A Parent forum - Views expressed represent the views of individual parents and carers at Yeo Park, and are not necessarily of the P&C. Please note that this discussion forum is not part of the formal consultation process or vote conducted by the School Uniform Committee, but may provide background information which some parents may find useful. Please remember that this is a publicly viewable page. Postings are limited to Yeo Park Infants School parents and carers. Names can be withheld on request.
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Explanatory Note: Contributions dated up to and including 27/10/14 were originally part of a personal email correspondence between some parents. These are reproduced here with permission. Contributions dated after this were submitted for publication on this forum. These categories are noted below as "personal email" or "forum post".
Page last updated at 5pm on 6/12/2014.
26th October 2014 (personal email)
"Uniforming the uniform: An argument for a gender-neutral uniform policy"
Note: With relation to the uniform options currently presented by the uniform committee, the following is an argument for a 'no' vote for gender specific uniform items including the tunic, the skort and the ponte pant.
At the Yeo Park Infants School P&C meeting on 15th October 2014, a group of parents put forward arguments for the school to embrace a gender-neutral uniform policy.
We have summarised the arguments below and ask the uniform committee to consider adopting this policy. Specifically this would include removing the dress and skort options from the uniform. The school uniform already includes gender-neutral hats, shorts, and shirts which enable students to effectively and equally participate in learning and physical activities without restriction.
This is not an argument that dresses and skirts / skorts are ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ or a denial that students have free choice to wear whatever they want outside of school. Schools are a safe place of belonging for children to learn, play, socialise, develop and grow. Children’s ability to do this is enhanced when they are free from the usual gender expectations, roles, and constructs that society considers appropriate for boys and girls. Having this freedom within the school environment from a young age can only benefit children in their learning and socialising, particularly in their important first three years of school. Uniforms, as important visible symbols of identity, are an essential first step.
On a practical level, dresses and skirts reduce the ability of the wearers, almost exclusively girls, to move without restriction. Dresses require the wearer to negotiate how they sit, stand, play and how quickly they can move. More importantly they impose considerations of modesty and passivity which play into socially constructed gender roles for females eg: the importance to be ‘nice, ‘ladylike’, ‘pretty’ vs strong, confident and active.
Some research in support of these views… The naturalisation of sex and gender is a reiterative practice (Butler 1993) which, through repetition and imitation, is sanctioned socially. Youdell (2005) conducted research into the performance of gender by girls in schools and examined how even girls’ mundane practices contributed to conceptualizations of gender and how these were constricting. A research review by A Happel (2013) is published here.
A gender-neutral uniform policy will also assist transgender and intersex children, estimated to be around 2% of the population, with their ability to thrive at school.
Statistically, Yeo Park will have a transgender or intersex student in the future and could have one currently or have had one in the past. These children deserve to feel the same sense of belonging at school as every other child.
Every item in our uniform suite should be equally able to be worn by every child. We believe a fully inclusive uniform policy acknowledges gender diversity and builds on the school’s anti-discrimination and non-bullying policies. We attach with this letter a recent relevant article published by The Guardian (click link) last week on 21st Oct 2014. Thank you for your consideration of this proposal.
The document above was an attachment to a personal email. That email is omitted for readability, but may be viewed: email
Responses to "Uniforming the Uniform"
27th October 2014 (personal email)
Thank you for putting together this carefully considered proposal. I really applaud your commitment to the school, the children and your deeply held convictions. I am full of admiration for this and for you. But we'll have to agree to disagree here on this one thing. Here are my thoughts.
First up: I am an avowed feminist – God knows I couldn't have lasted the distance writing a PhD thesis using a feminist perspective to challenge interpretations of a Dead White Male playwright if I weren't – so this has nothing to do with not being wholeheartedly supportive of gender equality, or indeed aware of the subtle coercions involved in the construction of gender (and/or the school experience of transgender and intersex children). I am all for strong, confident and active girls, and I think – hope! – we are raising two of them. Certainly that's what I aspire to. But if we're going to invoke Judith Butler in this discussion, then we need to acknowledge too that it works both ways: officially sanctioning only the traditionally preferred dress codes for males, and enforcing this for all children, set on repeat for their school lives, sends the message that there is only one acceptable way of being/looking/appearing/acting in the world, and that's how boys do it (/have traditionally done it). To my mind, that's not sending a message that children are "free from gender expectations, roles and constructs" at all.
Gender "neutral" in this case is making traditionally male attire the "unmarked" term: that is, it is normalising and – tacitly or otherwise – endorsing that the boys (I use this in its widest sense) are right, the ones to aspire to, the model for all. When I say "unmarked" I mean that this is the option that is so normalised within our culture that it is seen as "natural". The "marked" term is the one that is then seen as different from (and by implication lesser than) the "normal" - and that's what this proposal is making the options of tunic/skirt/skort-wearing.
