Why do girls still need to wear dresses to school?

Bathurst Primary School students Bella Morris and Elliott Miller are thoroughly unimpressed with being told that they have to wear skirts at school.

Bathurst Primary School students Bella Morris and Elliott Miller are thoroughly unimpressed with being told that they have to wear skirts at school.

Recently, I unearthed a photo of my twin brother and me on our first day of school. There we were, holding hands, busting with pride to be wearing our brand-new, neatly pressed school uniforms. We both wore matching yellow polo shirts, with which he wore a pair of grey shorts and I a blue pleated skirt.

Same age, same school, different uniform.

Being a twin threw a lot of clothing-related feminist issues into contrast early, right from those first pink and blue baby singlets. But, that first-day photo in particular raises an interesting question: why are primary school uniforms still different for boys and girls?

Last week, a NSW primary school has banned girls from wearing shorts and made the wearing of dresses mandatory. Despite protest from a number of students and their parents, Bathurst Public School has removed the summer shorts option for girls from its school uniform policy.

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It’s a puzzling move for parents who are conscious of avoiding gender stereotypes. Yet from that first day of school, we slice an arbitrary separation between boys and girls.

Truly, there’s no practical physical difference between five-year-old boys and girls that needs to be addressed with two sets of school clothes. Sure, high schoolers might need their tops and pants tailored differently as their bodies expand in various directions, but primary kids don't need that distinction. They're all straight up and down, and dying to run around.

Obviously, the difference in uniform is tradition. But, this is tradition not in the enjoyable “Yay it’s Christmas, let’s decorate a plastic tree and eat mince pies” way, but in the potentially damaging “Girls and boys are different and girls need to act in a ladylike manner when they play” way.

For example, in year two I used to enjoy doing handstands with my friend at recess time. We weren’t bothered about how our skirts would flip up towards our faces as soon as we went upside-down, but our teachers were. We soon got in trouble for flashing our full-coverage sports knickers, or ‘bloomers’, to the playground (yes, that was their actual name: nice and Victorian).

This flashing fiasco becomes odder when you learn that, although my friend and I were reprimanded for letting our bloomers show when playing at lunchtime, girls at my school were actually encouraged to wear bloomers without skirts during sports events. This was because the skirts were too flappy and got in the way when running. Seriously, how stupid and arbitrary is that? Why couldn’t the girls just wear shorts in the first place and skip all that nonsense?

The really worrying part of the uniform divide is, as I personally experienced with the eventual banning of handstands for girls at my school, it discourages girls from active play. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nearly four per cent more Australian girls between five and 17 are overweight or obese than boys, and 20 per cent fewer girls participate in organised sport than boys. Of course, the complex issues of obesity and exercise rates among Aussie children aren’t going to be solved simply by crossing skirts off school uniform lists, but surely it can't hurt.

Maybe girls would like to play properly without having to worry about their undies showing. Maybe we should give them the dignity afforded boys in shorts when doing cartwheels and hanging upside down from the monkey bars. Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t be continuing to deter girls from physical play at school by putting them in ridiculous, impractical clothing.

Slowly, many schools are incorporating shorts for girls into their uniform list. Yet, those lists often still include skirts as well, and the extent to which unisex options are taken up depends on playground politics, especially for the older kids. I know amongst my primary school friends pleated skirts were the ‘cool’ choice above the unisex grey trackpants – making them literally a cool choice in winter when goosebumps covered our legs. Take away that choice and none of the options are fashionable, but at least they’re fair.

After all, the best use I ever found for my school skirt was when putting on a play for our classmates. In it, my friends and I, boys and girls, were pirates exploring a vast ocean in a ship made of desks tipped on their sides. Below, lapping at our hull, was a treacherous sea of crinkled blue skirts. And we all wore pants.

 

42 comments

  • I am completely with you on this issue: of course girls should be given a choice on dresses or shorts (and I honestly do not think that boys could care less that they wouldn't have a choice). The reason the Bathurst school has a problem is that their uniform list gave the option of the school navy shorts or neatly tailored other shorts and that opened the way for some families to flaunt brand name clothing and that led to bullying. Had the school specified the uniform only shorts they probably would not have had a problem. We all have some understanding of bullying and know that it can spring from such issues as who has the smartest sports shoes or who has the DKNY navy shorts. In a former life I co-ordinated the introduction of a new uniform at the secondary school where I taught. We had only one uniform supplier and the girls slacks were on the uniform list along with all the other items.

    Commenter
    narnie
    Location
    elsternwick
    Date and time
    December 02, 2013, 9:42AM
    • There is a great deal of commentary on this and other sites about women being unfairly judged based on their choice of clothing and appearance. Even Germaine Greer fell for it criticising Julia Gillard (best minority PM in living memory) for making her bum look too big. Allowing greater choices in school uniform to girls compared to boys reinforces female appearance critiquing.

      Commenter
      Rormungous
      Date and time
      December 02, 2013, 11:58AM
  • The fascinating thing here is that our primary school allows shorts, skirts, pants or dresses. The fascinating part is that 90% of the girls wear shorts or pants. My girls choose dresses, but we leave it up to them, however they feel like they are in the minority some times and peer pressure is to wear shorts.

    Commenter
    Scott
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    December 02, 2013, 9:43AM
    • Dresses and skirts impede full movement and expression as little girls are taught to constrict themselves in various ways - shut your legs, keep your knees together, don't show your undies, be 'ladylike', maintain 'modesty' etc. This kind of insidious social conditioning can have a very real impact on both physical and psychological health in girls and young women that can last throughout life*. It can also provide opportunities for boys to sexually harass girls as they go about their business at school.This happened to me on many occasions in both primary and secondary school during sport, play and even simply walking up stairs. We need to abolish these ridiculous, outdated and sexist 'gender roles' in schools and allow girls their freedom. At the very least, give them the freedom to choose.

