Strict dress codes and uniforms are something that almost every Indian student has experienced in their school time. Every morning after the assembly, teachers and prefects stood at every nook and corner of our school ground, checking uniforms. The character and morality of a student were determined by the accuracy of their uniform. Defaulters were stopped and made to stand in a separate corner—made to feel they’ve committed a heinous crime. But was all this necessary? And how did the students feel about these dress codes?
A lot of women expressed that they felt sexualised by their teachers, in the name of following these absurd dress codes.
“I remember once, I was insulted in front of my whole class because my skirt was ‘too short’. My teacher blatantly accused me of trying to ‘entice’ or ‘arouse’ boys by wearing revealing clothes. She said, ‘Ladko ko akarshit karna chahti ho? Isi liye pehenti ho na itne chhote-chhote kapde?’ My skirt was only an inch or two above my knees, it wasn’t even that short,” said a student from a private school in Delhi.
The legs or thighs are not sexual body parts—sex is not their primary function. But in our schools, and our culture in general, they have been sexualised and seen as something that should be covered as much as possible. Some female students also talked about how their breasts and bras were offensive to the teachers (and society in general), and extremely sexualised.
“Just showing your bra strap is super sexualised. But guys wearing white shirts with vests is just like a normal day-to-day scenario. They are openly sexualising these girls and minors, putting their ideologies onto these people, even though they would be wearing a very thin cotton blouse which would show their entire bras and bellies in their sarees. And that’s okay and normal to them,” said a student.
Another college student mentioned how her school teachers made comments like, “the transparent shirt, your bra is showing, why don’t you wear a bra, too short a skirt, too short a kurta, wear an inner under your sports shirt because when you sweat your bra shows.”
“I was a heavy person when I was in school. I already felt insecure about my body because of my weight. Teachers added to the problem. At several times, teachers would take me outside the classroom, and tell me to wear a ‘better bra’ because my breasts moved too much and that would attract a lot of attention from boys. I was extremely conscious,” another student pointed out.
One of the four conditions to define Sexualisation by the American Psychological Association (APA), is when sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person. This practice of commenting on someone else’s body, and deciding whether they intended to be “sexy” or not, falls right into that. The students are minors, to add to the reasons why such comments made by teachers can be problematic.
Dress codes and Uniforms take away a student’s individuality, some students felt.
“They are just putting you in a box of notions that they expect to be ‘good virtues.’ Because the moment you end up wearing a neon hair tie or different shoes like sports shoes (that are so much more comfortable), you are showing your individuality to a certain degree, and that is something that they could never accept,” said a student.
“I believe, at least in private schools of Delhi, the dress codes affect more or less affect both sexes. Two pigtails for girls, military cut for guys, it just takes away our individuality. You can still wear uniforms without these lame policies.”
Teachers spend a lot of time and energy policing the students about these dress codes. Even small changes like making a different hairstyle is seen as a problem. This does create a toxic environment for students with such strict rules where they cannot practice even a little bit of individuality.
Uniforms are made differently for girls and boys.
“Schools making girls wear suits as uniform rather than skirt & shirt while boys enjoy wearing half pants in the hot summer,” expressed a student who felt it was absurd that male students had western uniforms while girls had Indian uniforms in her school.
“While wearing a skirt I had to keep my knees together, sit properly, and so on. I feel suits are incredibly uncomfortable to wear in summers and are deliberately made to be super ugly to desexualise girls and women. Boys uniform is so much more practical and I’m okay with skirts as long as you get to choose pants also,” said another student.
It is a very common scenario in schools where the girl’s uniform includes salwar and suit while the boy’s uniform is pants and shirt. This is problematic because schools should keep both uniforms from the same culture. If girls are given Indian uniforms, boys should also be given kurta-pyjama as uniform, or both the uniforms should be western. This discrepancy is absurd and unethical because Indian women have been shamed in the Indian society in past for choosing to wear western clothes. Giving Indian uniforms only to girls supports the idea that wearing western clothes is morally wrong and unvirtuous for women.
The dress codes are also strictly made for fixed gender identities.
The school uniforms are strictly made according to the two cis-gender identities and they fail to identify and accept other genders. Every student, regardless of their gender identities, has to wear uniforms according to their sex.
“Girls are made to wear skirts (which is okay) but the problem is that you cannot opt out of it and choose to wear pants,” said a student.
“Skirts for girls and pants for boys, that is the fixed rule. But what if I, as a girl wanted to wear pants? What if any of my male peers did not want to dress as a cis-gender male, which was the norm, and dress up like a girl instead, wearing skirts?”
These uniforms are not LGBTQIA+ aware. Understandably, uniforms can create an environment of discipline in schools. But should they be so fixed that students cannot express their individuality freely?
Uniforms are only a part of our schooling experience, but they affect us a lot. Such moral policing in the form of dress codes can also negatively affect the mental health of students. And making it a measure of how capable, virtuous or morally correct a student is not appropriate. If we need to make our education system more flexible, the dress codes and uniforms need a change too. While it is unlikely that Indian schools would completely do away with uniforms, it is still possible to make small changes that could make the schooling environment less toxic and strict. Besides, the teacher’s perspective towards uniforms should change too.