What about having tunics, skirts or skorts as the prescribed uniform for all children – a much more radical idea that would really challenges social norms and expectations?!
(Just to confirm: my girls do wear trousers, shorts, dresses and skirts outside of school – as and when theyplease. I am certainly not advocating a girly 'dresses only' approach here.)
There are also, from my point of view, certain other practical (and, yes, even aesthetic) arguments: the current polyester shorts are a really horrible fabric, are ugly, and are hot in hot weather. The counter story we could tell is that the polycotton summer tunic, by contrast, is much cooler and more comfortable for those who wear it in summer. [My older daughter], for example, will wear the shorts – and the (equally hideous) school track suit pants – when required to do so for sport, and certainly accepts the argument of why she needs to do so, but her preference is strongly for what she sees on grounds of her own personal aesthetics and comfort to be the best option for her. (Before she began school I showed her all the options for school uniforms and she selected what she wanted to wear: at four she had very clear ideas about this.)
I just can't see the argument for "Every item in our uniform suite should be equally able to be worn by every child". Why? To do so is in effect then saying that what "boys" wear is 'better', and disallows choice and individual preference. Some children really don't care what they wear – but others (like my beloved [younger daughter]) stand firm on what they will and will not wear from babyhood – no matter what their parents feel about it. My feeling is – and this is also backed up by reputable research – that you discount or dismiss a child's sense of integrity and power and control over their own body, and that specifically includes how you dress that body, at your own peril. (This argument would certainly, I think you'd agree, be critical for the psychological and emotional well-being of intersex and transgender children… but in my opinion, it actually is common to all children, or adults for that matter.)
That's my two cents' worth. I'm very keen to hear others' points of view as I'm always willing to be persuaded by compelling argument.
In the meantime, though, here's cheers to our wonderful school, populated by such lovely, diverse and passionately committed parents and children!
27th October 2014 (personal email)
Brilliant. Thanks so much for your thoughts Laura.
As we were asked not to discuss the issue apart from at p and c meetings it’s been hard to …. have a discussion!
There was some more background around it at the last p and c meeting and unofficially from the uniform committee.
I hope nobody thinks the hot and uncomfortable current shorts are acceptable for anyone. They’re called 'rugby' shorts and I agree that there is a perception from some that they are a boys item of clothing.
It would be nice to find a new item that had no such baggage, but it appears we have to address the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.
As far as I know the uniform committee is looking in to getting a cooler unisex pair of shorts which addresses the heat/ discomfort part of it. [Update: the uniform committee has proposed an option for cooler / more comfortable gabardine shorts]
I don’t personally see shorts as inherently boy clothing but the current LW Reid shorts have that perception with some.
Jackie Ullman spoke at the P&C about her research in gender in schools and how it shapes later behaviours.
As for free will and autonomy…. much to my chagrin and horror my kids never question the rules of Yeo Park, only every single rule we make at home.
I believe children (of this age) tend accept the rules of the school and when explained to future children why dresses were not part of the uniform anymore, I can’t imagine there would be many five year olds debating the administration. (And if they did, good on them!) But as Stacey once said, she has no trouble getting the kids to keep their hats on at lunch time but many parents complain about getting the same children to keep them on after school.
We know the statistics of trans* and intersex people to be from 1.7% to 2% of the population so at any time there is likely to be a child identifying this way currently or go on to identify this way.
If there is (or was) a child at the school who was intersex or trans* the wider school population would likely not know this. This would tend to be a theoretical discussion for the privacy of the child and the family.
The current uniform options do force children to choose a gender presentation from the age of four or five or to be “mildly transgressive” which is a whole lot of pressure for tiny people to shrug off.
I haven’t wanted to make this about my own children, or about any specific child, but I can tell you that our lived experience of having a child who doesn’t wear a dress has been at times pretty harrowing. Her femininity and attractiveness has been questioned frequently. So I guess what I’m saying is that having a dress on the menu is only free choice for some. One of my kids feels under enormous pressure to wear one. That’s not free choice.
Sadly all schools are places where teasing, bullying and ostracising takes place. Whilst the administration does the very best job they can to prevent it, they’re not always successful.
To remove gender in their infant’s school experience is a wonderful opportunity to tell casual staff, parents, children and everyone who enters the school that all the children are respected for their social and citizenship skills and their gender is not anyone’s business and not relevant to their time at school. I love how Stacey calls the students “children”, not boys and girls. We are a small school and it seems like a great time to enter this big wide discussion and talk about how best to make every child that enters feel valued, welcomed and recognised for their human being-ness, not their gender-ness.
