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Why we should let all boys wear skirts to school

New uniform codes are spreading across schools to help transgender pupils. But if we want to be truly progressive, we should abolish segregated clothing altogether. 

As Paris Lees once wisely observed: “Sexism didn’t disappear when women started wearing trousers.” This is sad but true. Trousers, while a practical item of clothing, have not yet brought an end to sexual violence, reproductive coercion or the male appropriation of female labour and resources.

Depressing though this is, there is one glimmer of hope.  What if, argues Lees, men were allowed to “adopt feminine styles”? Perhaps that’s what’s been missing all along. It’s not that men benefit from male supremacy; they just haven’t discovered the joys of a nice tea dress or a fetching pair of kitten heels.

I am all for clothing equality. Being 5’1” with an ample chest, I never shop in menswear sections myself, but have always felt the strict divisions in terms of styles – in particular, the prohibition on men wearing skirts or dresses – to be arbitrary and wrong. It is a means of reinforcing the belief that the social and psychological differences between men and women are far greater than those between women and other women and men and other men.

While women, having fought for their trouser-wearing rights, are now permitted (in most countries, at least) to emulate the dress sense of the dominant class, for most men, “women’s clothing” remains off-limits. Even the comedian Eddie Izzard, who once said of his wardrobe “they’re not women’s clothes, they’re my clothes, I bought them”, has since backtracked, now describing himself as “somewhat boyish and somewhat girlish” (despite being 54).

When it comes to children’s clothing, the differences are even more stark and ridiculous. Apart from the obvious, the bodies of pre-pubescent boys and girls are not significantly different, so it is not as though shape and size can even be said to be a factor. But enter any children’s clothing department, and you will find the flowery pink-for-girls, rough-and-tumble blue-for-boys stereotyping impossible to avoid.

As Cordelia Fine, drawing on the work of sociologist Jo Paoletti, has noted, this is a relatively recent development:

“Until the end of the nineteenth century, even five-year-old children were being dressed in more-or-less unisex white dresses […] The introduction of coloured fabrics for young children’s clothing marked the beginning of the move towards our current pink-blue labelling of gender, but it took nearly half a century for the rules to settle into place.”

Fine points out that the change appears to have been, “in response to concerns that masculinity and femininity might not, after all, inevitably unfurl from deep biological roots”. It was not that children needed clothing that reflected a gendered inner self; on the contrary, clothing distinctions existed to create and enforce gender distinctions considered socially useful (for instance, by limiting the freedom of movement of girls).

“Today,” writes Fine, “the original intention behind the objective has been forgotten.” Indeed, if anything, the narrative has been turned on its head. In a convenient turn for any patriarch looking to promote theories of complementarianism, we are now told that the gendered self – dress-wearing and feminine, or trouser-wearing and boyish – was in the child all along. The only trouble is, occasionally we get distracted by genitalia and put a girl in trousers when really she should be in a dress.

The stereotypes themselves might support a gross, worldwide power imbalance (violent/caring, strong/weak, active/passive), yet we’re only meant to be concerned about whether each individual is dressed to match their “true” location within a hierarchy that cannot itself be questioned.

Take, for instance, the news that 80 state schools in the UK have introduced gender-neutral uniform policies allowing girls to wear trousers and boys to wear skirts. At first glance, this makes me want to cheer. As a mother of sons, the closest I’ve ever come to allowing my sons to queer their school clothes is putting one of them in dresses for discos.

The thought that my youngest, still four years away from reception, could decide whether he wanted skirts or trousers for school – or even opt for a mix – is exciting. Children’s ideas of what girls or boys are “allowed” to like become more rigid the more they are exposed to dominant social norms. To give them a true sense of fluidity, you need to catch ‘em young (yes, I am preaching the indoctrination of non-indoctrination – but it sort of makes sense to me).

But then you read the small print and find that actually, the new policies do not appear to be as revolutionary as they at first appear. “It is,” reports The Times, “part of a little-publicised government-funded drive for schools to be more sensitive to trans children who are questioning their gender identity.”

Alas, it seems adults are incapable of letting a boy wear a skirt for the sole reason that it’s just a sodding skirt. In the back of our minds we must be telling ourselves, “this is only in case he’s not a boy after all”. Otherwise all hell would break loose.

Boys might start to realise that – gasp! – they’re not in fact another, superior species. Girls might start to question leniency extended to male people who do not in fact look or act any differently to them. We’d have to stop spouting bollocks such as “boys will be boys” in order to justify all manner of dickish behaviour. Sod that. Far easier to stick with the perfectly logical, straightforward idea that boys don’t wear skirts, but some non-skirt-wearers might in fact be hidden skirt-wearers so they must be granted the space to experiment with skirt-wearing and thereafter apply formally for re-classification if and when appropriate.

According to Elly Barnes of Educate and Celebrate, currently offering diversity training to the designated schools, “you don’t get boys coming in to schools suddenly wearing skirts. But it just gives that space for it not to be an issue if there are trans kids.” In other words, don’t worry about it becoming acceptable for boys to wear skirts just because they feel like it. We’re simply making it easier to allow them to become designated non-boys should they wish to ditch the trousers.

It is astonishing that, given our knowledge of the severity of sexism and sexual harassment in schools, gender-neutral clothing is not being considered in the context of challenging misogyny. As one head teacher tells the Guardian, it is about children having “the right to express their own identity in a way that is most comfortable for them”.

In response to which one might ask whether the increasing number of girls who wear shorts under their skirts in an effort to avoid sexual assault are “expressing their own identity in a way that is most comfortable to them”. Is “not wanting to be treated as an object available for abuse” an identity? If we call such a style “non-binary gender presentation”, is that the problem solved? I can’t help feeling there’s more to it than that.

In a recent interview, Judith Butler argued that, “if gender is eradicated, so too is an important domain of pleasure for many people”. This is probably true. It is also something that is often said of religion. In neither case is this a validation of any fundamental truth, nor an adequate defence of the manifold abuses of power that both institutions facilitate.

Neither children nor adults should be subject to clothing segregation. School uniform regulations can be rewritten to disrupt the idea that it’s always “different for boys”. Unfortunately, however, this is already feeling like an opportunity lost.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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