This is a guest post by Lucy Morgan. Lucy is the Gender Equality Officer at Newcastle University in England, where she is pursuing a degree in Literature. She is the Vice-President (formerly President) of the Newcastle Feminist Society. Her hobbies include drinking gin, sleeping around, and listening to Amy Winehouse. Find her on Twitter.
Girlhood is shaped through the pursuit of perfection. Perfection. A cruel, elusive ideal masquerading as the norm. In order to be normal, a girl must be perfect. She must keep up with the whirling, temperamental idea of perfection and bend over backwards to accommodate it. Clear skin, tight body, hairless, except for the hair on her head, which must be unique yet dazzling. Her skin color must be the correct shade of tan, her body must not jiggle when she runs, her make up must be immaculate yet not noticeable. A girl must be easy on the eye if she wishes to get by without a fuss. Any ‘imperfections’ must be elaborately masked in order to ease her transformation into an acceptable-looking girl.
Of course this is all totally fucking impossible. Puberty (cringe, I hate that word), comes along and bestows on teenage girls a number of obstacles in the way of Mission Impossible to planet perfect. Acne, greasy or oily skin, greasy hair, weight gain, stretch marks, etc. etc. are all very real things that young women experience as they attempt to get through the education system. And the education system massively fails them when it comes to fighting the damaging sexism that comes with the pursuit of perfection: it has done for centuries and continues to do so today.
What is this utter bullshit that is banning teenage girls from wearing skirts?! How is this even a debate? I remember being in primary school when they announced that young girls would finally be allowed to wear trousers; a few years later and we’re totally stuck with them. This policing of what young girls wear is indicative of a larger culture of shaming within schools. How many times did your sarcastic form tutor gleefully inform you that, “You’re here to learn, not do a fashion show!”? Yet instead of actually assisting you in your learning, they would spend ridiculous amounts of time handing out make up wipes to the ‘cakeface’ girls, berating tall girls for displaying their legs too obviously, and endless other activities that revolved around moderating girl’s appearances.
No one has ever explained to me just what it is that’s so erotic about legs. What bit about ‘the legs’ is inherently sexual? Is it because they’re assumed to lead up to a vagina? One, we shouldn’t be assuming people’s genitals or their gender anyway and two, so fucking what? We all know that genitals exist - legs aren’t exactly the subtle reminder that we need for that kind of knowledge.
Let’s also remember that it is common for such blatant sexism to come with a side of racism. Look at the case of the fifteen year old schoolgirl in France, recently sent home for wearing a skirt so long it signified ‘religious affiliation.’ Another example of an education system policing a woman through her clothes - in this case to punish her for being a Muslim too openly.
The enforcement of a ban on school skirts is also painfully limiting of gender expression and could be particularly harmful to transgender students. Although the rhetoric of skirt = girl and trousers = boy is binarily basic enough, the idea that everyone should wear trousers is also oppressive. Once again, schools should be a refuge from transphobic thinking and should be encouraging true gender expression in their pupils. However we’re still at the stage where to appear ‘male,’ wear a skirt to school, and avoid getting beaten up, you have to be Will Smith’s son. A beautiful protest against these harmful regulations was done in Brazil; where's the UK equivalent please?
With all the relentless fuss made over their legs, school girls would be forgiven for wondering, “Just what the fuck is up with my legs?”; “Why are my legs such an issue for everyone?”. And seeing as their place of education is the one causing this anxiety, they are unlikely to seek answers there. Instead, sadly, they’re going to look for answers in magazines, TV shows, music videos, etc. They are going to find out that their legs are actually called ‘pins’ and that they must be sculpted or toned in order to be acceptable. The magazines will also introduce them to ‘cellulite’ (a term literally invented by Glamour magazine) and helpfully point them in the direction of a £30 cream to fix it. The magazines will ‘circle of shame’ cankles, overhanging knee fat, touching thighs, stretch marks, etc. and suddenly the school girl realizes that her school was right all along: her legs are a multitude of problems that need fixing.
A recent study revealed that young people (in particular young girls) are developing eating disorders earlier and earlier in their lives - I’m talking girls as young as eight already on diets. Schools should be a voice of reason in these young people’s lives and create safe environments where pupils are encouraged to feel healthy. Instead they are joining in with the rest of the world by scrutinizing young girls and punishing them for not fitting their own ideal. One of the common impulses behind eating disorders is a desire to take control. To make up for the lack of control you have in your life, you place rigorous controls on your eating habits. Schools are only encouraging this mentality. Wearing makeup, short skirts, etc. may help young girls feel better about themselves, more comfortable. But so many schools are denying them that right. Instead they are snatching away school skirts, humiliatingly getting girls to remove their makeup in front of the class, and forcing them to appear the exact opposite of how society demands. No wonder young girls may feel out of control when placed in this situation. No wonder they try to regain control, in the saddest way possible, through the harm of their bodies. After all, their bodies are what caused all the fuss in the first place.
Young girls are being shamed into submission. With school rules battering them one way and the fiercely patriarchal media shoving them another, is it any wonder that eating disorders are on the rise? In both cases, it’s the same shaming tactics that are used, causing the same feeling of insecurity and low self-esteem in young girls who, by this point, have no place for free self expression, no escape from the endless scrutiny and, consequently, are less likely than their male peers to thrive comfortably in an educational environment. The time has come to remove the weight of shame from the backs of girls, already grappling with a terrifyingly unequal and demanding society. The strength of young girls as they navigate through a system where they are constantly having to change themselves to be accepted, where attaining ‘perfection' is seen as a doable and necessary thing, is incredible. They should never be made to feel ashamed; they should be applauded. It is the bully teachers and sexist education officials who should be hanging their heads in shame.