Comment: 'Just wear the dress' - what happens when you force a girl into a school uniform

Is it fair to force a girl to wear a dress to school? Source: PA Wire

It seems like a simple rule: girls must wear the uniform dress for school photo day. But for one girl it wasn't so simple - and the trauma was written all over her face.

Most of us want to forget our old school photos. The bickering over who's the tallest, the shortest, having to stand so close to classmates that aren’t really mates - and then having to smile.

Somehow, years later, we manage to laugh at those photos. My kindergarten pigtails are now hilarious, despite the tears back then from being teased.

But one school photo day now breaks my heart – Year 5 of 1993.

I went to a public school in western Sydney and at the time the school had just allowed girls to wear shorts. We were allowed to wear them to school, but for excursions and “formal” occasions like class photos, the uniform dress was required.

So for many parents it meant forking out for a dress that your daughter would wear a handful of times during the year. Shorts were just so much more practical. You could run around at lunch time, provided you had your daggy legionnaires hat on (“no hat, no play”), without worrying about flashing your undies.

When it came to class photo day 1993, I was pretty excited to don a dress. It felt a little bit fancy, at least for 10-year-old girl on the one day of the year I was allowed to wear my long hair out (bless my mum for being so vigilant about lice).

But one girl in my class was not excited at all about having to wear a dress – she was terrified. I could see it on her face. She was the tallest in our class – boy or girl – she had a short haircut – shorter than some of the boys’ in our class – and she stood out for her interest in subjects that most of the other girls thought were “weird” – she was a smart girl, I remember that. Once, during an incursion from a group of travelling science presenters, one of the presenters mistook her for a boy. I can still hear the sniggering from the crowd.

On class photo day, she followed the rules and turned up in the uniform dress. But come lunchtime, I saw her go into the toilet block and come out dressed in shorts and a polo shirt. I couldn’t understand why anyone would go to so much effort – “Just wear the dress,” I thought, “it’s only one day, and we’re all wearing one.”

I just didn’t get it. Now, 23 years later, my heart goes out to her. To be that uncomfortable having to wear a dress that you would bring a spare pair of clothes to change into as soon as you were allowed must have been agonising. She came to mind when I was watching the ABC’s ‘Q&A Special: Between a Frock and a Hard Place’. As the panel discussed some of the issues facing transgender people, I remembered my Year 5 classmate and finally understood why she may have felt so uncomfortable in that dress.

So when the 2016 students at Newtown High School of the Performing Arts won the right to wear girls or boys uniforms, regardless of their gender, I really got it. It might seem like a “whacky” idea to some looking on from the outside, but for a child who feels so incredibly uncomfortable being forced to wear a dress or shorts, this one rule change, this act of acceptance, could have a huge impact on their life.

After all, isn’t the whole point of school to learn? And what better way to learn about the world than to share each other’s life experiences.

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