Looking back, my school days were often bittersweet, if not completely sour. There are particular things that strike a nerve with me to this day that I know are still happening in schools across the country. The ‘things’ I’m referring to aren’t unique to my own school experience; they’re systematic issues to do with the ways in which schools interact with their pupils and uphold dangerous patriarchal structures that harm school children, particularly girls. This is distressing enough on its own, but consider this: why are so many schools so invested in spending time policing and shaming their female students, rather than focusing on improving the quality of teaching?
I pose this question because I’ve been through the school system in the UK ( I went to one of the worst schools, in fact), I’ve been told by teachers that my body and my clothes are ‘provocative’, I’ve watched teachers let boys sexually harass me and other female students, and I’ve been failed by the education system repeatedly with negligent, uncaring teachers. It’s time to understand the ways in which schools partake in such sexist conditioning, and how we can change it.
The bodies of female students are policed in several ways, in and out of the classroom. A lot of the ways in which girls are policed however, relate to school uniform/dress code. While male students often need only to adhere to a fairly simple shirt and trousers, uniforms and dress codes for female students are highly gendered and regulated.
Now, while I don’t actually agree with gendered uniforms in the first place (as they enforce a gender binary and are alienating to trans and non-binary students), the radically different rules female students have to adhere to are ridiculous, and most importantly – harmful. These gendered uniform rules are harmful particularly in the way that they’re framed. Such loaded uniform codes result in school girls being shamed into wearing specific clothes that hide their bodies, which are deemed as inherently sexual and provocative.
Essentially, school uniform codes actively position female students as sexual objects that are ‘provocative’ if not shamed into conformity. It still baffles me when I think about the wasted hours teachers and staff would spend telling female students that their tights-with-patterns are too ‘suggestive’ and ‘revealing’, and that wearing a shirt that’s too tight around their chests will ‘distract male students and staff‘. And yet, schools are happy to let boys (and male teachers!) sexually harass girls in and out of the classroom without any intervention. Lets address one glaringly gross thing – all these sexually shaming, sexist comments buy into rape culture – you are implicitly (and explicitly) telling school girls that they have to hide their bodies from the male gaze, and that if they get unwanted attention as a result of the way they dress, that’s their own fault. As Laura Bates, founder of Everyday Sexism, succinctly observes:
This sends an incredibly powerful message. It teaches our children that girls’ bodies are dangerous, powerful and sexualised, and that boys are biologically programmed to objectify and harass them. It prepares them for college life, where as many as one in five women is sexually assaulted but society will blame and question and silence them, while perpetrators are rarely disciplined.
The problem is often compounded by a lack of any attempt to discipline boys for harassing behaviour, which drives home the message that it is the victim’s responsibility to prevent. We have received thousands of testimonies from girls who have complained about being verbally harassed, touched, groped, chased, followed, licked, and assaulted at school, only to be told: “he just likes you”, or: “boys will be boys”. The hypocrisy is breath taking.
Meanwhile, the very act of teachers calling young girls out for their attire projects an adult sexual perception onto an outfit or body part that may not have been intended or perceived as such by the student herself. It can be disturbing and distressing for students to be perceived in this way and there is often a strong element of shame involved.
We must also take into account that sexism in schools intersect with other systems of oppression like racism and transphobia. For instance, schools systematically shame and oppress black girls through the axes of racism and sexism, where several have been sent home and disciplined for having natural hair, which schools have claimed go against their dress/hair codes.
Our education system is broken, and this is just one part of it – but it’s something that needs to be addressed swiftly, because our schools are complicit in teaching boys to view girls as sexual objects, and shaming girls into believing that their objectification is their fault.