Ah, the back-to-school rush: a delightful season of lists and shopping fruitlessness. In among the panic-buying of the only correctly blue-coloured shirts I could find and the traipsing around endless stores trying on shoes, I’ve been having some conversations with my children about why their options are restricted – and often inferior – because they both happen to have vaginas. This, my friends, is 2017 and it must simply stop. Schools must stop with the gendered uniform lists; shops must stop with the gendered clothing and shoe sections; and, above all, our children should stop thinking that their gender differences are the most important feature they have. There is simply no good reason to hang on to these things and a rainbow of reasons why we shouldn’t. Here are a few of the most compelling:
1. Gender is not binary or determined by sex at birth. Once more for those at the back of the staffroom: gender has changed and we must change with it. Science tells us that gender biology is complex, that our minds and bodies might not fit others’ expectations of them – history tells us that failing to protect children with gender identity issues can lead to high rates of mental illness and suicide. Haas et al (2014) found that attempted suicide rates among trans people was "exceptionally high" (40-50 per cent) – and worse when the trans person was young or had disclosed that they were trans. Gendering uniform in school is not only uncomfortable for these pupils, it is also often drawing attention to them in a completely irresponsible manner. For other pupils who don’t wish to – and shouldn’t be forced to – perform their gender in such a public way, gendered uniform can also have a severe impact on their mental health. It is time to start minimising what we have traditionally constructed as "difference" between boys and girls, because most of it is total fallacy, and our kids deserve better.
2. Most UK schools still have different uniforms for boys and girls, suggesting, more than anything, that they need different uniforms because they do different things. Why else would boys have large, roomy pockets and girls have none? Why else would boys have strong, waterproof shoes and girls have diamante ballet flats? If we want to start allowing our pupils to express who they are, regardless of gender norms – if we want the girls to feel it’s OK to play football and the boys to feel its OK to do crochet, as of course we should – then we need to stop dressing them differently. Who knows what else might happen if we simply stopped expecting gendered behaviour from our pupils? It’s the Billy Elliot story but with a happy beginning (admittedly, it probably wouldn't be such a great film), where his dad says, "Of course you shall go to ballet, Billy, and I’m proud of you and it’s great that you have found something you love, buddy," and they hug happily.
3. There is simply no getting away from it – uniform labelled as "girls'" and sold as such is smaller, tighter, clingier and with a distinct lack of functioning pockets. Skirts that are knee-ish in length are common, with the concomitant issues of sitting, kneeling or any sort of physical activity without flashing. Then we tell them to wear tights – one of the most uncomfortable garments ever invented, with a raft of issues from falling down to laddering to unpleasant yeast infections. We are physically constraining our girls in so many ways. We are telling them they should be display items, not amazing kinetic contraptions of wonder. We’re hobbling them with skirts and tights and shoes and then wondering why they feel self-conscious, weak and are sometimes shying away from physical activity. Later, we’re telling them they must be "modest" and sending them home if they show a bra strap, a shoulder or a thigh. Girls get the worst of gendered uniform at present, and girls get the worst of gendered almost everything else in the world, and it’s up to us to flip that first domino, because it ends in equal pay, Stem careers opportunities for women and tolerance and acceptance for marginalised people everywhere.
4. Shoes deserve their own line of argument, I think. I have never – not once – come across a pair of girls' school shoes that didn’t cost the earth and yet were waterproof and sturdy (my daughter’s current school doesn’t even allow boots, which might help somewhat). Turn left for girls’ shoes and you get sparkly, strappy, shiny nightmarish clippy-clops that make show ponies of our daughters; turn right and you get clompy, black practical fellas that just do the job for our sons, and don’t make a fuss about it. This, of course, is tied into the wider damn stereotype that women are all obsessed with SHOES! AND CUPCAKES! AND FRILLS! Sure, like those things if you like, whatever gender. But let’s not suggest that femininity is irrevocably tied to what we hoove ourselves in, for god’s sake – not when those things can be life or death in a fire, or too slippy to climb a delightful tree.
Make school uniform policy gender-neutral
Schools: make your uniform policy gender-neutral. Parents: prioritise your child’s comfort and confidence, and to hell with the labels; ask, pester and protest about the school’s uniform policy. Clothing retailers – and I’m using my teacher voice – STOP IT RIGHT NOW. Take the most comfortable and practical uniforms you sell, take the gender labels off, get enough in your stores (especially for late shoppers like me) and just sell them to everyone. Oh, and let’s make a decision on which way buttons do up and stop pretending our genitals are involved...
Lucy Rycroft-Smith a former maths teacher and now freelance writer/researcher