While bodies are identified as being gendered and named according to binary notions–these processes effectively re/establish a regime of truth.
How do school uniform polices materialise student bodies differently (or not) in two neighbouring public schools systems in south eastern Australia: the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and the state of New South Wales (NSW)? In the Gender Matters research focus group interviews with young people (university students in NSW and senior secondary students in the ACT), school uniforms held significant material-discursive weight as instruments of binary gender imposition, physical restriction, body policing and control. This was particularly present for the NSW university students reflecting on their recent high school experiences. For the ACT year 11 and 12 students, who wear mufti in senior colleges, their experience of uniforms in years 7-10 public high schools seemed less strictly gendered. In NSW uniforms were categorised as either for girls or for boys. The girls’ uniforms were generally either a dress or skirt, with some schools including a pants and shorts option, and boys’ uniforms offering pants and shorts only. In recent years, a community campaign has successfully lobbied government education authorities to require pants options for girls in all states and territories. However, as Wolfe and Rasmussen argue (p. 184) while policies still categorise uniforms in binary gender terms as for ‘girls’ and for ‘boys’ they continue to reinscribe the binary as an unquestioned truth ‘that materializes some bodies at the expense of othered bodies’.
Education authorities in both jurisdictions mandate the wearing of school uniforms in public schools. What is the purpose of their uniform policies? The stated purpose in both the ACT and NSW policies seems to be the perceived benefits that will flow for students and their school communities from uniform wearing. Some of these – ‘defining an identity for the school within its community’ (ACT) and ‘creat[ing] a positive school identity for the school community’ (NSW) – feel like branding exercises of the neoliberal system of individual choice in which school uniform provides evidence of academic achievement and good citizenry. For students, the key benefits articulated are ‘a sense of belonging’ and ‘personal safety’. I wonder how compulsory uniform wearing, as a system of controlling bodies, produces belonging and safety? And for which student bodies?
In NSW school uniform policy, references to gender equity are scant and indirect. School uniforms ‘should take into account the diverse nature of a school's student population’ (1.5), ‘must comply with anti-discrimination legislation’ (1.8) and introduced in 2018 that ‘girls must have the option to wear shorts and pants’ (1.4). By contrast, the ACT’s Dress Standards and Uniforms in Public Schools policy specifies a suite of ACT and federal discrimination and human rights legislation that apply to the implementation of school uniforms (9.2), noting that the ACT Discrimination Act 1991 ‘prohibits schools treating students unfavourably on the basis of sex, gender identity, race, religious conviction, pregnancy, disability and other protected attributes’. The ACT policy was developed ‘in response to a 2014 survey that found Canberra parents are overwhelmingly in favour of seeing school uniforms in high schools’ adding the requirement that all ACT public schools (years K-10) develop a ‘formal style uniform option’ in addition to the more casual uniforms generally worn in public high schools. Senior colleges (years 11-12) in which students generally wear mufti everyday, were required to develop dress standards ‘which may or may not include a school uniform’.
Beyond the policy itself, the ACT has a number of implementation documents that specifically seek to undo the gendering of uniforms. Reading the opening paragraphs of the Fact Sheet for Schools Offering Students Equitable School Uniforms I felt a paradigmatic shift in the discourse. It states ‘uniforms should promote freedom of choice for all students by categorising options by clothing type rather than gender’. Uniforms are separated from gender, just like that – no longer about constraining and homogenising but about ‘freedom of choice’. The fact sheet also recognises the crucial role schools play in ‘promoting gender equality, challenging gender stereotypes and encouraging inclusive, respectful relationships’ and links this explicitly to school policy and practice. It highlights the capacity schools have to ‘function as agents of change in reducing gender inequality’ by ‘break[ing] down stereotypes that are limiting to boys and girls’ . Further, it specifically identifies the impact of constraining uniform choices for girls and young women that ‘limit their ability to participate equally in school activities’, and the ‘undue anxiety and stress’ young gender diverse people experience when uniforms are categorised in binary terms as belonging to ‘girls’ or ‘boys’. A direct connection is made between ‘student empowerment’ to ‘freely choose’ uniform items and reduced levels of anxiety.
State and territory education authorities develop umbrella uniform and dress code policies, but it’s up to each school and community to define its school uniform options policy. Recently, a few NSW schools have introduced gender neutral uniforms. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a movement away from binary gender restrictions.
My thinking about filmmaking as an affective, emergent mode of inquiry to explore experiences of gender in secondary school with young people through my doctoral research.