In a sign of the times, an East Sussex school announced that for the new 2017 term, all Year 7 uniforms would be gender neutral. No reason was given for why only the Year 7 pupils were required to dress this way. So no skirts, no blouses, no embellishments – just plain grey with white shirts. The move was broadly welcomed as embracing diversity, including praise from Mermaids UK, a charity which supports transgender children and their parents.
But not everyone was thrilled. More than one parent commented that their daughters were perfectly comfortable being female and liked wearing a skirt. And inevitably, various newspapers like The Guardian raised interesting questions about the feasibility of respecting gender neutrality by only changing the way a child dresses.
For example, by enforcing a trousers-only rule, the school could be said to be enforcing a male-only dress code, since boys have always dressed in trousers. Wouldn’t it have been more radically progressive, The Guardian suggests, to actively encourage boys to wear a skirt?
And then there’s the really thorny issue of girls in skirts. Are girls being objectified in the misguided attempt to make everyone feel comfortable? What’s wrong with a girl wanting to dress traditionally in a blouse and skirt? Wouldn’t it just be simpler to do what another East Sussex school did last year, and simply allow boys and girls to dress in either trousers or skirts?
But as research shows, it’s not nature that decides the wish to dress this way or that. It’s all about our upbringing and personal values. It’s about what our society decides is acceptable.
We’ve obviously got a long way to go in accommodating all these changes into our lives. But as we go along, the good news is that we’re increasingly willing to be open to the needs, wants and opinions of our children. They genuinely are leading the way forward, and surely that must be a positive thing in the long run.