'You can't wear that!': Street Harassment, Victim-Blaming, And Policing Girls' Uniforms
Original post by Amy Blain, 12/23/2020, Girls Uniform Agenda
What are we teaching girls when we insist on them wearing skirts and dresses to school? What are we telling girls when we make them have their hemlines measured, or when we stop them from hanging on the monkey bars, from sitting cross legged, from kicking a footie? We’re telling them that how they look matters. More than that, we’re telling them that the way they can move, act, and simply be in the world, is secondary to the way they are dressed. We’re telling them that others can, and should, judge them for how they wear a skirt, that this affects whether they are a “good girl” or a “bad” one – and that they have no right to complain about it.
By now, it would seem that there is enough discussion around gender-based harm for it to start being taken seriously. There is a growing awareness of the impact of gender-based violence on young women and girls in particular, and the need to address toxic masculinities at a young age. Children and adolescents are being encouraged to pursue empowering, healthy gender identities through programs like Respectful Relationships, now being rolled out in all levels of schooling, alongside various initiatives to empower girls to pursue male-dominated areas like STEM. Even more traditional Disney is getting on board with its increasingly common “strong, independent woman” character representations, suggesting girls are increasingly encouraged to be assertive, and to live life on their own terms.
Except, they’re not. Because as soon as the “consent” class is over, girls are told to line up against the wall for a compulsory hemline inspection they have no say in. They are told off for “showing” their undies when they’re just trying to play, for presenting their bodies “inappropriately”, wearing their skirt “like a belt”, or wearing extra clothes because they’re self-conscious (we wonder why). Because they are told, “girls can do anything” – as long as it’s lady-like. “Girls can be anything”, except comfortable in their own clothes and bodies.
BOTH STREET HARASSMENT, AND GIRLS’ UNIFORM RESTRICTIONS, ARE HIGHLY NORMALISED MODES OF POLICING GIRLS’ AND WOMEN’S BODIES TO LIMIT THEIR FREEDOM. BOTH ARE GENDER-BASED FORMS OF HARM, WHICH ENABLE OTHER SERIOUS FORMS OF VIOLENCE, CONTROL, AND ABUSE TO CONTINUE.
When a school shames a girl for presenting her body the ‘wrong’ way, everyone—no matter their gender—learns that her body is there to be judged; that her personhood comes second. That it is her responsibility to appear ‘modest’, to hide her body, and to prevent others from sexualising her. So when boys and men catcall or perpetrate street harassment, (for perpetrators are overwhelmingly male) they will say it’s because she’s “provoked” them; because she looked or dressed a certain way.
In policing girls’ clothing, we are conditioning them to accept, even expect, others to pass judgment on their clothes, and their bodies. To understand that if they are “called out” for their uniform, it’s their fault because their skirt is too short. What this translates to, is the understanding that it’s their fault if they are catcalled, harassed on the street, or worse. By demanding that they look ‘modest’, especially as they navigate public spaces, schools tell girls that what they look like matters more than anything they say or do; that girls are responsible for their objectification, rather than the male perpetrators who go largely unmentioned. In other words, we’re teaching them victim-blaming, with a side of body shaming, all rolled into one.
This is particularly devastating given that the vast majority of girls first start experiencing street harassment while they are of school age, often while wearing school uniforms. At a time when they most need support, open dialogue, and the language to understand new experiences, school cultures provide nothing of the sort. Beyond some level of discussion around “gender stereotypes”, school culture’s aversion to anything related to sexuality (beyond the basics of hetero sex itself) totally robs girls of the language they need to understand, discuss, and empower themselves to deal with experiences of sexualization and objectification. Likewise, it renders boys totally unable to analyse their own or their peers’ behaviour. That’s not even getting into the complexities and marginalisation of gender-diverse people in school environments.
We know it doesn’t matter what girls are wearing – they will ‘get attention’ by simply existing in public from boys and men that feel more entitled to the space they take up. We know victim-blaming isn’t just wrong; it’s nonsensical. But where is this discussion in schools, where we need it most? The richness of the anti-street harassment movement, of the #MeToo, body positivity, and broader feminist, intersectional, LGBTQIA* movements, is there waiting for them; so why isn’t this vulnerable age group being directed into these loving and supportive spaces?
This, right here, is the reason why the connection between It’s Not a Compliment (INAC) and Girls’ Uniform Agenda (GUA) is so important. Both street harassment, and girls’ uniform restrictions, are highly normalised modes of policing girls’ and women’s bodies to limit their freedom. Both are gender-based forms of harm, which enable other serious forms of violence, control, and abuse to continue. The mindset that it is the job of women and girls to prevent their own objectification, manifests in both the demand for girls to wear “appropriate” uniforms, and the assumption that women who are catcalled must have been “asking for it”.
By connecting the dots, and calling out overarching systems of gender-based harm, we can help young people of all genders to recognise this sexist, victim-blaming mentality for what it is. We can make sure they identify it from a young age, rather than getting the message that some forms of gender-based harm are OK, or “normal”. We can support girls through their first terrifying, bewildering experience of being catcalled, or being shouted at by guys in a slow-moving car, or being leered at on a bus, by giving them a space of safety and solidarity. By acknowledging them and giving them the language to make sense of their experiences in a time of their lives when all of this is still so new.
If schools modelled a world where girls were seen equally to boys and for more than just their appearance, maybe we could be closer to gender equality in the outside world too. We could get people of all genders to reflect on how, just maybe, “sexism” or “gender inequality” isn’t something that exists in theory; it thrives and is perpetuated in our everyday lives. It is the way we experience each day walking down the street, or each year in the schoolyard. It is the way we experience our lives. And even if schools are not yet up to teaching such feminist critical thinking, children and adolescents should at least have the chance to not be indoctrinated into an oppressive ideology they didn’t choose. They should have the space to discuss these issues of gender-based violence, to learn, grow, and maybe try to change them.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what uniform they choose to wear; if it’s shorts or a dress; long or short. It’s about the freedom to make a choice, and having it be their own. It’s about changing the narrative so that girls know that they have the right to navigate the world in the same way as boys and men. That unsolicited comments about their appearance – the cat-calling and street harassment – are not compliments.