When I was ten years old, my primary school did “underwear checks” on the girls. You lined up and hitched up a corner of your dress discreetly in front of a female teacher. Your knickers, you see, were expected to be the official school colour. It was the school’s way of helping to deter the boys from looking up our dresses, I suppose. Nothing to see here, boys! Just regulation navy undies!
Does it sound weird? It was.
But as girls our dignity was paramount and well, let’s face it, wearing a dress came with issues. Back then I cautiously climbed open staircases where boys lingered underneath. And every little lunch and big lunch our games were just naturally tempered by the unspoken rule that at all times we must be careful to keep our dresses down. Looking back it was the first time I got the message that how I looked as a girl – what I wore – was prioritised over what I could do.
That was in the early 80s.
Some schools have gone so far as to request that girls lengthen their skirts to avoid attention. Post continues after video.
Over 30 years later and it’s disheartening to see that in some schools little has changed.
The underwear checks may be history but it’s shocking to me that some schools continue to insist on forcing girls – not boys, just girls – to wear clothing designed to impede their movement and relegate them to a duller, more passive playground experience. All based on what? The outdated, inherently sexist notion that girls belong in dresses.
Well this week one Melbourne mother took a stand and I bloody wanted to high-five her for it.
Simone Cariss (you legend!) started a petition asking for her six-year-old daughter Asha to be permitted to wear trousers to school – like her male classmates. If you somehow missed yesterday’s media storm about Simone let me repost her words from her petition here:
“My daughter’s primary school in Melbourne has declined a request for my daughter to wear pants as part of the winter uniform. Pants are approved school uniform for the boys only. Girls must wear a tunic in winter and a dress in summer (apart from sports uniform days).
My daughter, like many other girls, simply wants the choice to wear pants like half of her peers, with the warmth and freedom to be active at school and travelling to/from school. She constantly asks “why can’t I wear pants like the boys?” “Because you’re a girl” is not something I am prepared to say to my 6 year old daughter. A daughter who I have raised to believe she can do and conquer anything, regardless of her gender, and that she can like what she wants to like and not what gender stereotypes dictate she should like.
Dresses disadvantage girls like my daughter who want to play footy, run, climb and ride a bike to school. The boys get to wear pants and shorts which facilitate these activities far better than a dress. I won’t stand for a policy that only encourages and promotes girls to be active on sports days (at my daughters school this is twice per week). What about the rest of the time?”
Sing it, sister!
Over 13,000 Australians signed that petition and I am delighted to say that the school in question has reconsidered and is now re-evaluating their uniform policy. Here’s hoping they fall in line with many government schools around the country and offer a gender neutral uniform option or at least give their female students the choice to wear either a dress or trousers.
But the fact remains whether it’s a school uniform policy or by our own hand (as we send our daughters off to play in restrictive clothing or pretty dresses that “mustn’t get dirty”) our insistence that our girls wear dresses is too often robbing them of the chance to play. To get messy. To explore and investigate. To be free. Forcing girls to wear dresses in playgrounds tells them they are different, that they must be ‘ladylike’, that their play must be less robust.
Worse, we’re sending them utterly confusing mixed messages.
Consider this: Every child expert, fitness guru and paediatric medical professional is imploring our kids to get moving. Get running, dancing, skipping, hopping, climbing trees, swinging on monkey bars, zooming down slippery-dips, they say. Play leapfrog, kick a soccer ball, do a cartwheel, practice your handstands, bounce on a trampoline or ride your bike.
Life be in it! You can do it! Go! Go! Go!
Except. Except if you’re a girl you have to do that – all that stuff - in a dress or a skirt.
Except if you’re a girl the most important thing to keep in mind while you’re trying to learn to do handstands is that no one can see your knickers.
Except if you’re a girl HOW YOU LOOK trumps everything else.
Except it doesn’t. And it mustn’t.
I’m not anti-dress. I love a good frock. But there’s a time and place for dresses and skirts and primary school? Well, it’ not always one of them.
Dress your daughter in a pair of shorts or trousers this weekend and watch her fly. Just like Asha.