I look around at our police and firies and they’re all in pants. Our barristers, academics and clergy all seem to wear frocks… so… any gender neutral item for all children (which can also be swapped between siblings of different genders mitigating costs) seems like a good idea to me. I can’t agree that shorts are gendered. They can be, but generic shorts as a boys item of clothing… have you seen Kylie Minogue’s hot pants??? (Does that make me old? Nicki Minaj may be a better example…
Anyway… just thought I’d let you know a bit more of some of the stuff we’re (a group of parents) asking the uniform committee to consider going forward.
We truly appreciate all thoughts and the opportunity to hear them.
Once again, thank you.
Kate (and Sonam)
27th October 2014 (personal email)
Some excellent thoughts here, and both so eloquently put. I'm v impressed! I'm going to be a lot more succinct as I'm tapping on my phone
I don't agree with limiting the uniform, I value a diversity of options for several reasons - I struggle with the idea of a absolute uniform anyway. Also, [my girl] has only just been able to wear tight pants recently, she's found that it hurt her tummy, which I put down to having had her kidney removed. I guess we could have gotten special approval to wear different clothing had the uniform be uniformed. but then she would have really stood out.
Girls wear dresses the rest of the time, and it's never stopped my girl from climbing trees etc. it never stopped me either when I was little. On the other hand, [my boy] has complained on several occasions that he gets too hot at school to run! My personal opinion is that this should be a matter for parents and their child to decide from a range of options. And that decision should be supported by the school community no matter if it's a girl wearing shorts or a boy wearing a dress.
27th October 2014 (personal email)
I do think it's helpful for us all to try and examine our own pre-suppositions we import. I suppose for me, it seems like american history runs too thick in my veins not to have this all scream Plessy and Brown
So Plessy v Fergusson (1896) was the Supreme Court case that sanctioned Jim Crow and said "separate but equal".
Brown v Board of Ed of Topeka (early 60s? don't quote me) said "actually no, separate is inherently unequal, you must integrate."
SO I have this notion that separation means inequality and I keep wondering how "different" (in this case, dress / uniform) compares to "separate."
Of course, difference doesn't have to mean inequality - in fact, differentiating instruction is supposed to make things equal/fair for different learners.
And there's plenty of merit in the whole "celebrate diversity" message.
Still, if there's going to be a uniform (!) then there's been a choice NOT to celebrate diversity in what kids wear.
16th November 2014 (forum post)
I prefer the idea of my son and daughter dressing the same in the school environment. I want both of them dressed for comfort and freedom of movement. I want my daughter to be free, for a little longer, of the insidious knowledge that girl are more decorative.
So, for those who know my daughter, you would know she is heavily invested in personal decoration. And surely this is just fun and self expression? Well it is. And I will (try to) make sure that she develops a strong sense of her value based on who she is and what she does, not how she looks. But i can't ignore the fact that historically women have been objectified by society, and still are. Their value being, at least partially, determined by their appearance. Its a delicate balance to teach our girls- express yourself through your clothing choices, but don't invest too much self worth into it, even though others will at times judge your self worth thus.
I suppose we can argue that dresses/skorts are not decorative, just another option for little girls. They are, however, inarguably a less functional article of clothing (shorts to be worn for sports days) and THE START of the insidious inculcation of our girls that their bodies are valued for more than what they can do with them. I want my daughter to develop an identity that is strong despite her appearance, and at the same time represented in her appearance (if she wants this). However, I am also supportive of my daughter consolidating a growing sense of herself protected from negotiating this tricky balance for just a bit longer.
The issue of gender confusion/dissatisaftion in children does not resonate with me personally. My kids are comfortable with, and enjoy, their own genders. In fact, for better or worse, they revel in many of the stereotypes that come with being part of a gender group. I have, however, professionally seen many individuals who struggle with mental ill-health due to lifelong struggles with identity.
Identification with a particular gender usually occurs before age 3 in most kids. Beyond this age, kids who struggle with accepting their physical gender will find their internal experience of themselves invalidated by the world at large. The main developmental challenge of these primary years, having traversed the earlier hurdles of balancing security and autonomy from parents, is experiencing some "success" out in the big wide world, experiencing ones self as capable. An excessive focus on their difference from others can lead to feels of inferiority. It can also lead to premature struggles with significant identity disturbance, a developmental challenge better suited to the adolescent life stage.
I don't think that whether or not a child with gender confusion is surrounded by peers wearing unisex outfits will necessarily change a child's trajectory. However I do think that clothes are symbolic and being protected from needing to confront the issue symbolically daily is the most supportive approach to a vulnerable child. I want my kids to self determine but I also want them to conform. I want them to follow rules made for the greater good, made to be consistent with the values held by the wiser adults in their lives. I want them to recognise the importance of being part of a community that cares for its more vulnerable members.
Rachel Paisley, Registrar - Psychiatry, MBBS
16th November 2014 (forum post)
What a lovely group of enquiring minds at the Bowlo.
