By Jo Gough
When the sun comes out, so does the issue of ‘appropriate’ school uniforms. In some schools, shorts are off the uniform list – seen as too immature for young boys, whereas skirts for girls are mandatory. Does this suggest that it’s acceptable to infantilise and sexualise girls? That the exposure of female bodies is normalised? Whatever the case, school uniforms should be practical and comfortable, and not a patriarchal vehicle to control the bodies of young people.
In the workplace these power dynamics continue: a man on Twitter showed himself wearing a bright pink dress, having been sent home from work for wearing shorts. More recently, in a row over uniforms, boys at a school in Exeter made the news for wearing skirts to school, to protest the fact that they weren’t allowed to wear shorts. In a previous workplace, working outdoors with no shade and no shorts, a male colleague asked for a skirt and was denied. Wearing a skirt was unacceptable to the employer – as this would challenge the heteronormative structures put in place by institutions.
Traditionally, shorts were seen as clothing items for boys. From around puberty onwards trousers were given as a marker of becoming a man. The idea that trousers equal masculinity is pervasive, and the clothing revolution (unlike the era of the miniskirt) has not happened for men. Clothing symbolises male status and the conformity of being ‘a real man’.
Perhaps the refusal to allow shorts is also because tights cannot be worn. One of the school boys being interviewed in Exeter explained that they were told they would need to wear tights – as hairs were unsightly. Boys think that they are getting the raw deal, but tights are also part of a uniform, so girls rarely get more air flow than wearing trousers on a hot day.
Female clothing is made with no pockets, thigh rub is painful, skirts are poorly designed for the wind or sitting comfortably, and there is a sexualisation and vulnerability that comes with skirts and dresses. Why it that skirts is aren’t also seen as too immature for young women once puberty hits? How come there isn’t a transition, as with men, in becoming ‘a real woman’.
It’s natural to feel concerned over pleats in skirts, short summer dresses and frilly stark white socks. Girl’s school uniforms are sexualised symbols in the media, pornography, fancy dress and fantasies (see Brittany Spears). Teenage girls feel pressure to hitch up their skirts to feel more attractive. One school decided to ban skirts, because teenagers were making them so short that it was:
‘Not pleasant for male members of staff and students either, the girls have to walk up stairs and sit down and it’s a complete distraction. After a while it stops being a uniform issue and starts becoming a safeguarding issue’.
Girls have to wear tiny tennis skirts for PE, but are told that this is inappropriate in other areas. Femininity is enforced through tiny skirts, but somehow it is unfair on men when women continue this past puberty. Women then enter the world of work, and the expectations for a professional female are tight skirts and high-heels. That schools are concerned for male teachers is a stark reminder of the victim blaming culture we live in, and it’s an insult to men to assume that they have no self-control, even in the presence of children placed under their care.
Therefore, school uniforms are framed to sexualise girls and women, and banning shorts because of antiquated notions of masculinity is archaic. It should be more acceptable that boys and girls should have the choice to wear whatever version of their school uniform that suits them. With the multitude of gender identities being expressed in our increasingly intersectional world, it’s crucial that we make room for autonomy in young people’s clothing choices. However, this seems disturbingly far away.
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