I’ve been waiting for the media to respond to the recent school uniform hysteria with Henderson High School’s unfortunate justification for the enforcement of knee length skirts. I was interested to read a response today and while it touched on some of the issues I was going to raise I became more interested in the comments from the public. It fell into a predictable pattern of ideas about sexual differences between males and females based on their physiological materiality, notions of responsibility and choice as a result of the inevitable outcomes of ‘natural’ male desire and the role of schools to police young bodies in order to mute or eliminate this contamination of learning environments. I have four challenges or provocation to put forward:
First a reality check – all teenager are sexual beings. Schools need to accept that cladding bodies in a uniform will not prevent young people seeing each other in these ways, they will be attracted to each other, and it won’t just be opposites attracting. Sexuality is always present, not at a particular year level, not when certain body parts develop, its part of being a human – even in accounting.
Second – schools emphasise sexual difference through clothing deemed appropriate for males and females. If schools are serious about de-sexualising young people as best they can they would all be in long pants or long skirts – or skirt like attire. There is also the issue of female bodies and breasts – will a school dare to say over a certain size they must be bound or that an over garment will be shapeless and baggy like a sheet. But we might not be able to stop there because people find lips, necks and hair sexual – so we might need to cover them as well (hang on – I have a familiar image entering my head).
Third (and perhaps my most provocative point) – of course teens are experimenting and taking risks sexually and experiencing desire with their bodies. Figuring out sexuality however doesn’t begin and end at high school. High school are places where lot of sexual beings exist, including adults – and some teachers are barely out of high school themselves. Schools and teacher training institute need to be more proactive in talking about the very real phenomenon of teacher-student attraction without fear of it dissolving into a moral panic. Our shame about sex and sexuality in general as well as the real power imbalances between adults and young people should be more open to discussion. However I fear we’d rather maintain the institutional paranoia around sex that maintains silence and gendered assumptions which make the teaching environment a vulnerable space particularly for male teachers who’s interactions and behaviour will always be under scrutiny for ‘inappropriate’ interactions.
Finally. Rape is a violation – a violation of respect and is often an act of extreme violence with traumatic outcomes for survivors. But we need to stop linking uncontrollable sexual desire in men and the sexual provocation of women to some predetermined natural outcome of sexual difference that rape is part of. It enables and maintains justification of date rape, sexual conquest a a right of passage and a ‘scoring’ of masculinity points. While sexual difference has largely focussed on male desire, female desire and sexuality has largely been ignored or misrepresented. Finding out more about how male and female bodies are similar in spite of the more obvious differences will not stop rape but might begin to open space for challenging the assumptions that support rape as a natural outcome of sexual difference.
It is time to stop skirting around the bigger questions and for educators to boldly step into a genuine critique of the purpose of uniforms and what ides schools hang onto in order to justify their continual gender normative policing.
A couple of weeks back, I left a meeting and was called back to be politely told ‘you can’t wear jandals anymore at work under the new health and safety regulations – have you got sandals’? The irony of the meeting being about uniform mingled with confusion but I answered in the affirmative. Flip flopping my way back to my office in my very flash, Havaianas that I had especially brought to go with my new summer wardrobe I wondered about these new Health and Safety Regulations.
So I searched, and I put in the word jandals, I searched under footwear, I scoured documents for any reference to the hazards of sitting in my office with my toenails painted chrome to match the metallic look of my straps. A counsellors office doesn’t usually have hazardous chemicals, chisels, or hot glue guns. I understand there are some work environments where open toed footwear doesn’t cut it. I worked in a foundry for 4 summers as a student and accepted the need to wear steel capped boots in February. But I’m very happy for someone to point me in the right direction with the new legislation.
Then it dawned on me. The jandal is one of the few forms of gender neutral footwear out there. The idea that somehow my equally flimsy sandals might offer more ‘protection’ doesn’t wash. But they do look more ‘feminine’. Looking around at the large array of high heels worn hiking up and down stairs, in wet slippery corridors, I have to wonder how much safer they are. I know I am not safe to drive heels but they are apparently safe. They safely define feminine and give a clear coded sense of ‘professional dress’.