It was nice to chat with a bunch of people who had different views, different takes, and no particular preference. Even partners don't necessarily agree with each other. Who'da thunk?
Anyway...just wanted to feed back one snippet that stuck out at me before I start making lunches for my monsters.... someone said something to the effect of "We don't really have strong feelings either way, we could really take or leave the dress and I don't have the time or energy to invest in the debate. But if it could help make a tiny step towards a future with total gender equality, we'd be happy to vote for a gender neutral uniform policy."
I'll get Steve to put this on the forum because I'm conscious that inboxes are overloaded and not everybody that wanted to go, could go. Frequently a problem with many utterly brilliant, last minute ideas.
16th November 2014 (forum post)
Thoughts after sitting and listening by the bowling green-
I have four sisters. In order to bridge various cultural gaps like gender equality and gender pay, we should teach children that a girl can be CEO or a boy can become a nurse, or a father can raise a child or a mother can go to work. However gender defining uniforms will only serve to stereotype reinforced male and female roles, why should children be taught to be socially exclusive by gender?
Tristram Wake - big brother
17th November 2014 (forum post)
The argument in favour of a unisex uniform is not that dresses are bad (dresses rock!), but that we acknowledge that, even if it shouldn't be that way, dresses are gendered.
Boys do not have the same choice to wear them (or skirts) that girls do.
Dresses also send coded messages to adults about the kind of behaviours that are appropriate for people wearing them, which changes the expectations set for them.
This happens even if people profess to treat boys and girls the same. Gender-queer kids are faced with uniform options that require them to choose a gender and then perform it (to a greater or lesser extent depending on whether girls are "allowed" to wear the boys' uniform).
For all of these reasons, gender neutral school uniforms are a good thing, but it's completely reasonable to allow/encourage girls (and boys if you're feeling up for the fight, and so are your sons) to wear dresses outside of school.
Dresses are great, but while they carry so much gendered baggage, kids would be better off if they weren't part of the school uniform.
Still, since there is a dress now, it's definitely possible that taking it away can be read as "girls' stuff is bad", rather than "dresses don't really belong in a school uniform" and I think it's important that we tell kids explicitly that this isn't the case. Just because something doesn't belong in a school uniform doesn't mean it's inferior or bad. See, for example, singlet tops, stripy tights and corsetry. All awesome clothing choices, just not a part of a school uniform. This won't be an issue once the current crop of kids move through - the new kids will just accept the school uniform is what it is, and will have no perception of the dress being "taken" away, any more than singlets, stripy tights or corsetry.
And bring on the world in which everyone is equally free to wear dresses!
18th November 2014 (forum post)
This week's 4 Corners "Being Me" (a report on the experiences of transgender children and their parents); I saw the program...was fascinated!
To watch on iview: http://iview.abc.net.au/programs/four-corners/NC1404H043S00 [Available on ABC iview until 9:30pm 01/12/14]
18th November 2014 (forum post)
I have found it difficult to decide where I stand on the whole gender neutral uniform idea. I think both sides of the argument have very good points, but ultimately I have decided that I am not in favor of removing the dress option from our school uniform.
When my daughter started school this year I actually wanted her to wear the shorts and polo top option as then I wouldn't have to think about ironing a cotton dress. She never really took an interested in clothes, she just dressed for comfort, usually leggings or tracksuit pants, occasionally dressed and skirts. Before she started school I bought the shorts and trackies as well as the summer tunic. I also bought the "monkey bar" pants to put on under the dress as I hated the thought of her undies being on show when she played, although she never seamed to mind. As the school year started she wore the shorts and the dress, but now she only really wants to wear the dress. I asked her, "Why do you like to wear the dress to school". She says she prefers to wear the dress as "it gets more air on my bum". she hates wearing the shorts as she says they are too hot. Now it's a struggle to get her to wear the shorts on Fridays. I know we are trying to change the school shorts as the current ones are not great, but is hard to make an argument for no dress/skort if the other choice is not great.
Apart from comfort, I suspect she also want to wear a dress because that is what her friends wear most of the time. Is this a real choice or is it just social pressure? I think it is a choice, a choice to be like her friends, and that is fine with me. I guess this means she is conforming, but her favorite colour is still black, so in my eyes she is still has thoughts and ideas that are hers, not just thoughts and ideas to be like her friends. I don't think conformity is always bad, it can make children and adults alike to feel safe and accepted in some situations. If my child wants to conform at times, she can, if she wants to be different, she can. It is her choice, not mine, to a certain level of course. She still has to follow our family rules and the rules of our society. She still wears the white sox and black shoes, even though she doesn't want too because not all her friends do. She wants to wear sandals or coloured sneakers. I don't allow her too wear these item of clothing because they do not follow the school uniform guide lines. I want her to be free to make some choices, but also understand that sometimes we have to follow rules, this teaches respect.
