When my daughter was six years old, there was an issue in her year with boys lifting the girls’ skirts in the playground to look what lay underneath. Most parents dismissed it as typical hijinks. But I witnessed an increasing number of mums in my daughter’s class send their girls to school with cycling shorts under their dresses so the girls would be spared this indignity. In the end, I did it myself.
Around the same time, the offence of upskirting was enshrined in law and it got me thinking that the issue wasn’t really that girls needed to adapt their school uniform, but that all children needed educating on privacy and consent. By its lack of action, the school was indirectly instilling in boys the idea that it was perfectly acceptable to invade a girl’s privacy within the confines of the school playground, despite the fact that this was no longer acceptable in the eyes of the law.
I emailed the headteacher to alert him to the issue in my daughter’s class. He replied with a link to an M&S playsuit that they had decided to allow within the school uniform criteria. To me, it implied the issue wasn’t with addressing the behaviour of the boys; the responsibility lay with the girls to cover themselves up so as not to attract this unwanted attention.
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In the last few days, Simon Bailey, the UK’s leading police chief for child protection, has expressed support for primary schools to introduce “modesty shorts” for girls as young as four. He believes it is to protect them from predators who may be watching at the school gates, though I would suggest that schools know how to deal with those kinds of perverts using the police mechanisms they’ve always had. The “predator” that modesty shorts deal with is perhaps a little closer to home – the boys themselves.
Of course, I don’t wish to demonise boys – it is perfectly natural for children to have a curiosity about each other’s bodies – but what my experience and this latest statement highlight is the utter disservice we are doing to our boys, never mind the girls. At what point are schools planning on educating kids about consent and privacy? Are they going to allow them to ascend to secondary school with this sense that girls’ bodies exist for their curiosity alone? The fact that the police seem to back up this thinking is horrifying to me as a mother of a daughter.
There is a name for this kind of approach when it arises in adult scenarios. It is the name used when we question the choices of a young woman who’s attacked on her way home from a club – what was she wearing, why was she walking home at night? That name is victim blaming. Modesty shorts show we’re teaching children as young as six that it is the job of females to adapt their clothes, their behaviour, so as not to tempt the boys to behave badly. Surely that is the wrong way around?
This isn’t an isolated incident. I’ve heard anecdotally of one parent of a 12-year-old girl whose classmates have been asked not to wear knee-high socks because they are “too alluring” to boys. Knee-high socks are not alluring, they are part of a school uniform. It is not the fault of girls that the school uniform has been sexualised by the porn industry.
In my case, I resolved the issue by emailing my daughter’s headteacher again. If, I asked, there was a problem in the class with the boys having their trousers pulled down by girls, would parents be asked to put a belt on the boys? And if this were common behaviour among his teaching staff, would he be telling female teachers to wear trousers to work rather than skirts? He did not reply. And so, I removed my child and put her in a different school. There has not been an issue since.
Anna Wharton is the author of The Imposter. Out now.
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