I am quietly cynical about this latest attempt to manage my footwear in the name of my health and well-being but quite frankly it seems like a back handed way of bringing in a professional standard of dress and one that pushes for a more coded form of gender. It will be interesting to see what happens on school camps. I know how painful it is kicking a tent peg in jandals. I hope there can be some transparency about it if indeed it is the case, up front and honest rather than half buried in rhetoric trip over.
Tuesday I will be at the first health and safety meeting of the year so will pitch some of these questions to the committee. Maybe I’ll wear knee high doc martins to be on the safe side.
Riding into work I was greeted by the sight of our park like grounds draped in toilet paper. Windows painted and classrooms set up outside. A grin spontaneously erupted onto my face as a bunch of students scooted towards me in ‘boys’ uniforms. A BMX lay beside the hall (Redline…very nice) and bodies ran and moved freely. But this wasn’t the norm, far from it and yet it was so natural and joyous. The energy and vitality was a welcome contrast to the digital zombies I often see in the morning.
It’s now known as ‘prank day’ but for some reason it seemed more like an ordinary school day, or perhaps what could easily pass for ordinary in other places (minus the tree decorations and occasional water gun). The gender blurring of seeing bodies in shorts and racing around on wheels toyed with the ‘girls school’ image, it enabled freedom of movement to express physicality. The pranking gave gender a well deserved spanking.
Here’s the thing, school uniforms can police gender. If there are no other options other than skirts or culottes then femininity is enforced. I’m occasionally tempted (in my dark sardonic moments – of which there are many) to ask the question ‘why not go the extra step and mandate long hair’. If masculinity in some schools is regulated by hair length, then surely in keeping with ‘uniformity’ of gender girls must maintain long hair.
Its wheels day again tomorrow and I might just have to bust out some moves on a unicycle or borrow a skate board. Gotta make ‘hey-watch out’ while the shun shines on gender-correctness.
Standing on the river bank watching the inky black pool break and run free. I throw a stick in and the child with me throws one in as well. We watch them float down then spin out of the current. A perplexed look crosses her face, a wondering and an opportunity to play and learn – current affairs. We throw more sticks and observe them, describing what is happening nothing more. An urge to up the stakes and race, but what to do when that pesky eddy throws a reverse current into the mix. Stones enter the picture, there are plenty to choose from. But where to throw? How big? More experimentation and my young apprentice catches on quick. Making waves and calmly enjoying the rush of success. Wet feet and cold hands our reward and some hydrology terminology experienced.
Later a mountain of dirt in a field and some tame ducks with a dog who’s instinct to herd everything boarders on OCD. Two of them scramble up negotiating feathered and furry friends. Clumps of soil are picked up and hurled backwards and forwards like snow balls. Shouts and protests make way for tentative rules with animals being completely off limits. The sods are flying and the faces smiling as they quickly weigh up the line between dusting yourself off and mud in your eye. No-one is crying and the ducks seek shelter behind the scrambling legs and flailing arms. The dog is relentless. Friendships blossoming between all creatures. It’s messy and chaotic, perfect.
Gumboots discarded, they just fill up and slow you down another lesson in mass and inertia. Running free and feeling the earth beneath feet. Resting finally in a drain to pick watercress. This is how I remember learning and how I always wanted to teach.
Now forget the back in my day we all wore shorts and t-shirts in the middle of winter and sandals when it was snowing, ate dry bread and rotten milk and were grateful speech. Puffer jackets are warm and toasty little numbers. They are also wind breakers and water proof and pack down so don’t take up space. But they are generally not school uniform. I’m well aware of the tedious and protracted consultation that goes on for schools to agree to a uniform. A part of me is very curious to see just how many schools manage to grasp the concept of gender neutral (shhhhh there is no such thing! Just a version that is not feminine really). But that has nothing to do with conundrums about keeping warm. Are puffer jackets just a fashion statement? Well to some they might be but they are kind of practical if you are living in places that rarely get into double didgits in the winter. I can’t wear puffer jackets – they have the effect of making me look like Mr Stay Puff the marshmallow guy from Ghost Busters (maybe less angry and apocalyptic). I prefer my warmth to come from layers close to my skin, but that is just my preference. Why schools are not willing to roll with more than one or two options for warmth says more about the need for uniformity that is created with uniform, it’s not multiform or unique-form (mufti). So Motueka High and any other school trying to beat down the down. Don’t sweat it – toasty teens are less likely to seek body heat from each other. So if you want to reduce teen pregnancies, let them wear puffer jackets. And if they want to share jackets it needs to be consensual.
