My daughter has recently turned three. Suddenly our family life is a series of Frozen re-enactments. We swap roles; her little sister might be Anna one day, Hans the next. I am on occasion permitted to be Elsa. Aside from the stresses that come with living immersed in a musical, an unwelcome side-effect of my daughter’s Frozen-mania is her refusal to wear anything but a sparkly purple dress with a picture of Elsa printed on its polyester front. My main objection to this ludicrous outfit is how ill-suited it is to play. It gets in the way when she’s climbing, crawling and tumbling. I refuse to wash it, and have stuffed the dress in a laundry cupboard, talking loudly of the merits of shorts.
In two years my daughter will start school. I am as excited about the prospect of a school tunic as I am about the Frozen outfit. The thought of putting my future five-year-old in a dress every day of the week does not sit well with, say, an idea like play-based learning, an education philosophy ideal for Kindergarten kids.
Dr Prudence Black agrees. “It’s absolutely time to rethink school uniforms, particularly in relation to gender,” says the Sydney University academic, who completed her PhD in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at in 2009.
Dressing girls in skirts and boys in shorts sends a message to the children that the two are very different from one another.
“As soon as you enter the school system, one of the first things you do is get a uniform,” says Dr Black. “So you’re gendered very quickly through that system.” Dressing girls in skirts and boys in shorts sends a message to the children that the two are very different from one another – which in turn arguably contributes to the gender inequality that is evident in everything from the pay gap to the relatively small number of women who occupy board positions in Australia.
Dresses disadvantage girls who want to run, climb and tumble just like the boys. “Uniforms should be incredibly practical; you have to wear them five days a week, and each person should be able to wear them in a way they are comfortable,” reasons Dr Black. “Young boys get to wear shorts, so why can’t young girls?”
It’s a fair question. Shorts would have made my life easier at school. The lengths to which my friends and I went in our 13 years of schooling to keep others from seeing our underwear were extreme. In primary school, over the top of our briefs we wore what we called ‘scungies’, so we were essentially double-knickered, and later as high school students we wore men’s boxer shorts under our kilts every single day. In hindsight all the palaver seems ridiculous, but it was a genuine concern to little girls who spent most lunchtimes upside down on the monkey bars.
Preserving the privacy of one’s knickers is a minor problem however compared to the difficulty faced by students who have an entirely more serious issue with uniforms caused by their developing gender identity.
If you’re surrounded by people who say that a girl looks this way and a boy looks that way, and you don’t feel like you fit easily into those two categories, it makes life difficult for you.
“For some people gender is not a straightforward thing, so if you’re surrounded by people who say that a girl looks this way and a boy looks that way, and you don’t feel like you fit easily into those two categories, it makes life difficult for you,” says Dr Black. “To be asked to decide makes it very complex.”
Dr Black acknowledges that schools, despite being “conservative institutions”, have made an effort to make uniforms more unisex, but still school attire remains gender specific. Interestingly where change has been made, it has been driven by students. Earlier this year at Newtown Performing Arts High School in Sydney’s inner west, students campaigned to change their school’s uniform policy. Now students of any gender identity can wear boys’ or girls’ uniforms.
“Those kids at Newtown Performing Arts High School were absolutely on the money,” Dr Black says. “These kids have said, ‘there are some of us who don’t fit easily into those categories and being made to fit into those categories adds to the problem of working out where they fit in society.’”
Dr Black hopes their brave example will lead to a domino effect of change. I have a hope too – that the next Elsa will be a heroine who loves wearing shorts.
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