by Anne-Meike Fechter
For those unfamiliar with the issue, the news that a group of parents and pupils at an East Sussex secondary school staged a protest on the first day of term against the final-stage roll-out of a gender neutral uniform, may seem bemusing. Why would girls, and their parents, actively resist a policy that is designed to further gender equality? As one parent not involved in the protest remarked in surprise, ‘but this is a fantastic chance do away with the over-sexualising of their bodies which happens with the wearing of very short skirts’. Given that lack of confidence among girls in their body shapes and self-criticism is high in the UK (46% of girls reported that their body image causes them to worry ‘often’ or ‘always’, compared to 25% of boys), one might wonder indeed why this is not seen as a step in the right direction.
To be fair, the protesters might have been vocal, but their number was relatively small. Some complained simply of the extra cost for Year 11 students who would wear the new uniform for only a year. The resentment may run a little deeper, though. What irks some of them, as expressed on their placards and in discussion forums, is the elimination of students’ ‘choice’ and ‘self-expression’ – apparently achieved through wearing skirts. The talk of ‘choice’, of course, is misleading: in practice, very few girls wear trousers rather than skirts to school, arguably due to peer pressure. Explicit orders by the school about what to wear, then, seem to cause more resentment than the indirect pressure of peers. Paradoxically, the age-old instinct among male and female pupils to subvert school uniform rules, in the case of girls manifests in ultra-conformism to particular gendered expectations of what it means to be ‘feminine’. Unsurprisingly, this is merrily supported by the likes of Piers Morgan, who endorsed the protest, demanding that we ‘let girls be girls and boys be boys’. Really? In the age of #MeToo and a dozen other campaigns aimed at reducing gender-based violence and achieving equal pay? Perhaps not.
The indignation expressed by some for not being allowed to ‘be a girl’ – defined as wearing a skirt to school – is puzzling, and disingenuous, given what many girls wear outside of school. Ultra-short skirts? Yes, sometimes, but also shorts, jeans, leggings, or jogging trousers. Clearly, skirts are not as vital to their identity that they need to be worn at all times. Why the acrimony about being denied this at school, then? To try and understand this, perhaps an analogy to some Leave-voters and Brexiters might be instructive.
Commentators have wondered about the support for Brexit among those UK citizens who, most likely, will be economically poorer as a result, and are aware of it – but who want it anyway: as a sign that their voice has been heard, even at the cost of personal disadvantage. In the case of school uniform, being given a choice between trousers and skirts, opting for very short skirts, even as this involves a potentially objectifying display of their bodies all year round, is clearly considered preferable by some girls. What does it tell us about what they consider the means of expression available to them, if wearing a skirt tops the list – to the extent of staging street protests?
Finally, there is another anomaly: in the UK at least, the use of uniform as a means of – however tentatively – levelling inequalities of wealth at school has long, if sometimes begrudgingly, been accepted by parents. Since uniform policy is a reasonably successful tool in this respect, why not apply it to gender – and use it as a chance to tackle blatant gender inequalities, the need for which has never been more apparent? What people wear matters, clearly, not least to how they think of themselves. It would be interesting to see if wearing trousers will have any impact on girls’ achievements in STEM subjects, for example. This is not a given, but it would be interesting to find out. In the meantime, it is hard to see why schools who pioneer such gender-neutral policy shouldn’t be commended on using uniform policy for tackling not just class, but gender inequality too – even if, as in the case of Brexit voters, some girls may actively disagree.
Anne-Meike Fechter is Reader in Anthropology at the University of Sussex.