Is your school uniform sending out sexist messages?

In trying to ‘protect’ young women, a school uniform policy can risk sexualising girl pupils, warns Gemma Corby

Gemma Corby

School uniform: Schools that ban skirts risk send out a dangerous sexist message, warns Gemma Corby

We are all too familiar with the “sad September” images favoured by newspaper editors, with parents and their purple-haired offspring gazing forlornly into the camera, sometimes holding a pair of trainers. 

School uniform is a contentious topic, but an important one. Uniform sends explicit message and implicit messages. 

And it is these implicit messages that can be dangerous. Does your uniform policy lead young girls into thinking they should be ashamed of their bodies?

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That, without realising it, they are “too sexual” and a distraction for the males of the school?

In 2017, writer Dana Schwartz tweeted: “Ladies, when was the first time you were made to feel embarrassed and sexualised for what you wore? I was in fifth grade, shorts too short.” 

Schwartz explained that she was very tall for her age and everything appeared too short on her. The school called her mother to bring in some trousers, adding to her embarrassment.

School uniform shame

Unfortunately, Schwartz is not the only one to experience humiliation at the hands of a dress code.

In an extreme example, 17-year-old American student Lizzie Martinez from Florida was made to stick plasters across her nipples, stripper-style, and then had to walk in front of the school’s dean, so she could assess whether Martinez’s appearance was acceptable. 

And what was she wearing? A baggy, long-sleeved oversized grey T-shirt. Her crime? She had not worn a bra.

Martinez was summoned to school dean Violeta Velazquez’s office as other students had been talking and laughing about her.

Martinez, who has since started the #bracott movement, said: “The students who were laughing at me should have been addressed, not me, because I wasn’t the issue there.” 

Yet this reaction is seen time and time again, in the UK as well as around the world. Girls are made to feel like they are the problem, that their bodies are a "distraction". 

It is a dangerous message to send.

According to a 2015 report by Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates, Bridlington School in East Yorkshire allegedly banned skirts as a male member of staff felt “uncomfortable” when enforcing the uniform policy regarding their length.

In the same report, a headteacher from a school in Stoke-on-Trent said: “It is 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.”

Students from Appleton Academy in Bradford have started a petition to have skirts reinstated on their school’s dress code, after they were banned this September.

What kind of message does a ban send?

As Bates argues: “When girls are denied time in the classroom because their knees, shoulders or upper arms are considered inappropriate and in need of covering up, it privileges the societal sexualisation of their adolescent bodies over their own right to learn. We don’t have the same qualms about seeing those parts of their male peers’ anatomy.”

Constant judgement

It is not just the fact that women feel constantly judged on their appearance, more so than their male counterparts, but there’s a more sinister insinuation that if women are wearing clothes that “distract” or “provoke” men, they are somehow to blame if they are the victims of sexual harassment or assault.

Lord Grey School in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, hit the headlines in 2016 when its then headteacher, Dr Tracey Jones, was accused of “victim-shaming” (she sent 29 girls home as a result of their clothing choices for their own “protection”).  She was also accused of “fat-shaming” her female students.

She said: “For those girls who are not very slim, the tight clothing emphasises their heftiness and is unflattering...skinny fit trousers and short skirts are not flattering to the larger girl and make her prone to mean comments from peers."

On the surface, it seems ironic that the two school leaders quoted in this article are female, yet in many ways, it isn’t surprising.

Both males and females have been conditioned to think and behave in this way over centuries. But it is the 21st century and people need to catch up. 

Progress is slow, but it is happening. As of 12 April 2019, upskirting (the act of taking a sexually intrusive photograph, up someone’s skirt, without their consent) is now a criminal offence. 

It is a step in the right direction, but many would argue that more needs to be done, and it could start with a review of your school uniform policy.

Gemma Corby is a former special educational needs and disability coordinator (Sendco) and freelance writer


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Gemma Corby

Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and former special educational needs and disability coordinator

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