by Brett Vaden
In “It’s 2016. Why are school uniforms gender-specific?”, a recent article posted on the Australian-based Special Broadcasting Service’s website, Nicola Heath argues that school children shouldn’t be forced to wear uniforms that limit them to a particular gender.
Heath says, “Dressing girls in skirts and boys in shorts sends a message to the children that the two are very different from one another – which in turn arguably contributes to the gender inequality that is evident in everything from the pay gap to the relatively small number of women who occupy board positions in Australia.”
Setting aside the dubiousness of Mrs. Heath’s unstated assumption—that by affirming that boys and girls are different we thereby devalue women—I’d like to challenge another assumption she makes later on in the article, where she argues that by making students wear certain uniforms, schools make it harder for students to decide who they are, that is, to choose their identity. In contrast to such schools, Heath applauds the example of Newtown Performing Arts High School, where students were allowed to change the school’s uniform policy, so that now “students of any gender identity can wear boys’ or girls’ uniforms.”
Before I get to the question of students’ identity and gender-specific uniforms, a simpler question to consider first is whether school teachers and administrators should enforce certain standards of dress at all.
I’ve taught in a private school that mandates uniforms and I’ve seen them used in public schools. My oldest daughter, now in first grade, wears a uniform to school every day. (Well, every day except for the class Christmas party.) Although I grew up in a public school system without uniforms, I think they are a wise choice for three reasons:
- They eliminate distractions, e.g., students concerned about what they or others look like.
- Uniforms ‘democratize’ the classroom, so that class and economic distinctions between students are minimized.
- They bypass complex dress codes; many schools are opting for uniforms just to avoid the headache of deciding on and enforcing what students can or cannot wear.
One more reason occurs to me in light of Heath’s article about gender and uniforms. For teenagers and children entering adolescence, obtaining a stable self-image and identity become salient and sometimes formidable challenges when, for the first time, they struggle to understand their place in the world. (This phenomenon may or may not be a peculiarly modern or Western problem.)
Of all the possible objects of value with which youth could identify themselves (e.g., family, country, race, occupation, religion), at the bottom of the list should be clothing, not because it is unimportant, but because its true purpose is not to bestow identity but to reflect it. Clothes aren’t supposed to define who a person is. When they do, we become slaves to fashion, lifting up our souls to a vapid and corruptible idol.
Uniformity in clothing can’t wholly vanquish the temptation to worship clothing, nor can policies on hair length, jewelry, or make-up expel all lures to showiness or vanity.
However, school uniforms can help children grow up with a little less distraction and noise amidst the myriad voices vying for their association, attachment, and allegiance.
But what about gender-specific uniforms? If uniformity in dress points students away from identifying with their clothes, wouldn’t gender-neutral uniforms likewise help kids avoid getting caught up in identifying with a certain gender?
Compared with one’s faith, gender is secondary, and it should no more become an idol than any other thing created by God or contrived by man. Uniforms can work against the push in our post-Victorian age to throw away modesty as prudery and give license to sexual exhibitionism and voyeurism. Modestly tailored uniforms, both gender-specific and gender-neutral, can alleviate these problems.
Yet gender differences—that is, as they correspond to the differences between the human male and female—should not be erased, nor treated merely as a preference to be decided by the individual (as in the case of the students at Newtown Performing Arts High School). Rather, gender should be acknowledged, while not being too highly exalted. Schools who choose to adopt gender-neutral uniforms (e.g., for the sake of comfort) should apply other policies to preserve gender differences. If we erase all distinctions, we forfeit the beauty and goodness of diversity. And beauty and goodness are, after all, qualities to which children should lift up their souls, not in idolatry, but in delight coram deo—in the presence of God.
What are your thoughts? Please share in the “comment” box below whether your students wear uniforms (or plan to) and what you consider to be their pros or cons.