I’ve come to the conclusion there’s something wrong with the world. The problem; the school uniform that girls are expected to wear. This might sound like a hard hitting statement to make, but having watched my eldest daughter at play, I think school uniform limits physical play and reinforces unhelpful gender stereotypes.
This is something that has been on my mind since I took part in a panel discussion at the Women of the World Festival in London earlier this year. One of the participants was a nursery school teacher from Iceland who had also worked in the UK.
This individual remarked that gender stereotyping in the UK was dreadful and she didn’t like the school uniform girls were expected to wear. She elaborated by saying dresses and skirts are impractical for young girls who want to climb trees and take part in other physical activities.
It was a throwaway remark. Even so, it stuck in my mind.
Summer has arrived and the kids are spending more time playing outside. I can’t help feeling there’s something in the comment made by my Icelandic friend.
I watch my own daughter, Helen, run across her school playground or play football in knee high socks. If she were to trip and fall, she’d lose the skin from her knees. In fact, she is forever coming home with bumps and scrapes on her legs.
Like many of her friends, she also enjoys gymnastics. She’ll spend ages practicing hand stands and cartwheels. Needless to say, when she’s wearing her school uniform, her dress falls down round her shoulders. This may not be a huge issue for a seven-year-old, but in a year or two she’ll be much more self-conscious and I predict the gymnastics practice will only happen behind closed doors. The days of practicing in the park or the school playing field with friends will be lost, thanks to the antiquated school uniform girls are expected to wear.
Boys, in their trousers and shorts, have an edge when it comes to physical play. They’re much less likely to hurt themselves or reveal their underwear to the world.
In my experience of having two daughters, young girls are quite capable of enjoying physical play. My children enjoy sports, they enjoy using all the play equipment in parks and more than once I’ve had to rescue Helen from a tree she’s climbed up (thankfully she’s never got much further than waist height, I simply think her enthusiasm and curiosity means she doesn’t give much thought to getting down!). The uniform she and primary-aged girls from across the UK are expected to wear hardly encourages such endeavours.
Something else has also influenced my thinking. It’s a fascinating and rather brilliant book called Man Up, written by former BBC producer Rebecca Asher. In the book, Asher explores how boys are conditioned into becoming macho men, afraid (or sometimes unable) to express their feelings and the huge price society pays for this.
Much of this starts in the very earliest years when parents frequently and unconsciously give boys unhealthy messages about masculinity. In subsequent years, this is reinforced by the school system.
Turning Asher’s theory on its head, I can’t help feeling school uniform sends girls unhelpful messages about femininity. Expecting young girls, who are naturally curious about the world, to wear uniform that is impractical for exploring it seems daft. It unwittingly suggests to girls that physical activity is not for them.
Yes, okay, as is the case at most schools, my daughter is free to wear trousers if she wishes. As so few girls do, she simply refuses to wear them. The last time I suggested this to her, she simply looked at me as if I were completely insane.
I am all for school uniform. I think it is a great leveler. It may be different at secondary school, but at primary school you can’t tell the difference between those kids from wealthier and less privileged backgrounds. For us parents, it also saves so much hassle as we know what clothes to have ready Monday through to Friday.
I want school uniform to stay. I also think there is a very simple solution; give girls the option of wearing leggings. This would be much more practical and less limiting. Either that, or temporarily make trousers compulsory in all schools, then relax the rules and see how many girls remain in them. At least this way girls would have a choice and it would be a way of making it acceptable.
What do you think about girls’ school uniform? Is it too limiting? Does it send the wrong messages to youngsters? Please leave a message below with your thoughts.