I’ve been thinking about who comes and goes in our lives. What ‘sticking around’ looks and feels like. I suppose I’m exploring my own understanding of what draws me toward or away from things in life. I’m also interested in what generates movements and momentum in groups or how ideas gather support, take shape and gather energy and become dominant forces – not necessarily for any particular purpose but nevertheless have social and cultural effects. I was pondering this while riding to work and realised cycling was the perfect analogy (no surprises wheelie). So here’s a wee story/narrative, let’s go for a little spin.
I’ve never really been one for staying with the pack. Going it alone is fine and I generally prefer to ride on my own. It can at times feel a little vulnerable and lonely but I’ve found ways to feel the presence of others or to become part of the wider world while travelling or training. Riding in packs gives a sense of power and presence on the road. People in cars tend to notice a big group – even if they don’t like it – it’s hard to ignore. Being in the pack affords you space so long as you play by the rules. But you can also conserve energy and stay hidden, it’s easy and being swept along without a thought of where and why we are. But it can become a trap of comfortable unconsciousness. The question is then do I want to be here and how do I get out? Getting out of a pack depends a bit on where you are located and who is around you. Sometimes it’s as small gap, a change of pace, and a signalling to others around you. Going too quickly or with sudden moves isn’t always the best even if you desperately need out. Moving to the edges or finding a break through point becomes easier if others come with you. Once free it can be a bit of a shock as the wind hits and your awareness of how closed in it had been becomes obvious. But you can also see more, and have the ability to swerve and deviate from the line and not risk pissing someone off or taking others down.
Making a break on your own is tough, but sometimes necessary and others might chase and join. Then you could be caught but a big bunch. Riding with people that want to ride at a different pace or cover different territory could see you take different routes but meet up at a later point having arrived but having very contrasting experiences. Sometimes people drop off the back, you want them to stay with you and to keep up but they just aren’t able to. There could be a chance for them to catch up on the downhill but keeping up your own momentum is also important. Packs are not inherently bad in fact, it’s fun to join the back of one from time to time but I like to know that I am still travelling somewhere I want to go. But beware of large packs and mass movements. Just because they are moving fast doesn’t mean they are going in your preferred direction. They create lots of pull, and seem to move with purpose but they don’t necessarily care about sharing space with others. In fact some packs can blow right through other smaller ones fragmenting and disorienting those riders without stopping to look over their shoulder.
I like riding out of my comfort zone, with people willing to get a bit lost, but know how to read a map and navigate. Get off the beaten track and explore some back roads from time to time. Just so long as there is coffee somewhere along the way, otherwise I will pack a sad.
Animals don’t wear clothes, we are the only animals who have constructed such intense meanings around the coverings we wear. All animals excrete (actually so do plants, not sure about rocks and minerals) and we also have insane rules over who can excrete where and how. I’m a bit perplexed at the responses to the new guidelines around sexuality education and the insistence that unless we have separate bathrooms and gendered uniforms in schools young people will enter the ‘real world’ confused and unable to know how to conform and play by the (gendered) rules of life.
But I’ve been beaten to it by Philip Patston, his blog is well worth reading. The issue for me is when do we say ‘woops let’s leave those assumptions in the past’. I think gender is screaming out for a need to move on, or an extreme make over. Something like the androgynous 80’s but without the shoulder pads! Schools as social institutions have been shaping young minds and bodies, beating any resistance into shape by shoving young people into set uniforms, and other rules designed to identify them clearly for a particular gendered role in society. I’m not going to run through the tired justifications for uniforms particularly the myth that they create some ‘fairness’ or sense of ‘equality’ or ‘school pride’. However schools are more like brands these days – and parents as ‘consumers’ rate brands according to criteria perceived as valuable. Uniforms are part of the branding.
Toilets however are part of life. We have actually divided the world by excretory plumbling specs – mainly how our kidneys expel waste. How weird is that? I love the ridiculous paranoid rantings of the likes of Bob McCoskrie, the hand wringing over students playing for one team one day and another the next because they can’t decide what gender they are is laughable. Actually, it would be a question of reliability and commitment Bob – absolutely it is about picking a team because the wrath of the ditched players due to someones fluid identity would not be worth bringing upon yourself.