Jessica Ringrose and Rosa Tully.
A school in Stoke-on-Trent has banned skirts on the grounds that they are ‘distracting’ to male teachers and pupils. The head teacher said that as girls ‘get older their skirts get shorter’. Jessica Ringrose, Professor of Gender and Education at the UCL Institute of Education, took part in a discussion on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour triggered by this news. Here, she and Rosa Tully, 16, founder of a feminist group in her London secondary school, extend the debate.
Interviewer: Rosa, what experiences do you have of being told the way you wear your uniform is ‘distracting’?
Rosa: The most profound thing that I have found from my experiences of uniform policy enforcement is the emphasis on it being a moral issue if a girl disobeys the rules. My female peers and I are often not shamed for disobeying school policy but rather for somehow degrading ourselves and questions are often asked about what impression we are intending to make by our clothing choices. Interviewer: Jessica, why would girls’ bodies be viewed as ‘distracting’?
Jessica: By ‘distraction’, the implication is sexual distraction, which means girls are being sexually objectified. This is happening no matter how they dress, since they are being judged on a scale of sexual respectability. Girls are also being made responsible for boys’ behaviours – so if boys are distracted, it’s somehow girls’ fault! This is a form of blaming the victim. It is the same logic of rape culture, that if a woman is a victim of sexual violence it is her fault for how she dressed or behaved.
Interviewer: So what about male teachers and boys being ‘distracted’?
Rosa: The idea that boys are being distracted means that boys are the priority and that girls’ education is less important than the clothes we are wearing! After all, no-one is worrying about whether the way boys dress is distracting to girls.
Jessica: I think this is deeply insulting to men and boys, it suggests they have no control over their own behaviours at school or work. This is deeply sexist and it’s evidence of a sexual double standard. Its also heterosexist, which means it assumes everyone is heterosexual, that all girls are aiming to lure or sexually tempt boys and all boys are leering at girls.
Interviewer: Will changing the dress code to compulsory trousers work?
Rosa: If girls don’t feel comfortable they will alter what they will wear anyway. That’s the nature of teenagers, so a blanket policy won’t work and it doesn’t address the root of the problem, that our bodies are being sexualised in school, which is supposed to be safe.
Jessica: Yes, changing the dress codes is further policing and restricting what girls wear. Compulsory trousers will not get to the root of sexual violence in society. Indeed, we have already seen cases where girls have been sent home for having the wrong trousers or too tight trousers. Girls in my research also told me they found the school-issue trousers very uncomfortable and ill-fitting and it showed their body more than skirts did. So it made them feel more exposed and vulnerable and judged. Trousers should be an option, and the selection of trousers needs to be widened to make girls feel comfortable. For instance, some girls told me they literally could not fit into the uniform because of their curves.
Interviewer: So what should schools do?
Rosa: One of the main reasons I set up the feminist group in my school was as a result of sitting in classrooms where boys dominated the class dynamic. It became apparent that my schooling environment lacked a place that girls felt comfortable and confident in and that there were few opportunities where girls felt that they could express themselves and talk about their own experiences. For girls who are going through the delights of puberty, a place that offers this sanctity and support is integral, as attempting to deal with the issues discussed in the feminist group alone can be extremely difficult.
Jessica: Yes, young people internationally are challenging sexism in schools including dress code policies that focus unfairly on girls’ bodies. We have seen crop top day protests in Toronto and also twitter campaigns like #mybodymybusiness. In the UK one of the most exciting developments is feminist and gender equality groups springing up in schools across the country. We have been working in nine schools across England and Wales, and have seen a range of action including teens delivering assemblies on healthy consensual relationships, blogging and writing about their experiences and spreading their activism through social media via posting about feminism online and within the school peer group. But schools also need to have compulsory education about sexism, sexual harassment and gender inequality across the curriculum.
Interviewer: Rosa, what has the feminist group meant for your school?
Rosa: The group has provided me with a support network that I and many other members never knew existed. Knowing confidently that you have a safe and secure place to address issues you face daily as young women growing up in the UK and to learn about the experiences of others around the world has been something very important to me and the rest of the group. Girls as young as 12 have used the group to fire themselves up and it has ensured that girls no longer feel as if they must stay silent about the pressures they are being put under and the stories they have to tell.
Jessica Ringrose is Professor of Sociology of Gender and Education, at the UCL Institute of Education. Rosa Tully is a 16-year-old sixth form student who started a feminist group at her London secondary school in 2013. The group has had up to 100 members spanning years 7-11.