By: Bonne Leung
We’ve all seen the films — a group of young elitists leaving a shining white school laden with marble and adorned with Roman columns, hair flowing in the wind as they made their way down their steps in matching school uniform, the crest of their school upon their breast pockets, strutting towards some expensive car. Perhaps, once, you might have even wished you were them, wearing their navy blue blazers and shining leather shoes. But the truth is, in private educational institutions that are so often glorified on screen, rarely do students ever have the chance to be so liberal in how they present themselves.
In reality, uniforms come with strict policies that usually perpetuate often misogynistic and insensitive sentiments such as only having options for binary genders (skirts for girls and trousers for boys) or being more concerned about the length of a skirt than a case of bullying. School is one of the primary sources of social learning for children, especially as schooling starts at such a young age. Children should understand from a young age that the sex they were assigned at birth may not always be the same as what they present their gender identity as and that it’s normal to see a classmate they may think of as a boy to wear a dress or a girl to wear trousers. Enforcing strict uniform policies can lead to children having a binary sense of gender, which for some could lead to severe dysphoria and discomfort whilst growing up. Not to mention, children often have no regard for what they say and how it may affect others, which encourages them calling classmates that don’t conform to the binary genders they’re familiar with ‘gay’ or a ‘tomboy’ well into teenage years or even adulthood.
And let’s say that uniform policies were more flexible, that in a hypothetical situation, boys and girls both have access to whatever piece of uniform they wanted to wear and the environment they were in lacked the discriminatory situational factors. What of self-expression?
I attend a fairly diverse international private high school, which comes with a comparatively long uniform policy that essentially states that nothing should detract from ‘the image of school uniform’. Beyond the basic uniform rules, we are only allowed a maximum of two piercings per ear, one bracelet, one ring, no nail varnish and hair cannot be dyed an ‘unnatural colour’.
Most would argue that given the fact that students are already restricted in terms of what they can wear beyond what the uniform shop sells or the school permits, they should be allowed accessories at least as a form of self-expression.
But why is self-expression important? Well, self-expression is indicative of inner thoughts and personal identity. Imagine yourself as a canvas upon which myriads of colours mix and mingle together, creating a cacophony of colours that don’t quite make sense to anybody but you.
Because well, it is you.
You’re all of those colours mixed and poured into the vessel that is you, and since nobody can quite make sense of all of these colours, the only way you can outwardly express it would be through how you present yourself.
Be it brightly coloured hair or a preference of style, self-expression is important — certainly for young adolescents who have a hard time as it is trying to navigate the perplexing limbo of teenage years — because it encourages people to simply be.
Reducing it to just that makes it seem profoundly simple — because it is.
It’s so dumbfoundedly simple that it’s honestly the reason the whole notion of school uniform maintaining ‘school image’ or ‘disciplining’ students is somewhat asinine, to me at least.
Hair grows back; piercings can heal. Make-up isn’t anything less than art, save for the fact that its canvas and mediums are slightly different to that of conventional art, it truly is an art form, and with each stroke, it reveals a different part of the person wearing it.
I used my school as an example for what private institutions’ uniform policies are like, but truthfully, there is a lot more leniency — I feel, at least — in terms of how I can express myself. More often than not, teachers are willing to turn a blind eye to breaches, sometimes even compliment said breaches. But that isn't to say that there aren’t areas of improvements. As with all things, it’s never quite perfect. There’s still a culture of alienation when someone doesn’t conform to the norms of what is to be expected from a student. As a cis female student that is part of the ethnic majority at school, I can’t account for everybody’s experience, but improvements that my school could make could apply to others too: for example, accepting boys who would feel more like themselves in the girl’s uniform, eliminating insensitive comments, inclusivity for all ethnic groups and their forms of self-expression.
So no, uniform isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact, I enjoy my uniform. I roll out of bed, tug on a collared shirt and skirt and stick my head through a school sweatshirt and that’s me for the day. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that the way I express myself is widely accepted as a ‘social norm’ whereas others may not.
A school community with unconditional acceptance is a long ways away for many, but we can start here, simply, perhaps with a small rebellion taking the form of a third piercing in one ear.
We can start by allowing everyone to simply be.