The Equal Classroom, Routledge 2019
Edited by Lucy Rycroft-Smith & Graham Andre
Chapter 10: Gendered Clothes, by Francesca Cambridge Mallen
Despite picking the most ubiquitous pair of school trainers I could find, my daughter can’t squeeze her foot past the open laces. On our return trip, she races off to the nearest colourful offering she can see, the inevitable GIRL sign towering overhead. “Girls shoes are just cut slimmer - its the fashion!” smile staff when I compare a similar but visibly wider pair lifted from the boys section. Likewise, basic school shoes embody the prevailing girls versus boys clothing culture in cut, shape, motif and messaging. The rise of trend-led school shoes, including wedges, heels and ballet flats should alarm even those with a basic understanding of podiatry, stereotyping girls as style focused rather than active children. Comfort should be key, yet we know children’s choices in clothing and shoes are being limited by gender coded designs and displays, built on traditional ideas about what it means to be male or female. If we are to strive for a more equal society, then equality for our children should be of paramount concern and start at a very young age.
UK high street sizing guides are, almost without exception, the same for girls and boys up until puberty, and yet cut is radically different depending on which section you head for. A study of children in 2011 found children’s body sizes have increased in height, chest, waist and hips since 1990 - with only marginal differences between the sexes. However a customer buying a plain white t-shirt from both the girls and boys section will end up with entirely different products. Urging retailers to be more consistent and up front about sizing is one solution, but school uniform is also facing it’s own “fashionising of childhood,”carrying implications from adult designs and the sexualisation of girls, to toxic ideas about maleness to boys. Tech terms like “Airtred Soles” with dinosaur treads are pitched in opposition to “Sensitive Soles” with flowers (so popular a signal for “girl” that some parents in the US use Girly Glue to stick blooms to their newborns heads.) Pink out-sells other colours by up to 75% (gender-coding is big business) but when responsibility to not “unduly stereotype” childrenswear rests with a voluntary code - is it time for schools to step into this debate? By age 4 my oldest daughter could articulate that not only was Science a subject for boys, but that only boys were good at it - an idea that didn’t come from her parents. The drip drip messaging that girls and boys are inherently different by this rigid gender divide (including appearance, interests, aspirations and abilities) will inevitably have implications in the classroom.
In 2015 Let Clothes Be Clothes led a campaign to highlight the exclusion of girls from Science themed clothing. With over 30 items of STEM relevant clothing on sale in the Boyswear department at M&S, this stood in sharp contrast to not one featuring in the girls section. Dinosaurs for all attracted worldwide attention and bi-partisan support against growing concern that negative messages were impacting the aspirations and career choices of girls. The NHM collaboration with Marks and Spencer produced a range of fun-fact mini-exhibit T-shirts featuring Dinosaurs and Insects aimed exclusively at boys. The science community came out in support of the resulting demonstration (organised by Chi Onwurah MP, however, the museum felt that by targeting “specific societal groups,” M&S was merely following the childrenswear status quo. As a former Curator for a National Museum, I wondered at what point that kind of thinking became the norm. After all, children as young as 2 can spot which item belongs to which side of the strict gender divide. In the last Girl Guiding Attitudes Survey, 80% of those asked could identify what was an item of girls clothing, not what was marketed to girls. Likewise “maleness” is exploited by retailers through a litany of predatory teeth and claws, making Dinosaurs a universal theme. Young boys have little choice but to go with the options already laid out for them, responding not just to wider societal expectations, but also fear of embracing anything unacceptable. Widespread use of gender coding has given rise to the belief that our clothing options are following a natural order, but there is no scientific basis to this assumption. Despite these colours performing a switcheroo after early trendsetters proclaimed blue a dainty colour and pink ideal for boys, the idea of a pink girl or blue boy brain has taken hold both in and outside the classroom.
After all, children as young as 2 can spot which item belongs to which side of the two ‘strict’ gender groups. In the last Girl Guiding Attitudes Survey, 68% of 7-10 year olds could identify products targeted as either for girls, or for boys. The survey goes on to state ‘Some young women said the use of gender stereotypes to sell clothes was so normal to them in their everyday life, they did no always notice it.’
But restrictions aren’t just being imposed on girls - likewise “maleness” is exploited by retailers through a litany of predatory teeth and claws, making dinosaurs a universal and beloved theme. Young boys have little choice but to go with the options already laid out for them, responding not just to wider societal expectations, but also fear of embracing anything unacceptable. Widespread use of gender coding has given rise to the belief that our clothing options are following a ‘natural order’, but there is no scientific basis to this assumption. Pink and blue actually performed a switcheroo after early trendsetters proclaimed blue a dainty colour and pink ideal for boys in 1918; its current fetishization by marketers of toys and clothes (plus gendered cheese, pink or blue personal attack alarms, women’s ear plugs “sleep pretty in pink” and even gendered packets of fish food, based on who was doing the shopping) is unlikely to have any real longevity in its current form. Must we continue to ride the tide of other people’s oddly gendered decisions on our own and our children’s behalf, or can we do something about it?
Clothing is not merely for comfort, but part of a basic ‘social signalling’, with dresses and skirts in particular heavily loaded with feminine attributes, in much the same way trousers were once considered exclusively masculine (and still are in some geographical and social areas). When schools ban girls from wearing trousers and shorts, what are they actually telling those girls? As Human Rights lawyer Lord David Pannick QC states: “At school, skirts for girls suggests a demeanour not required of boys” that skirts, in a similar fashion to the trend for slip-on ballet flats, offer less practical room for movement, play and knee cover that seems required of boys.
