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Why we need to stop telling schoolgirls that their uniforms are “distracting”

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Female students at a New Zealand high school have been told to wear longer skirts for their own safety - and for the benefit of their male co-pupils and teachers. Stylist contributor Moya Crockett wonders why school dress codes must be presented in sexualised terms.

When I was in Year 8, there was a trend at my school for hair ties with fake flowers attached. For a short time, walking into my sweaty school canteen felt like entering an exotic greenhouse, with a glittering plastic bloom – roses, orchids, big old daisies – bobbing atop each girl’s head.

Eventually, the teachers decided that enough was enough, and flower hairbands were added to the long list of Officially Banned Items. When my friends and I demanded to know why we weren’t allowed to express our individuality through the medium of floral hair accessories, we were told that the exotic hair bands were “a distraction to boys”.

At the time, I found this hilarious. Did our teachers really think boys were that dim? That they’d be unable to concentrate in double maths if a plastic begonia was pinned to the head of the girl sitting in front of them? The argument seemed a ludicrous cop-out to me when I was 12. It still does now.

That was more than a decade ago, but schools are still policing female students’ clothing by citing the supposed sexual impact on boys and men. Over the weekend, it was reported that a New Zealand high school has instructed its female students to lower the hemlines on their skirts. The deputy head of Auckland’s Henderson High School, Cherith Telford, told around 40 girls that knee-length skirts were necessary in order to “keep our girls safe, stop boys from getting ideas, and create a good work environment for male staff”.

Henderson High

Henderson High School in Auckland, where female students have been told to lengthen their skirts. Picture: Google Street View

Because it’s a Monday, because we’re in a snarky mood, and because we can’t believe that this conversation still needs to be had, let’s break down that reasoning, point by point.

1) Longer skirts will keep our girls safe

Safe where? And from what, or whom? The threat of sexual violence is implicit: the deputy head isn’t suggesting that short skirts will make “her girls” more vulnerable to arson or debit card fraud, after all. And presumably she isn’t saying that Henderson High School itself is a dangerous place. (It’s a pretty good school, by all accounts.) Perhaps she really does think that longer skirts will keep female students safe out there, in the big bad world.

It’s a nice thought, that clothes might possess such talismanic powers. If eschewing miniskirts was all took to protect me from the world’s creeps and weirdos, you’d better believe I’d be on ASOS right now, buying every midi skirt available. But that’s not how these things work: research shows that most convicted rapists don’t even remember what their victim was wearing. Suggesting to young women that they will be protected from sexual assault if they would only dress demurely is deeply dangerous.

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Skirt length has no impact on personal safety

2) Longer skirts will stop boys from getting ideas

Teenage boys? Teenage boys who’ve never known a world where hardcore porn is more than a few clicks away? Again, there’s something almost touching about the deputy head's faith in the supreme power of the knee-length skirt; in the idea that boys’ minds would be pure as the driven snow, if girls would only keep their thighs under wraps.

The first, most obvious, issue with this argument is that teenagers – male and female – are always going to “get ideas” about sex, no matter what rules are enforced at school. Attempting to fight that just makes you look like King Canute, the Norse king who tried to hold back the sea by shouting at it. But this kind of language also reinforces the idea that teenage boys – and, by extension, the men they'll grow up to be – are incapable of moderating their own desire. It's demeaning to men, unfair on women, and exactly the type of thinking that underpins the worst kind of victim-blaming in sexual assault cases. Not great coming from a teacher, all in all. 

3) Longer skirts will create a good work environment for male staff

This argument is familiar to me from my own secondary school days, when my friends and I were told by a female teacher that us rolling up our trouser legs, on a hot summer's day, was "unfair" on the male staff. Likewise, last year Trentham High School in Stoke-on-Trent imposed a blanket ban on skirts, saying that they were a "distraction" for male staff, then sent home a 15-year-old schoolgirl for wearing trousers that were "too tight". 

That this still needs to be stated is, frankly, mind-blowing, but here goes: if you, as a secondary school teacher, are concerned that your male colleagues are being sexually distracted by the teenage girls in their care, you've got yourself a pretty serious problem. And it's not one that those girls are responsible for solving. 

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Uniforms = fine. Implicit slut-shaming = not so fine

Maybe it's cruel to pick apart the comments of a teacher who probably works very hard, and has her students' best interests at heart. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with schools enforcing strict dress codes. Lots of teenagers would disagree, but learning what clothes are appropriate for what setting is an important part of transitioning into adulthood.

But couching a reasonable request for formal clothing in sexualised terms is a dangerous game, and this kind of rhetoric should be questioned whenever it rears its ugly head. As Henderson High School student Sade Tuttle told Newshub: “The rules themselves aren’t the problem; the problem is when these codes target girls specifically because their bodies are sexual and distracting.” Amen to that.

Pictures: iStock

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