explainer

'Girls there are male teachers at school.' How a principal's warning exposed a problematic issue.

In my high school memories there are a string of small, stinging moments where I realised the way my body looked could be considered “wrong”.

Inappropriate.

Enticing. 

Even dangerous, to me of course. 

Not that this was ever a thought pattern that would have crossed my mind or the minds of the girls I sat beside at school each day.

But up until these moments I had never considered that the older or professional men in my life would look at my body in a certain way. Until I was told there were ways to safely avoid it.

There were the moments where teachers at school warned us about the dangers of wearing fitted shorts to play school sport or the wrong messages that could be sent by wearing a bra that could be seen through our (admittedly white and quite thin) uniform shirts.

There were days of after-school sports where female coaches or managers would pass through a gaggle of teenage girls and whisper about tops that looked too tight or the fact that a flash of stomach could be seen when running or jumping to catch a ball. Nodding discreetly in the general direction of men standing nearby.

There was also the day when an older family acquaintance pulled me aside and discreetly informed me, with a gentle smile on her face, that sometimes when I leaned over to scoop up a small giggling child, or slumped on a beanbag chair to watch a TV show that her 30-something son-in-law couldn't help but sometimes see down my shirt.

"If you were 18, he'd have a look," I remember her saying. "And if you were 21 he'd have a real good look. But since you're 15 he's a bit uncomfortable, you see."

At the time it sounded fair enough and I remember only feeling a niggling twinge of annoyance and shame at myself that night as I looked through my collection of T-shirts and wondered which one would fit this new clothing brief.

Every one of those tiny moments in time still sits in my mind today. The little warnings that came at school, at sports carnivals, and in homes. 

The realisation that your body is more than just something that gets you around and suddenly there's a sinister layer to a piece of clothing or a body part you'd never considered before.

"There were days of after-school sports where female coaches or managers would pass through a gaggle of teenage girls and whisper about tops that looked too tight or the fact that a flash of stomach could be seen." Source: Getty.

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This week, that jarring adolescent realisation and the danger behind it is fuelling a public discussion about a Sydney Upper North Shore principal who warned female students against wearing "skimpy" clothing because it could "compromise" the employment of male teachers.

In a video address obtained by news outlets the ABC and 7 NewsCheltenham Girls High School (CGHS) principal Suellen Lawrence told pupils not to wear "stringy or revealing" clothes at casual dress days. It is understood her comments were prompted by dress standards at a recent swimming carnival.

"Please remember, girls there are male teachers in this school and they don't want to be looking at that either," she said in the video. 

According to the ABC, a number of students spoke to both the principal and school authorities about how problematic and upsetting they found the comments to be. With the outlet reporting one student saying "I thought she would be saying the opposite, and trying to encourage us, and say it's not OK for the male teachers to be distracted by you".

There's definitely a place for conversations and rules around clothing and appearance in a school setting. Dress codes that need to be followed, protective shoes that need be worn, and sports outfits that will give you the best scope for movement and sun protection.

But that's where the conversation ends, because as soon as the rules flip over from what best suits the female students to what is less likely to catch the eye of men in authority, suddenly a more dangerous undertone erupts where the male gaze is favoured above all else.

Cathy Brennan, the executive director of the school performance metropolitan north, said Ms Lawrence has shown "genuine remorse" over her comments and will apologise.

"She has really understood and is quite distressed by the fact that this caused such concern for the students at her school," Ms Brennan said.

"She takes really seriously her role and responsibility to her students and staff."

It's a positive sign that these once-problematic conversations can change for the better. 

Feature Image: Getty.

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