Sun, Skirts and Shorts: What is Acceptable?

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[1]. 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[2]’.

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.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/jun/22/teenage-boys-wear-skirts-to-school-protest-no-shorts-uniform-policy

[2] http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/school-bans-skirts-after-hemlines-5988614

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About the Author

Jo is an aspiring writer, deeply interested in gender, current affairs and popular culture. She has a degree in Education and Psychology, and it is what is not being said in news reports and how people react to the news and popular culture that gets her writing. To the left in politics, Jo has always tried to make the world that bit fairer. Twitter: @redphiend
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Learning Curves: My Experience with Sexism in Further Education

By Jack Ford

Childhood is a critical time – our early experiences shape the way we look at the world and everything in it. From what food we enjoy, to our tastes in music and indeed, our attitudes towards other races and sexes. Our early interactions with people who are different to us can be hugely influential, and for some, bad environments can form negative opinions.

The divide between boys and girls becomes apparent from a young age, as children of different genders are often discouraged from mixing socially. Boys are encouraged to be active and adventurous in their play, whereas girls are kept passive and prescribed notions of femininity. However, this segregation is broken when young people desire romantic relationships – the invisible, cultural line is crossed when a boy asks a girl out, or vice versa. Perhaps this lack of early integration ingrains in us the idea that the opposite sex is only to be approached when there are amorous feelings involved, which just isn’t the case at all.

This idea came to me last year, when I made some observations on an Access course for young adults. The students, about three quarters male, were intelligent and very articulate, but unwilling to apply themselves and often boisterous and reluctant to do any of the work set for them.

During my time there I began to notice early on that some of the male students had unhealthy attitudes towards women. One in particular would never take instructions from female tutors. I can’t say for certain why, but it seemed like he refuted their being in a position of authority. Another would regularly tell sexist jokes either involving body parts or their usage, sometimes both.

These attitudes were best personified in one student who I’ll call Aaron. A young man in his late teens, Aaron was smart, funny and industrious, but fairly early on I became aware of his unsavoury views on women. He would brag about the number of girls he had been with and made weak jokes about how we shouldn’t look at his internet history. When there were excursions – the course had regular outings – you would often catch him using his phone to film passing women, strangers to him that he liked the look of. He was reprimanded for doing this, but that didn’t stop him.

This came to a head at the end of year presentation, where students and tutors along with families, friends and even representatives from the university that sponsored the course gathered to celebrate the year’s achievements. All students were asked to make a small speech. When Aaron took to the mic, he delivered a standard speech where he listed his achievements and started thanking all the course tutors, finishing with a young woman of whom all he said was, “She’s gorgeous.”

The room erupted in awkward laughter. A couple of his mates wolf-whistled. Perhaps this bolstered him, because he described her as either “beautiful” or “gorgeous” five more times. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe he had done that. I couldn’t believe he was continuing to do it. I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t stopped him. It was so uncomfortable to witness that I had to leave the room. It was baffling that he would think that this attitude, broadcasted to everyone, was acceptable. I couldn’t imagine how the teacher he was speaking about must have felt, objectified in front of a large group of people. I asked her about it afterwards and she said it was fine, but she did look a little shell-shocked.

To my relief, some of the others agreed with me that this wasn’t OK, but not everyone. I even complained, but by then Aaron had finished the course and there was nothing that could be done. So instead, I pushed for the teachers to include some education on gender equality and discrimination as part of their curriculum.

I argued that one of the aims of the course was to prepare students for being in the workplace, and if any of them said some of the things I heard them say about women at work, they would have found themselves either at a tribunal, or fired (although the unfortunate reality is that so many incidents of gender based harassment in the workplace go unchallenged by employers). The teachers heard me out, but declined my proposal. This was understandable, I wasn’t a tutor and it wasn’t my place to tell them how to run their course. Their continued reluctance to penalise sexist behaviour is one of the factors that contributed to my decision to leave the course. (And to be honest, it was a relief.)

