According to the Mirror, 40 British secondary schools have banned skirts as part of a move towards gender-neutral uniforms. The 12-year-old version of me would have rejoiced at such news, having given a talk about women’s rights to my English class in which I lamented the fact that skirts were part of my school uniform (no, I wasn’t one of the popular girls – why do you ask?). Adult me is less sure.
In Ian McEwan’s novella The Cement Garden, the character Julie says: “Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short and wear shirts and boots because it’s OK to be a boy; for girls it’s like promotion. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, according to you, because secretly you believe that being a girl is degrading.” Is this the mentality that leads schools to make boys’ uniforms the default? In 2017, Highgate School in north London formally permitted boys to wear skirts. The school was met with a barrage of complaints, including one letter that described the idea as “preposterous”. Why is allowing girls to wear trousers progressive, and boys to wear skirts preposterous?
For schools not to address this double standard feels disappointingly remiss. In a post-#MeToo world, we’re all becoming more familiar with the damage masculinity has wrought on women, society at large, and on men themselves. But in order to encourage boys to explore their feminine side, we first have to make femininity itself a less embarrassing and shameful conceit. At the same time, we have to stop making masculinity something to aspire to. As comedian Hannah Gadsby suggests in her extraordinary show Nanette, a society that holds both of these beliefs creates a dynamic between men and women driven by entitlement (for men) and shame (for women).
There have been some suggestions that the skirt ban in schools is a reaction to the problem of upskirting. But upskirting isn’t a phenomenon because we have skirts: it’s a phenomenon because there are too many boys who believe that they have the right to take illicit photos of girls. They think that being a boy gives them some sense of ownership over our bodies, and that simply being a girl who exists in a public space means forgoing one’s right to dignity and privacy. These attitudes won’t evaporate if you take the skirt away; they must be weeded out of our culture altogether through education, activism and politics. There is something inherently misogynistic about the justification Woodhey High School in Bury gave for banning skirts – that they were considered “undignified and embarrassing” if girls sat on the floor. For boys to view women as their equals means viewing the symbols, qualities and clothing that are associated with women as valid, and that means not associating them with words like “undignified and embarrassing”. Nobody uses those words about football shorts.
Of course the ideal upshot of viewing women’s clothing as equal to men’s is that it stops being women’s clothing altogether. And qualities such as sensitivity, empathy and care cease to be feminine qualities but human qualities; while dominance, aggression and coldness are no longer seen as symbols of masculine strength but as profoundly damaging and dysfunctional.
That schools want to move on from outmoded definitions of gender and create a safe environment for trans children is a genuinely laudable step forward. It’s just a shame that it couldn’t have happened through a braver conversation about which versions of gender identity are safe to express in public, which ones are not, and what power dynamics might lie behind those differences. I want to live in a world where boys can waltz into school wearing a full-on taffeta gown (as long as it’s in the uniform code), and the only comment anyone makes is on the quality of the needlework. Challenging boys to be more feminine is a more productive way schools can challenge the gender binary, and there’s no reason why it can’t be done. Come on, headteachers and governors: let your pupils know it’s OK for the boys to wear skirts if they want to. They have nothing to lose but emotional repression.
• Ellie Mae O’Hagan is a freelance journalist