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Why Girl’s School Uniform Needs to Change

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Intermediate was my first experience of wearing a school uniform. I remember my white blouse, made presumably from a cheap poly/cotton blend. I remember my navy tartan skirt.

I was growing up and my body was changing. I was going to start a new school with only one or two familiar faces from Primary in my class. I’d been put in the accelerate class which gave me a whole new set of social conventions to navigate. I’d be getting braces soon. I was to catch a bus for the first time. I was going to have a new teacher.

Of course it was my underwear that I was worried about.

One of the first things I learned after the discovery upon trying on my blouse that it was very much on the see through side, is that the training bra you wore underneath it carried almost immeasurable social significance. To wear no bra was unacceptable (what a baby!) Anything other than a Lycra racer back training bra in black, white or grey marle was unacceptable.

My training bra was white with blue spots. In other words. I was toast.

I remember being lined up, as students sometimes are, and looking at the row of white bloused backs in front of me, neurotically checking to see who else had the misfortune to have the wrong training bra like me. Only two other girls. I suffered anxiety until my breasts grew big enough to justify my mother purchasing a new bra. The relief when I finally fitted in!

Knickers didn’t get away with anonymity either. Boy leg underwear had recently become available and this was the desired undergarment. For two reasons; Firstly, it was a new idea so it had the novelty associated with that, and secondly it was practical. It was practical because the fact of the matter was, at some stage during your time at the school, someone was going to see your underwear. Better make sure when that happens you’ve got the right kind on, and boyleg (oh the irony of the name given the context of this article) quite literally, covered more of your leg.

In woodwork class, the teacher had examples of all the projects hanging from the ceiling rafters of his classroom. When we began a new project, he’d ask one of the students to climb on a desk and retrieve it. Thank goodness when my day came, I was wearing my grey marle boy leg underpants. I’d already let myself down so much over the bra.

Of course the boys had uniforms which afforded them privacy, so to this day I couldn’t tell you whether they wore boxers or briefs or went commando.

Fast forward twenty or so years and I am a parent. Between us my husband and I have four children aged 10-15, three boys and a girl. It’s “Back to School” time, and I’m frustrated. Mainly at myself.

I’m not only a parent, I’m an expert in education and learning, with a Masters Degree and 20 years experience in this industry. Not to blow my own trumpet, but I know a lot about how brains work, and how to create the optimal conditions for learning, that sort of stuff. I’m disappointed in myself for not noticing earlier, as I hang my children’s school uniforms on the washing line, how different it must feel to wear a school uniform for my daughter compared to her brothers. Especially as I’d experienced it myself. With all the advances in education, gender equality and society over the last twenty years, how has this obvious and unnecessary discrepancy between the male and female experience stayed exactly the same?

Why if you’re a boy do you get to wear a polo shirt made from comfy, stretchy fabric in a dark colour, but if you’re a girl you wear a see through, white blouse made from fabric which doesn’t stretch or move?

Why, if you’re a boy do you get to wear shorts but if you’re a girl you wear a skirt and have to worry about people seeing your underwear every time you sit down, the wind blows, or you swing on the monkey bars?

How different my daughters school day must be to that of her brothers as she becomes aware, as I did, that the outline of her bra easily shows through the flimsy white fabric of her blouse. I wonder sadly if my daughter has yet learned that the best way to sit, in her school skirt, is with her knees together? Uncomfortable as this is for long periods of time, to sit with one leg over the other risks people seeing your underwear, while to sit comfortably as you would in shorts almost guarantees it. I know that the boy leg underwear of my day has been replaced by Nike three-inch shorts. The new under-skirt fashion. Actually fashion is the wrong word because it implies choice. We choose which fashion trends we follow. These shorts are necessary for social survival at her school. And as a side issue-with the skirts costing $98 and the shorts starting at $45 it’s a rather costly ensemble.

