Does sexism start at school?

When I was fifteen, I remember absolutely loathing any and all of the teachers who enforced strict school uniform rules. There was one in particular who always used to somehow spot my un-tucked shirt from right across the canteen and would always demand I re-tucked it, lest I ended up with detention or, worse, a spot at the very back of the lunch queue. Now I’m older and a lot less rebellious when it comes to clothing, and I can absolutely understand why certain rules are in place, particularly in a school environment, to keep everybody equal and safe and smart-ish.

But there’s one thing I still can’t quite get my head around, and that’s the rules that seem to appear in almost every secondary school environment I’ve encountered – the rules put in place in order to diffuse the effect girls apparently automatically have on boys. One of my friends has a sister whose school has taken to measuring girls’ skirts with a ruler, daily, to make sure they are the required length above the knee, and not a centimetre shorter. My own school skirt (RIP) was deemed “too tight” by both my mother and a member of staff at my school, and countless girls in different educational institutions across the world are no doubt hearing or experiencing similar things. The main reason for the issues brought up seems to be this: it’s too distracting, not only for the male students but also for the male teachers.

Ugh. When I was younger I naively took this as a gospel truth; that if I had a short skirt, it would be my fault if I somehow caused a male teacher to stare at me and forget what he was saying about the Battle of Hastings. But nowadays, I am always saddened by anyone who takes this view. I think what gets me the most is the way that a schoolgirl revealing any skin above the knee, or any skin deemed ‘inappropriate’, is instantly shamed. Showing some leg? No, don’t. Still only 13 years old? It doesn’t matter. We’ll say you’re “too young” to be dressing this way yet in contrast we have sexualised you already and we want you to put it away so that you don’t cause any problems for us. Even now, at 23, I am regularly told by my mom: “Just an observation…that skirt is terribly short“. It comes from a good place – she wants me to be safe and for people to maintain the ‘right idea’ about me. But I still feel my blood boil when these sorts of things are said to me, because it feels like from the get-go, girls are taught to be ashamed of their bodies, and to keep them covered up for the good of everyone else. We’re expected to look attractive and certainly not frumpy, yet God forbid we should wear an item of clothing that exposes a bit too much thigh. We should probably keep it a bit more conservative, for the sake of all the men out there who will turn into mere animals the second they see this normally-concealed few inches of leg.

Another thing that confuses me, in a school environment, is the fact that the needs and desires of female teachers or female students are conveniently forgotten. I’m sure that by Year 11, there were a good few boys in my year who had morphed into ‘men’ on the outside. But were any rules enforced for them? I sure as hell can’t remember any. Are any boys at school asked to roll their sleeves down, in case their female teachers or fellow students ‘accidentally’ get a bit too excited and gawk at their arms for a bit too long? …Nope.

It unnerves me quite a bit to think that these male teachers, whoever they are, have actively chosen a profession where they are working all day every day in close proximity to adolescent girls who are beginning to explore their own likes, dislikes, dress sense and sexuality, yet apparently can’t seem to muster the self control to avert their eyes when one of their students wears a tight skirt. If you genuinely can’t look away or feel too ‘distracted’ to teach effectively, I’d suggest you consider another career path.

I do agree that some rules are in place for general safety, and when I see young girls on the street in tiny skirts and thigh-high socks I do cringe a bit, because I can see people staring at them wherever they go, and I want them to be safe and not leered at by men old enough to be their father. But at the same time, it makes me sad that from such a young age, the message we are sending to girls over and over again is: the men can’t help it, it’s YOU who has to make the change. Instead of wearing what you want, wear what you HAVE to wear to avoid unwanted attention, and let the men carry on, because they can’t really help themselves. I can’t not find it kind of disgusting that out of a 14 year-old schoolgirl and a 45 year-old man, the girl is the one holding all the blame when she is ogled. That’s not to say that all men act this way, though – in fact quite the opposite. I actually think that a lot of men would be quite offended by these school rules, and rightly so. By saying that men are powerless to a bit of cleavage, that they can’t help staring when confronted with skin, we’re not only damaging and underestimating women but men, too. It’s an insult to the many professional, supportive male teachers across the world, who work to create a safe environment for girls to learn in.

Yet it seems that more often than not, these girls are taught that their safety can only truly be theirs if they obey the rules and adopt the belief that there is something about their natural state that is inherently impure and shameful.

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