This brings me to the argument (that is a strong word, perhaps point of discussion ?? ) that the pro-gender neutral side is saying. They are saying that they are not proposing taking away a child's choice to wear a dress because officially, you don't even have to wear the uniform, they could just wear a dress from home. I think this this is a bit of a loop hole in the argument. It would take away a child's choice to wear a school dress, and therefore a dress as I can't imagine that many girls (or boys) would not be allowed, or chose to wear a regular dress from home. It would make them feel too different and not as much a part of the school as children in uniform. That would be a hard choice. I believe that even if a uniform was compulsory at our school, some people would still want there to be a change to a unisex uniform only.
I think the biggest thing missing in our society is respect. Respect for both women and men, respect for authority, respect for different cultures and religions and respect for different choices in general. I think that if we take away a child's choice to wear a dress at school, we are missing an opportunity to teach them about respect. If a child is being bullied or teased because of their choice to wear the shorts or pants, perhaps it could be an opportunity to teach the students about respecting other peoples choices. Thankfully my child has not been bullied or teased when she has worn the shorts or top (to my knowledge anyway) so perhaps its not my place to comment on this, it's just my opinion.
As stated in a previous comment by another parent, I fear that if the uniform becomes gender neutral my daughter might think "boys" clothes are superior, and perhaps therefore boys are superior. I think that one of the main aims of changing the uniform is to change peoples perception of a school uniform, that they are free from gendering, but they are not, not in the society we live in now. We don't live in a bubble, there are other schools around us who have dresses and skirts. In our society dresses and tunics are seen as girls clothing and shorts and tops in a are mainly seen as boys clothes. Do I want this to change? Yes, I want everyone to be free to wear what they want, but this is not the case, yet.
I think I think the biggest problem with changing the uniform is that we are taking away a choice, and not adding one. People usually don't like choices being taken away from them, adults or children. "my child likes to wear a school dress, whey should that be taken away from her?". That's what a lot of parents are saying. If there was never the choice of a dress, I don't think this would be such a polarising issue.
Did anyone watch Four Corners last night? It was such an interesting program and very relevant to this discussion. It was about transgender children and their struggle to be themselves by changing their gender. What a brave girl Isabelle was, amazing. A few things in the program stood out to me. The first was that Isabelle's Mum commented that she struggled at school because schools are so gendered. Very interesting, and very true. It was apparent her choice was to wear a dress to school. She said she first started to wear girls pants as part of her transition, and now obviously chooses to wear a dress. I wonder how she would feel if she was at a school with a gender neutral uniform? Would she feel like a boy again in the shorts/pants, or would she feel like her gender didn't matter? Would she wish she went to a school that had a dress as part of the uniform so she could feel more like a girl? We don't know, we can only guess. My thoughts are that she prefers to wear a school dress. It is her choice. If our school didn't have a dress as an option, she might not feel comfortable in the shorts, even if all the other girls were wearing them. At least with the choices we have now, she could wear a dress or shorts whilst still choosing to be a girl. Its not like girls have to wear a dress and boys have to wear shorts.
If a muslim girl at out school chose to wear a hijab, would we want to support their choice to wear one, despite the chance of her feeling different, or being bullied or teased? Or would we want to make the school "religion neutral" (I'm not sure how to say that ) to assist her to feel the same as everyone else? Personally I would support her and her families choice to wear a hijab, and I would want the children and parents in the school to do the same and I'm sure everyone else would too. I don't see this much different from the gender issue.
Lastly, I am a girl, my husband is a boy, we are different, but we are equal. I am not equal to him or he is not equal to me, we are just equal. This is what I want my daughters to feel. I think that having a dress at school supports this idea. She can be a girl who likes to wear a dress and she can be equal at the same time.
Lisa Studley XX.
18th November 2014 (forum post)
About the Shorts - I thought I'd be supporting the newer shorts that could be MAYBE cooler (?) rather than the old rugby shorts, even though my kid's never complained that they're hot. BUT 2 things make me think no, I'd support the old ones: 1.) the new and old are made of the same synthetic - the same % of polyester which means they won't breathe any better; ALSO they seem to have a longer inseam and if the old ones can be shorter shorts, then they'd be cooler, I think and 2.) the new ones are coated with Teflon and I don't want to support the production of harmful chemicals that won't ever break down, and I just don't want those PFCs on my kids' skin.
