I write as a second year Psychology undergraduate, with a growing interest in how schools tackle the issue of school uniform. I have so far led the conventional educational route: primary school, state high school, sixth form, university. I now wonder, after having completed the mandatory years of education, how much of my school experience has shaped my personality and values.
In particular, my gendered and self-perception values. The high school I attended was one of 63 schools in the UK that have a ban on school skirts. My high school was — by Ofsted’s standards — good with outstanding features. Indeed, with a somewhat mixed demographic and 1,307 students, variability of standards and abilities was inevitable. However, I now believe the most memorable lessons I learnt at school were the ones that were not taught in the classroom.
School uniform is, in essence, a method of alleviating the choice and personalisation of outward identity. One may argue that whilst this may indeed relieve pupils of the pressures to conform and succumb to societal expectations, it also forces pupils into a very limited and often restricted box. I fully respect and understand this reasoning and have no qualms against the implementation of uniform in schools. Indeed, it promotes a sense of inclusiveness and allows students to outwardly communicate their membership to the school community — and, as social psychology teaches, group membership does endorse self-esteem and self-worth. School-uniforms allow somewhat of a ‘level playing field’, in the sense that pupils are all (in theory) supposed to look and act as one.
However, school uniform must operate with some level of flexibility. The degree to which schools allow pupils to personalise and adapt their school uniforms is arguably emblematic of the school’s entire approach to all scholastic areas. Due to the persuasive impact of external parties — i.e. members of the community, parents etc. — school dress and pupil presentation is one of the only available insights into the ethos of the school. Pupils dress smartly = the school is seen as operating well. Some schools have noted length of school skirts as counteracting their pursuit of reputational uphold. Short shirts are deemed inappropriate and have been said to portray an attitude to femininity which school management teams are not compliant with. My question is: why not? Why do we seem to hold this inherent association between school skirts and inappropriate sexuality?
In the book “Girls, boys and junior sexualities: Exploring children’s gender and sexual relations in the primary school” by Renold (2004), the concepts of sexualization of school uniform is discussed in great detail. The author contends that for some female pupils, differentiating oneself from “girlie” femininities — such as “mini-skirts to impress the boys (p.54)” — is the most apparent way to project their sartorial self. In other words, even from primary-school age, dress and outward appearance is seen as a vehicle to express our gendered values.
In 2015 the headmistress of Trentham High School in Stoke-on-Trent stated the rationale for banning school skirts was due to the fact that short skirts were “distracting male teachers” and the issue had becoming a “safeguarding” concern. This directly forces the concept of overt femininity into the object of the — unwanted and unsolicited — male gaze. The aforementioned author maintains that the sexualization of school uniform could provoke young girls to view themselves as inevitable objects of the omnipresent male gaze. The research conducted revealed that female pupils achieved a sense of agency and power in wearing school skirts, which allowed them to showcase their gendered identity.
By denying females the right to have a defined and clear method of differentiating themselves from their male counterparts, this promotes a culture of inaccurate gendered collectivism. To put it simply, we are not all the same and our dress should reflect that. Labelling school skirts as “inappropriate” and “a safeguarding concern” sexualizes an innocent concept, which in turn contributes to the implicit sexualization of young women — an issue deeply entrenched in contemporary society. I think the key to this issue boils down to one thing — choice. Encourage gendered displays, promote individualism and be wary that ‘appropriateness’ and ‘modesty’ are completely subjective concepts.
References and Further reading:
Renold, E. (2004). Girls, boys and junior sexualities: Exploring children’s gender and sexual relations in the primary school. Routledge.
Watson, C. A. (2004). The sartorial self: William James’s philosophy of dress. History of psychology, 7(3), 211.