Twenty-five years ago, on one of my first days of high school, I found myself kneeling on cold, hard concrete.
Moments earlier my female classmates and I had been rounded up by staff members, both men and women, and told to drop our bare knees to the ground.
The staff filed up and down the rows of us like parishioners along pews, scrutinizing the length of our tartan skirts. My heart pounded the back of my throat. My eyes darted back and forth scanning the scene, doing the sums in my head as I watched girl after girl fail to measure up.
The boys, not necessary in this virtue-calculating exercise, carried on playing handball, chatting in their groups; not one of them witnessing what their female classmates were experiencing.
What I learned quickly from this experience is that people look at girls' bodies. That whatever it is that we are doing there is someone observing us, how we move through space and what clothes we cover ourselves in.
I have rebelled against this in tight boob tubes in dance clubs, internalized it in pant suits in job interviews, gobbled it and purged it into many toilet bowls. But the idea that people notice my body is present, ceaselessly in my consciousness every day.
Yesterday, I sat in a room of high school students deep in a group discussion about gender stereotypes and double standards.
A group of girls sat to my left, furrowed brows, leaning toward me in their seats. When the discussion broke for them to write, I saw them chatting intensely amongst themselves.
“What has come to mind for you in this chat?” I broke their hushed conversation.
They looked at each other for a few moments, from one to the other in a telepathic conversation, seeking each other’s permission.
“At our school it is compulsory for girls to wear skirts and dresses. We don’t have the choice to wear anything else,” one of them said. The others nodded in agreement.
An avalanche of teenage girl anger spilled out as they confessed their thoughts on how suppressed they felt every day. They said it was exhausting to have to always be hyper-aware of their bodies in public, in a space where they wanted to focus on learning.
My heart started to pound my throat again: but this time it was rage not fear.
How is it that this generation of young women are still subjected to the same backward beliefs that forced my classmates and I to our knees twenty-five years ago?
When we impose skirts on girls, we say that how they look is more important than how they learn. When we force them to wear dresses, we are reminding them that their value as people depends on how others see them.
Bullying girls into swallowing tired gender stereotypes says we are still failing to listen to and trust girls' experiences. As a community we are betraying them and their potential and condemning them to a life of accepting ‘look the part’, ‘cover up, show some respect’, ‘why don’t you smile more?’, 'prude', 'slut', 'butch', 'slob'.
I can’t believe I am saying this in 2021:
Give girls the choice.