About the gendered stuff - just one more thought to share:
In addition to the race / gender comparison thing (ie, you wouldn't have different uniform "options" for kids with blue eyes or for kids with black hair, etc) I also oppose the gendered uniform because I oppose gender essential-ism (ie, girls are like this; boys are like that... enjoy shopping, want to watch sports, aggressive, passive, bossy, etc.) I like that Yeo Park is co-ed. I support co-ed schools (and life). I suppose a gendered uniform makes me think of G Stanley Hall's writings ... and shudder. He's a 19th Century psychologist / educator who was all about "differentiation" of the sexes. He wanted the separation of boys and girls by the time of adolescence so that girls could be prepared for motherhood and boys could be prevented from becoming "soft". (Gail Bederman's book Manliness and Civilization has a fascinating chapter on him.)
Thanks for hearing/ reading me out. And thanks to all who shared thoughts above. And of course, thanks to Steve for chairing things, facilitating the sharing of things, and graciously leading things!
20th November 2014 (forum post)
There are many considerations with the options for changes to the current uniform, too many even to list. But here are a few thoughts:
Starting with the practicalities, in our household, clothing choice always has to be considered in relation to the family susceptibility to various skin irritations. There are times when our children just can’t wear particular garments. If the uniform became the same for everyone there would almost certainly be times when they just couldn’t wear the standard outfit. If the uniform was uniform, our children would be required to stand out as a result of what is essentially a medical condition.
Again, on the practical side, some bodies just work better with some clothing. Sometimes a particular garment will chafe or overheat one body, but be perfectly comfortable on another. Even as adults we find this. One size does not generally fit all. There are not many among us who could spend their days concentrating on the task at hand when wearing clothes that scratch or pull or rub in all the wrong places. If we move to a single uniform some children will inevitably be compelled to find some variant, non-standard item of clothing that is comfortable. These children, male and female, would be forced to stand out for the sake of their own everyday comfort.
A similar argument applies to those whose families may be unable to afford a complete “official” set of clothes for school. Hand-me-downs or clothes sourced from other places may look out of place. And kids can observe these things just as keenly as adults. If there is only one correct incarnation of the uniform, anything else can force the wearer into the position of not belonging.
Not only that, when we say that boys don’t have the same options as girls to wear dresses, or dismiss the idea completely, we acknowledge that shorts and trousers are not gender-neutral. This is not to say that these things can’t or shouldn’t be worn by girls, just that they are not as entirely free of gendering as we might hope. Instead of asking everyone to wear shorts or trousers we could, instead, require everyone to wear the dress. If we wanted to be truly equitable we could have two days a week in a dress or skirt, two days in short or long pants, and one day for free choice.
I am far more concerned about how attitudes and practices differentiate between boys and girls. It is not unknown for children to be separated into groups based on gender, regardless of how each individual is dressed.
We also need to consider how we want our children to grow up. I want my daughters to be comfortable in their own skin, however it is clothed. And I don’t mind whether they choose to wear dresses or pants. But if we ban (yes, ban) dresses and skirts and remove the choice for anyone (boy or girl) to wear these garments, we are sending a message to everyone that these things are only for weekends, or parties, or dressing up, or wearing in secret, and that real, valuable, everyday (school)work can only be done in shorts or trousers. And that people may not run, exercise, play sport, climb trees or do other normal things in a dress. It may not be the intention, but that will be the message.
I want my daughters to have the confidence to choose their own clothing, either for comfort or look, and still feel that they will be taken seriously. I want them prepared for facing and succeeding in the world, whatever that style of success may be. I don’t want them cocooned; I want them to learn how to master the world. Of course I want that learning process to happen in a supportive environment, but it has to be supportive of the person as they are, not as we want them to be.
I understand that it can be heartbreaking to be the subject of exclusion, ridicule or bullying because one doesn’t conform to expectations. I would guess that there are very few of us who have never experienced these things, either as children or adults. Sometimes taunts are about things other than clothing, too. Hairstyles, body shapes, the need for glasses, inability to kick a ball straight, and the interminable list of differences between people can all be used as grounds for teasing, but curiously we are not having a conversation about liberating everyone by removing choice in those things. We are placing an awful lot of responsibility onto some bits of fabric.
So unless we want to commission someone to design and manufacture a school kilt (a truly unisex garment), it seems best to continue offering a choice, because even though our children need a sense of belonging to their school, they also need to be themselves. Our children have little enough power and autonomy in their world already. If we remove any choice on clothing for their weekdays, we take away another thing that enables them to feel powerful; we take away another opportunity for helping them learn mastery over their own destiny. And we’re right back to seeing difference as the problem, whereas it is really the solution. Children need to be shielded from many things, but diversity isn’t one of them.
Instead, if we wanted to do something truly progressive, we could work on further developing a school environment where our kids learn how to live with difference, whatever form that takes. That includes helping our children to navigate their own difference. Ideally, we would work as a group to foster a level of confidence and security in our children that will help them allow, understand and cherish difference, in themselves and others. We also want to better equip them with the resources to bounce back from rejections. Our kids would gain so much from learning how to approach difference positively, to embrace diversity while maintaining a sense of security in their own identity. If we take away choice in uniforms we take away a marvellous opportunity for all children to explore their identity. Let’s give them a foundation, right at the beginning of their schooling, which says that diversity is ok.
