On feminists and girls’ school uniforms

Picture of Sarah Pashley, a middle-aged white woman with reddish hair, wearing a dark grey jacket over a white blouse.Last Thursday Woman’s Hour, the 10am slot on BBC Radio 4, had a feature on the growing trend in the UK for schools to ban girls from wearing skirts (it starts at 32:25, not where the dividing line is), after teachers have got sick of sending girls home or into isolation for wearing their skirts too short. Most recently this has included Bridlington School in Hull, whose headteacher Sarah Pashley (right) said that the behaviour of some girls was causing incidents that had made male teachers uncomfortable. Over the years schools have moved from making skirts compulsory for girls to allowing trousers and the ban on skirts has come more recently. The first I remember was Kesgrave High near Ipswich, which banned skirts in 2004 because the (female) chair of governors said she did not like girls cycling to school in short skirts which gave them what she called a “come hither” look. (The ban remains in place.) These days such bans are often justified in terms of preventing girls’ dress becoming a distraction for both boys and male teachers, and the same is true of similar rules in non-uniform dress codes in other schools, particularly in the USA. The Woman’s Hour feature included two male teachers (Vic Goddard, who has featured in Educating Essex, and Francis Gilbert), oddly given that some of those who have introduced these rules are themselves women, and a female gender studies academic, Jessica Ringrose of University College London.

Nearly all the schools I attended had uniforms, and in the 80s and early 90s it was usual for them to be sharply differentiated by sex — the boys were expected to wear shirts and ties, and the girls, blouses (sometimes shirts and ties) with a skirt that came well below the knee. The top button and tie rule was a persistent source of conflict for me as I found it (though not the tie itself) uncomfortable. A lot of schools now have abandoned these rules, making them more gender-neutral, though the more prestigious ones (including grammars, Catholic schools and many of the new academies) have retained them or even reintroduced them. It’s actually difficult to buy long school skirts for girls now (I can find only one, in fact), unless it’s a bespoke uniform item for a specific school.

In this feature, one of the teachers made reference to what he called the “magic walk” that girls have that causes their skirts to be long when they leave home and short when they reach school. He also mentioned that policing skirt lengths is a problem that comes up often because although they specify a grey uniform skirt that can be bought at Asda (a WalMart-owned British supermarket chain), it comes in different lengths and one girl was 6ft tall, resulting it being too short on her. Francis Gilbert said that his school expects teachers to measure skirt length with a ruler, but he finds this uncomfortable and tends not to do it; however, girls play up to a TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex) culture and come to school dressed like they are going to a nightclub. Prof Ringrose said that the claims of ‘distraction’ was deeply sexist, objectifying of girls’ bodies and insulting to men, and that objectification of girls’ bodies should be addressed in the curriculum rather than making out that girls’ bodies are sexually inappropriate.

The presenter asked Francis Gilbert how often boys were told off for having their trousers down around their waists; he said that they did this quite often, particularly with boys’ haircuts. Ringrose interrupted to say that he was not branding boys’ bodies as inappropriate and that it represented a sexual double standard which she found ‘distressing’. She also said that making girls wear trousers was not an answer, because girls were often told off for having trousers that were too tight and that girls had reported to her that the school trousers were often ill-fitting and uncomfortable. Towards the end, she said that schools should be addressing sexism and sexual harassment and that a uniform policy “does not get to the root of the problem, which is sexual violence against girls and women”.

Personally, I find the “distraction” argument fairly flimsy, but if the dress is distracting then it should be understood that it is not the girl’s body that is distracting but the particular way she displays it. Nobody, after all, makes the same claims about women in swimsuits, which display far more flesh than a school uniform. It’s not only the girl’s appearance itself that is a distraction; it is also the time taken out of teaching to tell off a pupil who openly breaches a rule. But to say men and boys (especially boys who are going through puberty and really do think about girls and sex a lot) are distracted by a girl dressed in an obviously sexualising manner is not the same as suggesting that they will not be able to control their behaviour; rather, it means just that: that it will distract him from thinking about other things. It can also lead to compromising situations, such as when a woman wears a skirt above the knee then sits on a low chair, putting the ‘opening’ (and possibly her underwear) right below where the man would look to talk to her, such that the man or boy need only cast his eyes down briefly to appear to be looking up her skirt. This is illustrated by what happened when a male teacher told a girl to lengthen her skirt at a school in Yorkshire a few years ago: she told him he should not be looking at her legs, despite their being on clear display and it being his job to enforce the school rules. I should add that it is not just schoolgirls who do this; the female police officer who interviewed me about abuse at my boarding school last year did precisely this.

Picture of Chris Whitehead, a 12-year-old white boy with blond hair, wearing a light blue school T-shirt and a dark grey school skirtIt is not true that girls’ bodies are being policed more than boys’. This attitude is rather typical of feminist attitudes that scorn any notion that women and girls should be ascribed personal responsibility for their behaviour, particularly where it has any connection with sex or sexuality. Boys’ uniforms are almost always heavier and more concealing than girls’. In many schools girls are still allowed to wear a skirt in the summer while boys are required to wear long trousers; there have been a few incidents of boys wearing skirts to get around this problem (which it turned out was not against the rules). Boys’ haircuts are a common source of uniform conflicts for boys, and a boy cannot vary his haircut in and out of school; a girl can wear what she likes when out of uniform. The rules offer more choice to girls and are easier to follow for them, yet they break the rules more often, because some girls know their bodies, particularly when decorated a certain way, are visually appealing to boys, while others do not, and dress as their friends do to fit in without knowing the messages their dress sends out. And if girls cannot, or will not, obey a rule that is hardly onerous and does not impose discomfort, that choice is going to be withdrawn.

I’m not in favour of uniforms; the majority of the arguments in their favour (such as masking social class differences) are spurious. But if a school is meant to be a learning environment (and I’m well aware that they often are not, especially at secondary level), it is not unreasonable to ask pupils to dress in a way that looks appropriate for one, and which shows good taste. We can argue as long as we like over how distracting a girl in an “extended belt”, as the BBC presenter told us her mother used to call a very short school, is, and in what way, but the biggest objection to it is that it doesn’t look very nice. Schools are (meant to be) places to broaden the mind, not to reduce young people to their bodies before they’ve even begun trying to do that.

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