Is this uniform and behaviour modification part of my child’s learning? Surely there’s some reasonable explanation for the different uniforms and that’s why nobody has taken action towards change? Is it of educational significance that we force the girls to move and act differently by their wearing different clothes? Training for their skirt-wearing occupations in future? Girls can be or do anything but do astronauts wear skirts up in space? Do brain surgeons wear skirts while performing a craniotomy?

My daughter puts a lot of effort into her schoolwork, and, from age ten, almost as much effort devising ways to feel comfortable in her uniform. Her brothers are able to put effort into their schoolwork alone, and don’t have to waste energy thinking of strategies to preserve their basic privacy. I really do wonder how this can be fair.

My background is in early childhood education. A world where, for the most part the children are blissfully unaware of their own gender. Where the clothes are for the most part comfortable and practical. Where the girls wear shorts and tee shirts and so do the boys. In early childhood we provide children with an environment where they are free to learn play and explore, where they are celebrated as individuals. It’s a system which works, I see no reason why it wouldn’t work for children at intermediate as well, and I have the knowledge and experience to back that statement up.

I know! I know! I hear the outraged cries “but intermediate aged children need to learn discipline!” “Wearing a uniform teaches them respect for authority and pride at being part of a group!” My response is as follows… The boy who told me in Intermediate that I had legs like Kauri trees wouldn’t have been able to see my legs if I had been shown the respect of being given the choice to wear trousers, as he did. Giving me that choice would not only have avoided the teasing which haunts me to this day, it would have taught nasty Kevin that my body was just as deserving of respect as his was. He would have learned respect intrinsically if he had not experienced two years of seeing girls stand on desks in woodwork class and shivering in the playground in skirts while he got to choose between shorts and long pants-underwear covered at all times. And as for me and the other girls, we would have been taught respect for ourselves, our bodies, our learning. I could’ve laid in bed at night worrying about a maths test the next day instead of devising ways to convince my mother to buy a bra which matched the other girls.

As for being part of a group, part of a team, I can think of very few other situations where a team with male and female members which expects its members to wear completely different uniforms. A recent trip to A and E with my husband reconfirmed that for me, as I sat and watched the nurses buzzing around as nurses do, wearing identical, comfortable blue pyjama-like pants and blue smock like shirts. Nurses have done away with the silly hats and the impractical dresses decades ago. Yet if we travelled back in time to the days when nurses wore said silly hats and dresses, then visited a local school, I highly doubt the uniforms would have changed much, if at all.

Boys are free to sit cross legged while girls sit with their knees together under layers of fabric in 1939 and in 2019.

Education is my industry. My chosen career. My passion and life’s work. It’s an exciting field where things are always changing and growing. As teachers, we exist in a constant cycle of reflection and improvement. A learning environment is like a mini society with aspirations to reflect that of the model society, one of innovation, respect, the highest morals and ideals. Why we choose to adopt all these modern aspirations and yet still dress the children as though it’s 1950, with the same gender conventions of that decade, is quite beyond me and we need to sort this nonsense out. It’s too late for my daughter but I am holding out for a better outcome for my granddaughters.

It’s 2019. Would it be so radical for all the kids to wear the same uniform, regardless of gender?

I would not accept a job where I was expected to wear a uniform which exposes my underwear, and which I couldn’t move comfortably in. Especially if my male colleagues were given shorts and T Shirts to wear, doing the same work.

When we reinforce a paradigm where a feminine appearance is valued over comfort and basic privacy, we perpetuate the shameful rape culture and child abuse statistics in New Zealand.

If I have to pay $98 for a school skirt, I’d like to know, at the very least, my CHILD’S underwear will be covered at all times. Is that too much to ask? Apparently it is, because all she’s asked for, for her birthday is Nike bike pants to wear under her school skirt for the next FIVE YEARS.

And I think that’s really sad.

 

 

Lucy Johnstone is a Mum, Teacher and advocate for children’s rights. She’s also a big fan of yellow, an imagination enthusiast and wannabe domestic goddess. A creative spirit who loves trees and tea and struggles with being succinct, you’ll find Lucy in the garden, the sandpit, trying to write a bestselling novel or most likely, cooking dinner.

Lucy Johnstone

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