Girls in skirts. Boys in shorts. That is the accepted standard for school uniforms around the UK. Whilst many children complain of their unflattering fit, their scratchy jumpers or their restrictive ties, a more fundamental issue is largely ignored: the fact that these gender-defined uniforms reinforce entrenched masculine-feminine stereotypes in young children.
The gender divides are inherent throughout our society, on both a social and institutional level, and the ideas relating to what is ‘appropriate’ for a man or a woman are promoted to children from birth. With blue for a baby boy and pink for a baby girl, there is no way that children can escape being put into a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ pigeonhole.
Little girls are encouraged to play with dolls and wear pretty dresses, whilst boys should have toy cars and play football. Boys are often pushed harder, and have greater expectations placed on them, whereas girls can too often be overprotected. Although young boys may want to try on a dress, and a little girl might enjoy pretending to be spiderman, this is something which many parents want to discourage, as if blurring gender stereotypes may lead their children away from a ‘traditional’, ‘normal’ life, and into a life of homosexuality or – God forbid! – gender equality.
School uniforms serve to reinforce these gender binaries. Girls, in general, are made to wear skirts and dresses, whilst boys wear shorts and trousers. Although in many schools girls are also permitted to wear trousers, the reverse is not true for boys. Some schools, moreover, enhance this gender divide further by allocating coloured ties or jumpers to boys and girls. Whilst this may seem like a minor detail, and an issue that is not worth bothering about, it is indicative of the entrenched gender stereotypes within our society.
The question of uniform becomes, however, highly pertinent when it comes to children who are struggling with their gender identity. Children who do not identify with their birth gender need a school environment which supports them, especially as they may be facing many difficult decisions in their lives. Having to decide between whether to wear a skirt or shorts forces them to identify as either one gender or the other, implying that gender is a matter of binaries. However, gender is just like sexuality in that it is a spectrum, incorporating a range of gender identities. Not identifying as cisgender is still deemed to be taboo, and simply forcing traditional ideas on young people will not aid the situation.
Uniforms are intended to be a vehicle of inclusivity, a way of reducing discrimination based on designer labels, or what fashions are deemed to be ‘cool’. However, it appears clear that they introduce a different dimension of divisiveness. Whilst for many children the choice between a skirt or shorts is a simple one, for others it can be a choice which marks them out, setting them on a predefined gender path which they may not want to follow.
Children are highly impressionable, and the standards that they are set whilst they are young affect them for the rest of their lives. Enforcing gender stereotypes and encouraging children to adhere to set gender roles, whether it be through uniforms, toys or colour associations, is symptomatic of an unprogressive society. The promotion of an open approach towards gender definitions at a young age will ultimately lead to a more tolerant society for future generations.