      *See for example 'Throwing like a girl: A phenomenology of feminine body comportment, motility and spatiality' by Iris Marion Young

      Commenter
      Melanie
      Date and time
      December 02, 2013, 9:57AM
      • I agree this is crazy.
        I am a Dad with 3 daughters, and I noticed at primary school they either wore shorts or short like undies under the school dress. This gave them the confidence to do what they wanted.
        Eg, Inverted hangs on the monkey bars, without a thought.
        They hit high school and must wear the dresses and skirts, and although they can wear the short like undies underneath, I observed they are more conservative in their activities. Might be a combination of being body aware, and general age, but when they have sport days and can wear shorts, they always say they love going to school in the shorts and polo shirts and seen to be more active generally
        .
        Let school kids of all ages wear a uniform that they don't have to worry about getting exposed and feel good in. Or worse, end up with a revealing picture on facebook.
        .
        Now about the 18 y.o.
        How do I get her choose to wear longer shorts and shirts ! ! !

        Commenter
        david
        Location
        mckinnon
        Date and time
        December 02, 2013, 10:04AM
        • I think this is one of those little things that turns out to be huge. Its crazy to force kids to wear different clothes based on gender, in the 21st Century. The argument that shorts permit physical freedom, encourage more activity, and remove stererotyping, seems flawless. If we want equality for our girls, then this really does matter. Thanks Renee Turner for making the case so well. Steve Biddulph, Adjunct Prof. of Psychology, author of Raising Girls, and Raising Boys.

          Commenter
          Steve Biddulph
          Date and time
          December 02, 2013, 10:05AM
          • Very timely article - my husband and I were discussing this ongoing stupidity this morning after discovering that our 6 year old was wearing shorts under her dress for school. Apparently she was told y her teacher that she must do this if she wants to play on the monkey bars on the days she isn't wearing her skorts. Why they don't just allow shorts for the girls is beyond me (skorts still being gendered), though in winter all the girls wear the same pants as the boys.

            Earlier in the year, my older daughter's high school had a parent survey on the uniform options - in part, they were seeking opinions on removing the girl's shorts and pants options, but no suggestion that the dress and/or skirt would be dropped.

            Commenter
            Liz
            Date and time
            December 02, 2013, 10:22AM
            • Hi. I read this article with interest as well as the story about girls not being allowed to wear shorts at Bathurst School.
              I'm a retired principal and teacher, 27 years in state schools, and would like to share some important information.

              Although the NSW Department's site suggests uniforms are a requirement this is not always the case. Hidden away in a fairly lengthy policy is the following...

              1.7.3
              Suspension or expulsion solely for non-compliance with uniform requirements is not to occur. Student enrolment cannot be contingent upon adherence to school uniform policy.

              1.7.4
              Students should not be disadvantaged where required uniform items are not available because of circumstances beyond their control.

              1.7.5
              Conscientious objections by parents to the wearing of school uniform should be respected.

              1.7.6
              Response to students who do not wear uniform must be appropriate. They should be clarified, agreed upon by the school community and documented. Response must be fair and consistent. They must not prevent students from continued participation in essentail curriculum activities except where exclusion is necessary for reasons of safety. In this situation, alternative educational activites must be provided.

              And yes, the spelling is theirs... activites, essentail, indeed!

              Still, I wonder if the staff at Bathurst school got fed up with competition over designer-style shorts between the older girls, as it does seem an odd decision. Community consultation, P & C etc, is necessary for such changes.

              If a parent objects to their child wearing a uniform then they should write to their principal and the director of their local area.Check education website or ask your school for their details.
              Hope this is helpful.
              Cheers...

              Commenter
              onnie
              Location
              QLD
              Date and time
              December 02, 2013, 10:24AM
              • My parents had a conscientious objection. My brothers spent a lot of time in detention for not having ties, as a result. I doubt it's changed much.

                I've also noticed that i Sydney it's the stay at home mothers who are obsessed with girls wearing dresses & go on about "ladies" and "dates for the dance" (yes, the kids are 12) etc.. I wish they would get a life (their own), and stop inflicting their 1950s crap on my daughter & her friends.

                Commenter
                Carmine
                Date and time
                December 02, 2013, 12:25PM
              • Sorry, school uniform is the school uniform. We are preparing our kids for life after school and you can't tell an employer I don't like it an wont wear that uniform. As a HR I see alot of it in the younger graduates that I deal with. Uniforms at school are about looking the same and getting kids to learn to conform. All you parnets that think it doesn't matter my child is different, my child shouldn't have too. As a wise old HR who deals with alot of graduates on a daily basis, kids that go to school and wear what ever the uniform that the school states are much more likely to confirm to the work force. Many graduates today have such issue fitting into work as for sum its the first time they have been told this are the rules, if you can't live by them then you need to work elsewhere. My work has a fair number of staff that have compulsary uniforms and yes we have had to let people go as they either just flatly refuse or want to wear variations of the uniforms, ties being one of them. We make no exception for anyone on any reason. The others that don't wear uniform have to adhear to a strick clothing guidline and again we make no exceptions. In the last 10years we have had more issues with the young than ever before. But I look around and see the standard of school uniforms dropping and seems they are bringing it into the workforce

                Commenter
                MS1077
                Date and time
                December 02, 2013, 1:46PM

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