- by AS
- The Guardian
- Issue #2072
Almost every Australian has been required to wear a school uniform during their youth and almost every Australian has resented it. As we age, this resentment dulls and becomes replaced with nostalgia. Nostalgia for our carefree youth often hinders our empathy to the needs of young people in the present day. When it comes to school uniforms, empathy is especially needed for the plight of girls and gender diverse young people.
So why are school uniforms harmful to girls and gender diverse people? Well for one, most school uniforms were designed decades ago and reflect the reactionary social views of the past. These social views prescribed a vision of femininity in which girls were to be seen and not heard, passive creatures to be acted upon rather than actors in their own right. As such, the uniforms that were designed reflect this. For example, almost every school in Australia requires girls to wear a skirt or dress as part of their uniform. This is a problem as it makes common childhood behaviours such as playing sport, climbing trees, or doing cartwheels much harder. Consequently, as girls grow into women they learn to be more passive, inadvertently recreating the reactionary views of the past.
Many women can recount incidences in which as children they were the victims of unwanted sexual attention from much older males when wearing their uniform. Often this occurs at a worryingly young age. Although overt sexualization of school girls is generally frowned upon, less overt forms are quite common in the wider culture. Porn featuring school uniforms is freely available and a fetish for school uniforms is one of the more common paraphilias. This fetish nicely dovetails into reactionary cultural ideals of femininity such as virginity and innocence. Girls are often sexualized by their own schools through the implementation of regulation concerning how the uniform should be worn. Most common among these is the policing of skirt length. The rationale is often that the girls are distracting the boys and preventing them from paying attention. This of course unfairly blames girls for behaviour they have no control over.
As previously mentioned, school uniforms are also harmful to gender diverse people. For transgender youth, being forced to wear the uniform that does not match their gender identity can be a traumatic experience. Conversely, young trans people may find it difficult to experiment with their gender presentation as wearing the uniform that conforms to their gender identity will inadvertently out them to their fellow students making them vulnerable to bullying. Strict gendered uniforms also prevent non-binary students from ever being comfortable regardless of the uniform they wear.
One may think that the solution to the problems of school uniforms is to simply abolish them. However, experience from places where school uniforms are not commonly worn such as the US, has shown that this is not the case. Despite not having uniforms, schools in the US will often issue a uniform policy that provides guidelines for student dress. These guidelines often have the same problems with sexualization that uniforms have and police girl’s bodies much more strictly than boy’s. An organisation called Girls Uniform Agenda advocates giving girls the option of wearing shorts and pants at school. However, this doesn’t address the problems facing gender diverse youth and also means that girls with reactionary parents will likely not benefit from the policy as they will simply not buy their daughters shorts.
A much better solution would be to mandate children wear their sports uniform all the time. Most school sports uniforms are unisex and give all children the ability to play actively. In addition, having one unisex uniform alleviates a lot of the issues facing trans youth too. There are other benefits too. Having to only buy one uniform will help with affordability for low socio-economic standing parents. Sports uniforms are more suited to the Australian environment, class distinctions between private schools and public are diluted, and children with sensory processing issues often find sports uniforms a lot more tolerable. Overall, it is a reform with a lot of benefits and no obvious drawbacks.