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.
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.