls absorb the message that if they aren’t pretty then they are worth less.
By the time they get to primary school it’s so ingrained that many parents say that they would struggle to convince their daughters not to wear a dress or skirt. The girls would be upset to wear trousers. If that’s the case for your daughter, I would encourage you to have a conversation with her about why that is, try to get to the bottom of it. Is it purely comfort or is it because of how it looks. Is their choice without bias?
One of the things that really brought this issue home to me was a morning that I was dropping my then 4-year-old off at school a year ago. One of his classmates, also 4 years old was walking into school ahead of us. She was wearing a tight pencil shirt and shoes with small heels. She was having to walk with small footsteps as if she was foot-bound because the skirt and shoes were restricting her. I felt so sad that she wouldn’t be able to play properly in the playground that day, climbing and running as 4 year olds should. She can not have been more comfortable in those clothes. I wonder how such restriction would affect her development. Had her parents tried to get her to wear more appropriate clothing but the girl was insistent? I wonder if they would have benefitted from a school policy that said everyone wears trousers.
I guess my point is that whether you allow skirts or not. Whether you allow boys to wear skirts or not. It’s a moot point, as gender conditioning in society removes REAL choice for kids. Where kids can feel free to wear what they want regardless of gender, judgement or shame. The current issue of gender neutral clothes is one worth exploring, but its one small part of a much bigger gender issue jigsaw and the solutions aren’t easy ones.
So, have the Priory School got it right? I’m not sure but at least they are trying to do something to help. Especially given that it has a number of transgender pupils who they are trying to support who probably already face a great deal of challenges and discrimination as teenagers.
I guess it’s easier to just ban skirts than to address the bigger issues of gender inequalities which seems insurmountable at times. I don’t know what the solution is.
I’ve seen comment after comment online from people saying ‘people are just getting on the gender neutral bandwagon’ and this ‘gender neutral stuff’ never used to be a problem so why is it an issue now? Maybe because due to social media, more people are ‘woke’ now and if you don’t think these issues are genuine problems then you either aren’t listening or looking. I’d encourage you to reflect upon your own bias and your own privilege. There are kids out there who are struggling with these issues on a daily basis – put yourself in their shoes. What would you think then?
I’m sure this is going to garner some controversy but please comment below. Respectful discussion and debate about issues like this are important if we are going to make improvements. I hope that discussions like this mean that in the future, these things won’t be so much of an issue and young people struggle less.