This is my experience with witnessing sexism in further education, and of course this is not an isolated incident. Last year The Women and Equalities Commission were told that young people nowadays are experiencing a culture where sexual harassment has become the norm. In addition to this, while sexual harassment and sex crime is down a lot from what it used to be, in the last two years the rate has risen.

There is no one answer to resolve this, but there are definitely more actions that can be taken to combat this institutionalised problem. In March, a proposal was put forward to make the teaching of relationships and sex education compulsory in all schools. This is legislature we need to get behind. Teaching this to children who are at a pivotal age will lay the foundation for them to realise that sex, gender and difference are serious issues. Although young boys and girls are segregated, this type of education should include education which goes beyond binary concepts of gender – as well as discussing issues such as harassment, consent and equality.

The gender divide is a problem that exists in all cultures, and it’s about time we cross gender lines to come together and do more to see each other as equals. Until then, we will keep producing more Aarons, more people who think it’s still OK to publicly objectify women because the world they were brought up in, a world which said that they could.

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About the Author

Jack Ford is a charity worker, anti-rape activist and volunteer art gallery attendant from Somerset. Currently, he abides by the Hunter S Thompson quote: ‘I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.’ His work has appeared in Jupiter magazine, on the Bristol Sport website and he writes for The Redeem Team and Nondescript.

 

Doctor Who (Will Jodie Whittaker Be?)

By Jo Gough

The 13th Doctor will be a woman. This is not simply a case of the BBC being ‘PC’ for the sake of it; this proves that a female hero can be realised within the Doctor Who universe. I would have thought that the plethora of complaints have begun to arrive, as they did when the Master regenerated as a woman (a pretty big hint). I imagine that many haven’t even been watching Doctor Who, and just want an ‘i’m not sexist but…’ grumble.

This is a positive step and is not particularly surprising, as should be the reaction if we ever get a more diverse James Bond. If these characters can be reprised looking and acting differently, why can’t this include skin colour or a change of gender?

This will keep the show fresh, as long as the writing mirrors the progressiveness of the casting; we want to see a reinvented Doctor with a new personality and character, as well as a new gender.

I was an avid fan when Doctor Who returned to our screens. However, when Steven Moffat took over the writing of the show, I did struggle to watch as I found the language and tone problematic from a gender perspective. Actions to and from women in the script became highly sexualised, which I found unnecessary. What statement was this making to a young audience? Women can be strong and clever, but only if we are framed in a sexual light?

The recent Wonder Woman movie is another example of this. It was hailed as a feminist success; however, there was still at the centre a male hero. This character teaches her how to behave and dress, and makes constant (and exhausting) references to her appearance.

This makes it more important than ever that we see beyond the fact the Doctor is a woman, but instead examine who she will actually be. Will she be scripted like a male with her companion besotted? Will she be saving male companions from the tedium of life, whisking them away in the Tardis? Or will men remain as the heroes, saving her from danger? Will she need a love story to seem interesting, or will the scenes be scattered with references to her female form? Will female characters work with her or be jealous of her? Will she be fought over?

When Mackie was cast as Bill, the first openly gay character in Doctor Who, she said sexuality was not the defining role of her character. This gives me hope that the gender of our hero won’t be either.

Hopefully, she is constructed through the strength of what makes the Doctor a role model, with all the trademark traits that we love: wonderment, enthusiasm for teaching and learning, puzzling out the science of the universe, needing help, taking advice, being protective … and ultimately saving the day, with compassion in her heart(s). Children and adults alike will then learn that women can be heroes based on their ability and personality, not because they look good or try to mimic a male stereotype.

This is a fine time to encourage hero status as a result of character and personality, regardless of the sex you were born, or regenerated as.

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About the Author

Jo is an aspiring writer, deeply interested in gender, current affairs and popular culture. She has a degree in Education and Psychology, and it is what is not being said in news reports and how people react to the news and popular culture that gets her writing. To the left in politics, Jo has always tried to make the world that bit fairer. Twitter: @redphiend
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