Cheer the Exeter boys in skirts, but we'll have real progress when it's no longer news

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When I first learned that the boys of Exeter’s ISCA Academy were arriving to school wearing skirts, I couldn’t help wanting to cheer. Good for them! It’s about time someone tackled the blatant sexism of gendered dress codes head on.

There’s no reason at all why boys shouldn’t wear skirts, or dresses, or anything else arbitrarily coded as “feminine”. Make the most of it, lads! You have nothing to lose but your pockets!

And why stop there? If we’re serious about increasing equality between the sexes, it’s about time we challenged anything that needlessly exaggerates difference. Clothing might seem a trivial matter, but gendered dress codes reinforce much broader beliefs about how boys and girls should look, think, feel and behave.

The rule that states “a boy should not wear a skirt” sits alongside the one that states “a boy must not be vulnerable, passive or weak”. A boy must not, in other words, be like a girl, because girls are inferior (hence it’s not so controversial for a girl to wear trousers. For girls, wanting to be like a boy is seen as aspirational).

My delight at the Exeter schoolboys’ protest was of course tempered by the fact that theirs is not a protest in favour of gender neutrality per se. The boys aren’t actually fighting for the right to wear skirts, but wearing skirts in protest at not being permitted to wear shorts.

I have to admit to finding this a little disappointing. While I applaud their bravery in taking the teacher who told them to “wear a skirt” at her word, I do start to wonder whether this is a protest that still depends on the idea that girls less important and more trivial than boys. After all, the boys don’t really want to dress like girls on a daily basis; on the contrary, they’re using the sheer ridiculous of such an idea as a means to an end. It’s all a bit of a joke, but it’s one that risks coming at the expense of their female counterparts. It’s like arriving at school in clown shoes or a Donald Trump mask; it makes the point precisely because that’s not really the person you’d want to be.

I had similar concerns on reading of the French bus drivers who launched a skirt-wearingr protest in Nantes. Cheering them on feels like the liberal thing to do, yet there’s a problem with the idea that men who use skirt-wearing as a form of protest are courageously challenging gender norms on behalf of us all.

If we genuinely accept that there is nothing shameful, unnatural or undesirable about male people wanting to dress in a feminine manner, then surely we should encourage those who do so. But wearing a skirt to draw attention to yourself because you want something else – in this case, to wear a different type of “men’s” clothing – reinforces the idea that there is something not quite right about the skirt-wearing man. Just let him wear shorts and “normal” service can resume.

One of my own sons has worn a dress to school on more than one occasion, not as a form of protest, but simply because he wanted to. Admittedly these have always been on non-uniform days; on an average day his main nod to femininity is wearing his long blonde hair in a French braid.

I used to have parents asking me why I allowed  him to look the way he does or what I thought was “really behind it”; these days I’m more likely to get people telling me how cool or brave he is (when they’re not telling me how good he is at football “for a girl”). I find this change in attitude reassuring, although I worry whether things will change again when his body starts to look more obviously male. Will people still find it courageous if it’s neither a protest nor a childish phase, but just a male person who doesn’t consider “girl stuff” off-limits?

I wish the Exeter boys well in their protest. The head teacher at their school has said she would be “happy to consider” a change in the school’s uniform policy. My guess is this may be to allow boys to wear shorts, but let’s hope she goes a little further than that.

There’s nothing demeaning or ridiculous about being a boy who wears “girls’” clothes;  we’ll know we’ve made real progress the day it doesn’t make the news.

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