And how fantastic would it be if our little school in the park could one day have boys who chose to wear dresses or skirts or skorts, and no-one said a word about it?
20 November 2014 (forum post)
As my child already filled out our family’s official voting paper as soon as she got it out of her bag thus preventing me exercising my democratic right (oppressor!) I thought I would add my own musings to the discussion.
Like others, my views on this have been quite fluid and ‘evolving’. When it was first suggested to me that the dress/ tunic not be part of the uniform I thought it was a ludicrous idea.
As some-one who has worked a long time in disability advocacy / rights where ‘choice’ is a mantra, the idea of ‘free choice’ strongly appeals.
For example, when my older child was in kindy he chose to do scripture after I tried my best to briefly explain the options. He continued doing scripture for 3 years, and a flavour of scripture that I certainly would not have chosen for him. I allowed him to exercise ‘free choice’. I raise this to point out my default position on these questions.
An argument that free choice is paramount, is an argument for no uniform at all. As soon as a school community chooses to have a uniform, they are choosing to limit that free choice.
(As the uniform is non-compulsory, one can argue there is no fundamental limitation on free choice, and in a fundamental sense that is correct. But as parents we have effectively agreed to effectively enter a social compact to send our children in school uniform. Compliance, apart from minor details, is close to 100%)
So one then has to look at why we have chosen to do so. Sure the convenience and practicality of not having to decide what your child wears each day is one factor. But if that was it, every parent could go out and choose their own ‘uniform’, buying 5 identical pairs of tops etc. Convenience is not a reason for making a collective agreement.
When one turns to the official department and school uniform policy it is clear social cohesion and a ‘sense of belonging, pride and identity’ are major factors in the rationale for having a ‘uniform’ ie ‘for the greater good’.
So some simple questions for me in thinking about this issue are
* Does having a uniform involving different ‘gendered’ options (eg pants and dresses) increase a sense of belonging and social cohesion across all children (and all genders) or does it decrease social cohesion?
* And is a gendered uniform more likely to accentuate differences between genders or minimise differences. Is a gendered uniform more likely to accentuate different treatment of genders or minimise different treatment?
To answer these questions I looked around at different uniform types and realised that a ‘gendered’ uniform is actually the exception rather than the rule.
The local soccer club has in the younger divisions - boys only teams, girls only teams and mixed teams. Sometimes a mixed team may contain just one girl and 10 boys. Sometimes I didn’t realise my child was playing against a mixed team until very late in the game. The children themselves rarely seemed to notice on comment on the gender of their or opposing teams. I have been struck by how well it works with virtually no division between genders.
One factor in the success of these teams (mixed gender or otherwise), and why gender differences seem less noticeable I think must be that all genders wear the same ‘kit’ or uniform.
If girls and boys on the same team wore different uniforms, would the team seem as cohesive, would it in fact seem like a team at all?
How would the club react if a parent suggested that players be given a choice of either shorts or skirts? Would each individual feel the same sense of belonging to their ‘team’, or would they primarily feel a sense of belonging to their gender, ahead of their team.
At team Yeo Park, it seems obvious to me that a single gender neutral uniform would enhance a sense of belonging and social cohesion to the one team across all genders. A situation like now where most girls wear one uniform and boys another surely has to amplify not reduce gender differences.
Imagine a small school where around half the school preferred a brown and yellow uniform and half the school preferred white and blue, so the school decided to allow either. But it turned out there were 2 main ethnic groups (eg East African and European background) – one ethnic group almost exclusive chose to wear the brown and yellow, the other the white and blue. Would that be ok?
And if not, why is it ok to have a uniform that divides along gender lines but not a uniform that divides along ethnic lines?
So it seems to me fairly obvious that a single ‘gender neutral’ uniform has to be more socially cohesive and less ‘divisive’ than a uniform which (more or less) divides along gender lines, more likely to bring children together, and not separate or divide them, and therefore ultimately more positively affect their education outcomes.
Some have suggested shorts / pants are traditionally ‘boy’ clothes, and by removing the dress we are forcing children to see ‘boy’ things as better than ‘girl’ things. So are shorts and pants really ‘gender neutral’ probably not entirely but I think they’re the closest thing we’ve (currently) got.
This morning I asked my daughter (yes, scientific sample of one!) “are shorts boy clothes or girl clothes?” I didn’t give her the third option, but without hesitation she said “they’re everyone clothes”, and I suspect the vast majority of children would see them that way. Just as if we asked our children are doctors girls or boys our children would say ‘both’, not aware or considering that doctors may have once been seen as traditionally a male occupation. If all children at school, boys and girls, started wearing shorts or pants, I suspect, these clothing items would quickly be seen by our children as even less gendered than what they are now.
