School uniforms do make life easier in the morning, since there's no bickering about matching tops and bottoms. But getting dressed in a school uniform that doesn't match a student's gender identity can be emotionally taxing on a child, or even just uncomfortable for girls who hate tights and skirts or boys who get itchy in ties. To fix this problem, one New Zealand school recently got rid of gendered uniforms altogether, which is a huge step for equality and makes total sense, if you think about it.
Dunedin North Intermediate School principal Heidi Hayward said that the girls started the whole shift. They complained that they had to wear skirts and had no pant option. So now the school just says there is no "boys" or "girls" uniform — there are simply a bunch of clothing items students can choose from, depending on what kind the they prefer. A boy can wear a kilt or skirt one day and pants the next, just like a girl can. (Sort of like in the real world.)
Hayward told The Guardian, "I would take offense to being told I had to wear a skirt to work every day because I am female, so this is about being responsive to the kids telling us we are perpetuating gender stereotypes, and what is going on in society at the moment." Gendered — or even discriminatory — uniforms can send a message to children early on about all the boxes that society might put them into later, which can, in turn, lead to bullying, anti-LGBTQ friendly environments, and emotional health issues for some kids. Plus, isn't it just better to let students feel comfortable in their own skin and the wool sweaters they have to sit in all day long?
Students are happy about the switch. One of the female students told The Guardian:
I found it sexist that girls were told to wear skirts or kilts, and boys got to wear shorts or trousers. It felt good that we now have choices. It is not really a big deal but it was about feeling comfortable, and we have that now.
Non-gendered uniforms aren't a revolutionary idea. Last year, all the state schools in the United Kingdom made a switch to "gender neutral" uniforms, too. The clothes themselves aren't exactly neutral, but the policy is. For example, the pants uniform still has to be worn with a tie, which some girls are choosing. So it's a "come as you are" culture, but "boys" and "girls" clothes are still the norm. But that could change one day.
Liana Richards, deputy head teacher at Uplands Community College, a state secondary in East Sussex explained to The Guardian last year:
It’s about recognizing the rights of students who feel they might not fit into the binary genders. It’s less of a big deal to the students than you might think. We haven’t seen that much difference yet, although some girls have made the conscious decision to wear the trousers uniform, which has to be worn with a tie.
The move is a good way to support LGBTQ kids and encourage them to be their authentic selves. So could gender neutral uniforms be coming to the United States soon, too?
Many private and public schools currently require uniforms here in the States, or have general dress codes — though a lot of them are pretty sexist. Whether it's shaming girls for wearing clothes that are too "distracting" for the boys (sleeveless shirts? Come on), or suspending boys for wearing dresses, it doesn't seem like American schools are ready to accept that gender is a social construct, in some small part built by gendered dress codes.
Still, if New Zealand and the United Kingdom have picked up on the trend, maybe the United States isn't too far behind. Here's hoping things change soon.