Skirts were recently banned at a secondary school in Stoke-on-Trent because the head teacher believes they are distracting to male teachers and other pupils when hitched up. This caused an inevitable media furore and the country began debating the issue.
So firstly, what is the issue? Well, one aspect is the suggestion that girls are inherent sexual objects for the male gaze. The idea that dressing in a certain way is ‘provocative’ feeds the outdated notion that men can behave and dress as they like but women must cover up and behave appropriately so as not to titillate men.
And why are male teachers distracted by young girls in short skirts? Perhaps it’s because society tells us that youth and flesh are sexually appealing. Porn plays a part. The film industry plays a part. Ads on billboards, TV and in magazines play a part. A broader choice for what constitutes ‘sexy’ (age, size, colour, dress) would be helpful.
Another issue is the reason the girls want to hitch up their skirts. I questioned this a couple of years ago in this blog post and concluded that women wear mini skirts because they have become the norm; they are welcome at work, weddings – they don’t garner the same response they might have back in the 60s when they first came into fashion.
But what about girls in short skirts? As a 30-year-old woman, I still have vivid memories of my rebellious teenage years, dressing in stupidly short skirts with platform heels. I’d dress like this at school because we didn’t have a uniform and it wasn’t so that male teachers, or male pupils, would find me sexy but because I was simply a teenager pushing the boundaries.
I get the pros of uniform but it does limit young people who are exploring their identity and who don’t necessarily want to conform and look exactly the same as fellow pupils. My school seems very liberal when I look back: we dyed our hair all the colours of the rainbow, a boy in my year had a leopard print pattern dyed onto his nearly-shaved head, we wore whatever we wanted (ripped tights, fishnet, polkadot).
Teenagers will continue to experiment with fashion – uniform or no uniform – and they should be able to do so without being told they’re putting themselves at risk or luring older men. Instead, older men should check themselves – the real concern is that they are viewing young girls as sex objects.
So what’s the solution? Well how about rather than banning girls from wearing certain clothes, which has a worryingly religious resonance, we address the objectification and sexualisation of girls in schools. Boys (and male teachers, apparently) need to be taught that there is more to a girl than the way she looks.
Equally, girls need to be reminded that there is more to life than the way they look. There was certainly huge pressure to look – rather than to think – a certain way when I was growing up (there still is). A less narrow beauty ideal and greater emphasis on intelligence over appearance would be useful – within the wider context of freedom to express yourself however you choose.
As usual, with any feminist issue, education is key. As a society, we need to change the way we view women and girls – and those formative school years are key in determining our general outlook. A class on sexuality, equality, the freedom to choose, liberating not repressing females and identity would be a lot more useful than, once again, blaming girls for the way they are viewed by men.