Ever had that moment when your child decides to dress themselves completely inappropriately for some occasion? It happened to me when my daughter was three, and she put on what was essentially a ball gown for a park play date.
Once at the park, the ball gown became a nightmare. She kept tripping over it while running around, and when she tried to climb the spiderweb she would stand on her dress and come perilously close to toppling off the structure.
From that day on, I have dressed my daughter in shorts or pants when we are doing anything active. At a certain age, you figure out that particular clothing types are more appropriate for some activities than others. That’s why you don’t see an adult doing a workout in high heels, or children playing soccer in dresses.
What about the practicalities of school uniforms?
When my daughter enrolled at our local public school, I was dismayed to see that from Grade 1, she would be expected to wear a dress to school. How would she play at lunchtime in a dress? Wouldn’t she be cold in winter with just tights on her legs? When I raised these issues with the school, I was told that girls look nice in dresses and like to wear them. When I continued to resist and pressed for change, asking the school to add shorts and pants for girls, I was ostracised and silenced.
I remain perplexed by the school’s insistence that their female students, from five years old, must attend in dresses. What messages are we sending girls when we require them to wear dresses and skirts to school? Are we encouraging them to sit still and be passive? Are we prioritising tradition and gender norms over the needs of school girls? Largely we are, and it’s time we acknowledge that this needs to change.
Does the type of uniform matter?
Research shows that girls wearing dresses to school directly results in girls doing less physical activity.
In one Australian study in 2012, researchers used pedometers to record the number of steps undertaken by primary school girls and boys over a one-month period. For two weeks the students wore their formal uniform (dress for girls, shorts for boys), and for two weeks they wore their sports uniform (shorts for both genders). The results showed that only the girls’ physical activity levels were affected by the type of uniform they wore, with girls doing significantly less exercise when wearing a dress than when wearing the shorts.
In two recent Australian studies, 10 to 13-year-old school children were asked what factors they felt impacted on their ability to engage in lunchtime play. The girls reported that their uniform significantly restricted their ability to play at lunchtime (boys did not mention their uniform). The researchers highlighted that most girls acknowledged the restrictive nature of dresses and skirts, and felt that they would be more physically active if their clothing allowed it. In addition, the girls noted the gendered nature of the school uniform, which made it easier for boys to be active.
While girls are telling us that their uniform gets in the way of them being active, we also have data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics clearly showing that girls are significantly less physically active than boys, and that this inaction kicks in right around the time they start high school. Coincidentally, this is exactly when girls often move from a primary school that is likely to have allowed them to wear shorts (or skorts) and pants, to a high school that is likely not to.
Let common sense prevail
All of us know that if we want to be active, if we are going to run around and jump, twirl, skid and slide, we are going to be far more comfortable and far more capable in shorts or pants than in any other attire.
As the Federal government continues to pour taxpayer money into national education programs aimed at getting girls moving, including $7 million added to the Girls Make Your Move campaign this year, surely it is time we reconsider the most basic aspect of what allows us to be active – our clothing?
If you would like to support girls across the country have greater options in their everyday school uniform, visit the Girls’ Uniform Agenda Facebook page and website. There you will find resources you can use to add your voice to this fight, including by signing our petition.
This issue does not have to be complex, and with enough pressure from parents across the country, we can get this done. We know how to get girls playing more soccer at school, and it’s free; let them wear shorts and pants!