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Why schools should stop policing female attire

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This is a piece about what girls wear to school, and to be honest, once you stop to consider it, that’s problematic in itself: I can’t remember the last time I read a piece about what boys or men wear to school or to the office. I suppose you do get the odd piece of outrage about men sauntering around the Tesco chiller cabinets without shirts in the height of summer, but you pretty much can’t move for opinions about the clothing of women and girls.

Still, we are (albeit rather depressingly) where we are. Even some headteachers genuinely seem to believe that public commentary on their female pupils’ skirts and trousers is not only appropriate, but actually necessary.

A secondary head at a school in Buckinghamshire was the most recent offender, causing a minor storm in April by explaining in an email to all parents that girls’ dress should be “modest and demure”, which sounds rather more like an injunction from Deuteronomy than a piece of advice for young women in the 21st century.

Mumsnet users tend to bend over backwards, in most circumstances, to be understanding about the challenges facing staff in schools, but this is one area where my own patience tends to run dry very quickly.

Reading the experiences of hundreds of thousands of (mostly female) parents over the years, one thing that’s appallingly apparent is how heavily the appearance of young girls and women is policed, from very nearly the moment they’re born – if not by the parents themselves, then by their extended family, friends and complete strangers on the street who apparently have nothing better to do.

Girls and women drop out of sports, fret about their appearance and report rocketing levels of anxiety and distress about their own bodies; you’d have thought we would have learned by now that tutting at short skirts and commenting on their “heftiness” is not the way forwards.

Nor – and this really shouldn’t need saying – should girls be held responsible, in any way, for sexual harassment perpetrated by the people around them.

School staff who are rendered incapable by the mere sight of girls’ knees are simply not fit for the job; pupils who use the appearance of their peers’ bodies as an excuse for bullying or for violence should be dealt with swiftly and appropriately.

After all, they’re going to have to go out into the world soon enough and deal with women making free choices about clothing of all kinds without committing criminal offences.

School seems like the ideal place to take the opportunity to teach all young people that courtesy, kindness and respect for other people’s bodily autonomy is the only acceptable response, whether they happen to be dealing with a woman in a miniskirt, a girl in a hijab or a man in six-inch stilettos and a tutu.

Justine Roberts is founder and chief executive of Mumsnet @justine_roberts

This is an article from the 20 May edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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