Others have raised practical issues of the hotness / itchiness of the fabric. I would have thought these to be separate issues. If a boy is affected by hotness / itchy / uncomfortable shorts, is his parents expected to say “Well, that’s easily solved! You can wear a dress”. In an ideal world, of course that’s exactly what they would say.
In the world we live in, offering one gender a practical alternative to an itchy, hot fabric, but not offering a practical alternative to the other gender seems a little unfair. The solution surely to offer maybe the same type of garment eg shorts / pants in different fabrics or cuts which deal with the practical problems.
The other reason why of course one might willing give up individual choice is where exercising that choice might risk harm to others. Without going into details, I have seen enough evidence including girls being told by their peers ‘they look like boys’, or told they can’t play soccer, or children reporting that ‘other children are teasing me in their heads’ to suggest to me, that though my child may be ok, a gendered uniform may be contributing to the harm, alienation or ‘othering’ of some children. The 'free choice' we think we have is less free for some than others.
After I asked my child about the shorts, she thought about it a little more and did say unprompted, 'sometimes children say "you can't play with us, because you're wearing shorts/ dress/ etc" ' Of course, children could always find a reason to exclude another child if they want to, but different uniforms give them one more reason / opportunity. And it made the point to me that a uniform only unifies if it is truly 'uniform'.
In summary, it seems to me a ‘non gendered’ uniform won’t in itself change the world, but neither will any other one single action we can take. It will though lead in a small way, to less segregation, less alienation, better social cohesion, more equal treatment of children in the education system, broader horizons. One small step.
21 November 2014 (forum post)
As parents of a child who is transitioning to school in 2015, we were excited about the prospect of the school adopting a unisex uniform.
We have read all the arguments for and against put here. While we agree that a radical deconstruction of gender would involve boys adopting girls' clothes - boys clothes being equally gendered - we also believe that making this point leaves the debate at a purely theoretical and thus impractical level (one of us is a social theorist so we have no objection to theory per se!)
Shorts/ pants have become unisex de facto, skirts in western culture unfortunately have not.
We are for a uniform of shorts/ pants and t-shirts for boys and girls because in our opinion it releases girls from the obligation to conform to a highly conventional idea of what counts as suitable/attractive girls' attire. We were taken by the Head Teacher's description of Yeo Park as a school where children can remain innocent for longer and a single uniform assists in this - children can be children and not, first and foremost, girls or boys.
Visual signifiers are Important - perhaps more so than ever before with the proliferation of images all around us. Having girls and boys dress the same way therefore also breaks down the deeply embedded notions (already from a very young age) that there are things girls can do and things boys can do. Children can translate the image of everyone dressed the same into everyone being capable of the same, because - yes - dresses are constraining (whether or not we care about knickers on display!) and we translate their physical cumbersomeness into mental hurdles.
We are excited by the prospect of Yeo Park potentially becoming the first gender neutral dressing school in Sydney (Australia?).
A single uniform would be welcoming of all - transgender children, religious Muslim girls who could wear long pants, and anyone who doesn't want to conform to gender strictures. And girls, like our own, who love their dresses can wear them as soon as they get home from school!
Alana Lentin and Partho Sen Gupta
25th November 2014 (forum post)
I’d just like to say thanks to the P&C for providing this email forum as an alternate venue for comment on the uniform issue.
Just as a small percentage (some 2%) of people wake up each day acutely conscious of their own gender indentification and how it might affect their daily transactions and social interactions – equally there’s a small perecentage of people who find their own verbal ineptitude also limiting of their community visability and social inclusion – and say ‘yeah’ to the written word.
But this is really just a long-winded way of agreeing with Carolyn J’s post a while back – in which she made (I think) an important point. There are many and various issues which can affect a child’s feeling of social inclusiveness in a school community and these issues are not always as visible as their daily dress. While we can (and probably should) address the visible issues – let’s also keep striving to remain alert to the others.
As a parent who doesn’t feel particularly strongly either way about the unisex uniform issue – I’d still support it if it means some people out there wake up each morning feeling a bit more comfortable in their external skin. In fact I’d cheerfully support anything in the school community that promotes a pull towards inclusion rather than exclusion – and it may be that unisex uniforms could be symbolic of just that.
2nd December 2014 (personal email) [Comment originally made on 27/10/14 in response to the Uniforming the Uniform letter, submitted to the forum on 17/11/14, and mistakenly omitted]
Thanks for seeking our opinions, Kate. Have enjoyed all the responses. My thoughts echo the others - I appreciate more choice, not less. Removing dresses as an option seems to be the wrong solution to the problems identified.