Likewise, when we compliment girls on how they dress, we are choosing some pretty ugly stereotypes. As Grayson Perry puts it “Boys are rarely praised for how they look; they learn early that they are the ones doing the looking.” A host on BBC Radio Merseyside told me that questioning this idea was ‘stomach turning,’ believing it was the right of every girl to be complimented on their appearance. The idea that I didn’t want my daughter to think her (only) value was in her appearance was completely lost on the presenter who only just fell short of calling me a bad parent live on air. I listed a number of other phrases, like ‘smart’ and ‘kind’ but to no avail. Was I propositioning a revolutionary idea?
Evidence suggests girls as young as seven are feeling pressure to place more value on their looks than in their abilities, investing self-esteem and pocket-money in ‘dieting, grooming and shopping’ including clothing based on seasonal trends and footwear to match. Make-up sets, nail polish and ‘Top Model’ merchandise are now common among children’s toys and are being marketed to girls aged 3 and up. Heels and wedges have started to creep into school uniform sections, as well as ‘trainers’ aimed at teen girls with a (staggering) 6cm heel. Training bras, pitched as ideal for school, have also evolved to include padding, whether described online as “light” or “subtle,” we are in danger of telling young girls that they need to look a certain way for the benefit of others. Children are exposed to sexual images and themes unseen in our society before, which, according to the 2011 Bailey Report, has become the ‘wallpaper to children’s lives.’
When I pointed out to a local primary school headteacher that the craft tables in Key Stage One were plastered with images from Page 3 of a notorious newspaper, he was appalled - but simply hadn’t noticed. Like him, we may well be sleepwalking our children through a school system that heavily perpetuates gender identity issues that are making girls feel unwelcome, unduly scrutinised, and extremely mentally ill. Hospital admissions for self-harming amongst young women have risen 68% in the past three years and funding for mental health services is only one part of the battle. It is vital we tackle the threat of these stereotypes head on, and listen to what girls are telling us and support teachers who challenge sexist dialogue and expectations.
Boys face similarly heavy gender expectations. Boyswear writhes in slogans like ‘it wasn’t me’ and ‘here comes trouble.’ To ‘be a man’ apparently not only means embracing and enjoying predator prints (such as teeth-baring sharks and dinosaurs) but also to completely reject anything deemed feminine as ‘girly’ or ‘sissy.’ This includes a complete lack of popular female characters represented in wearable merchandise such as Rey, Skye and Wyldstyle. The result is to straitjacket boys (pun intended) into an unhealthy ritual of male gender performance that encourages toughness over vulnerability at almost any cost, and sees learning as not ‘masculine; enough. Boys will be boys, after all. Exclusion rates are 4 times higher for boys than girls, and in adult males, the suicide rate is three times higher than in females - it is vital schools look at what they can do to correct the toxic male stereotype.
‘The female realm is simply given less value. Call a boy a cissy and it’s an insult. Call a girl a tomboy and it’s basically a promotion. Policing the clothing choices of small children is insane, as well as frankly weird.’
Robert Webb in conversation with the author, 2018
T-shirts that shout ‘boys will be boys’ (in contrast to “happy girls are the prettiest”) are as much an insult to boys, as they are to the #Metoo and #Timesup movements that exemplify some of the hard work going on to give women more and better choices. Many of the parents I’ve spoken to through our campaign struggle to counter the prevailing gender-policing of their boys, including those who simply want the choice of wearing a dress or a skirt. As one Mum colourfully put it, ‘it won’t make his penis drop off!’ The idea that boys CAN choose traditional feminine garments (unisex in plenty of non-Western cultures) may get Piers Morgan in a flap, but real choice in clothing is absolutely vital in challenging stereotypes, broadening our aesthetic ideas, and promoting comfort and freedom.
What to do about school uniform?
Government guidance on uniform policy places emphasis on cases where higher costs for say, girl’s uniform, may constitute discrimination, with Ofsted stating that a choice of where to shops is vital if parents are to purchase uniform at a competitive price. Yet for families with children of different genders, there will be the added burden of buying two lots of uniform, rather than having the option of passing down. Skirts are also generally a lot cheaper and easier to make than shorts, and any ban on for the former would inevitably hit parents’ pockets. A gender-neutral approach to uniforms should mean just that: whether it’s skirts, skorts, trousers or shorts. When researchers at Uppsala university looked at gender neutral pre-schools with a ‘norm conscious’ focus, they found girls and boys were more likely to play together and make less stereotypical assumptions about gender in those schools. Uniform matters.
Girls banned from wearing trousers, boys banned from wearing shorts (and skirts banned outright in some secondary schools) have blazed across UK headlines as if it’s the coming of the apocalypse. Freelance journalist Ellie Mae O’Hagan writing in The Guardian came up with the most obvious solution, a call to all schools and governors to face gender stereotypes head-on with ‘Don’t ban skirts - let everybody wear them.’
Whatever your feelings on the practicalities of skirts in the schoolyard, having choice is key to a gender-cool environment, not to mention, telling boys that there is nothing degrading about wearing skirts. Gender neutral after all, should mean rethinking the clothes society has given a nominal gender to. I spoke to singer Paloma Faith about her feelings on the term gender neutral and what that meant to her in practical terms. ‘Children need comfortable clothing to learn, walk, crawl, run and climb, getting hands and knees dirty – together,’ she told me - and I think that ‘together’, is key. Physical restrictions, such as banning girls from wearing trousers and boys from wearing skirts, mirrors some of the societal restrictions we are forcing on children. Ensuring girls and boys are dressed differently is not equality, and will not encourage children to see each other as equal. As a campaign group, Let Clothes Be Clothes has been focused on raising awareness about how this issue connects with some of the major inequalities in society, but real change will only happen when we take a stand together and call out stereotyping when we see it.