I should start by making it clear that I am very, very tired. Honestly, it’s all I can do to get through a car journey without nodding off, even if I’m the one driving. So I couldn’t understand why, when I’d resettled my toddler to sleep in the middle of the night, I was still awake an hour later, watching shadows on the ceiling and feeling very little like sleeping.
I lay there, alert and motionless, trying to identify the emotion. Worry? Fear? Sadness? Ah, no, hold on a minute … this is anger. Pure, boiling rage, keeping me primed for a fight and unable to relax into the sleep I can’t really afford to miss out on. I had hoped that naming it might take the sting out, but no, there was nothing to do except to head downstairs to my laptop and go into battle, using my preferred weapon: words.
The whole thing had started with someone else’s words. My three daughters’ primary school sends an email to parents once a week, a mixture of admin (don’t forget to dress in spots next week! Send in money for the pantomime trip!) and celebration (photos of smiling children who have won races or built models of medieval houses). Tucked in among all this, a few days previously, was the sentence that was keeping me awake: “We would like to suggest that the girls wear a form of cycling shorts under their dresses to protect their modesty during outdoor play.”
When I read it, my immediate reaction was horrified refusal, immediately followed by worry that this conscientious objection meant I was some kind of degenerate with no social graces and insufficient interest in my children’s wellbeing. I ran the whole thing by a few friends, and they shared my instinctive horror at the prospect of being obliged to teach my daughters that their underwear is obscene. Several of them had their own stories of similar goings-on in other schools.
Encouraged by their reaction, I replied with a gentle query, asking the headteacher to clarify the meaning of the word “modesty” in the context of children aged from four to ten years old, and wondering from what, exactly, this mysterious quality was being protected. Her reply was cheerful and evasive: “in the instance of underwear,” she explained, children doing normal school things like sitting on the floor or playing outside was “an issue,” and, again, all the girls must do this peculiar thing called “maintaining their modesty."
I felt fobbed off, ignored, and underestimated, and those feelings went off by themselves and worked up some kind of 3 a.m. fury without asking my permission.
So in the middle of the night I wrote another email. I was nice, of course. You don’t get brought up as a girl without learning to be nice to people when you feel like punching them, and I talked honestly about how I was happy with the school and almost everything else about it, and how I was only asking for an explanation because I had some questions to which I couldn’t find any reasonable answers.
First of all, I asked them to have the courage to say in so many words that the school does not wish girls’ knickers to be seen by others. If that is the rule, then at least I can tell it to my children in words that will make sense to them, without resorting to squeamish evasions about “modesty.”
Two, I needed a rationale. What, exactly, is the problem with my daughters’ knickers? If there is something about the color or cut that causes embarrassment, maybe we could replace them with an alternative (I would cheerfully throw out my youngest daughter’s favourite garish yellow Dora the Explorer underwear if that would help). Or maybe it’s the single layer of fabric between their bottoms and the outside world. Maybe young girls’ genitals need double-bagging, like purchases from the supermarket meat counter. In which case, what should I suggest they do during school swimming lessons, when any passing observer is undefended against a clear view of their single-bagged vulvas? Maybe the mere act of revealing underwear while dressed is inherently sexy, like a glimpse of bra strap, although I’m troubled by the idea of applying this to prepubescent children. Maybe the minor overheating and increased vulnerability to urinary tract infections is only designed to make them feel uncomfortably aware of their bodies, of their femaleness. That is, after all, essential preparation for womanhood.
I questioned the headteacher’s assertion that this was being done to spare the other children from discomfort and embarrassment, as I suspected that the majority of the four- to 11-year-olds in the school were either indifferent to displays of underwear or found it hilarious, as most young children do (much of their humor in those early years being along the lines of “Wee! Bum! Fart!”). Yes, the oldest children may be in the early stages of puberty, and might well be more conscious of their own and others’ bodies having something to do with sex, which can be an unsettling new idea. Here’s the thing: I’d be delighted for the teachers to address this with the older children, to make space for open discussions about new emotions and thoughts that they might be experiencing. But to make the younger children responsible for not triggering those thoughts is both inappropriate and absurd, as if all the complexity of beginning to develop sexual awareness could be addressed by never seeing little girls doing handstands.
The reason the original email had pushed my buttons so spectacularly was that it seemed to encapsulate a number of lessons I am constantly trying to prevent my daughters from learning, despite wider society’s best efforts. Whatever you are doing, sports or work or politics, don’t do it with your whole self but waste some energy on caring how you look to others while you’re doing it. There is a narrow range within which your appearance is acceptable: wear skirts but don’t show your underwear, wear make-up but not too much, look sexy but not slutty, take pride but don’t be vain. Your body is a problem, for you and for others: it is troublesome and upsetting, and you need to work hard to conceal, disguise and contain it.
And finally, that classic rule of womanhood: other people’s reactions to your appearance are your responsibility, so it is up to you to conform exactly to what they find acceptable for a good girl, and if you step outside of that then any consequences are, of course, all your own fault. What did you expect, dressed like that?
I felt a little ridiculous, responding to a simple request with a lecture on sociology. Three harmless little pairs of shorts could have saved me all this unpleasantness. But my experience is that the restrictions on girls’ lives do not generally arrive in the form of dramatic events, but in the accumulation of thousands upon thousands of everyday interactions that teach them to know their place. I could let this one go, and the next one, and the next one, each of them a tiny abrasion of my daughters’ confidence and self-determination, and I could look up one day to see my children whittled down into featureless replicas of the type of girl that the world would like them to be.
I didn’t send the email at 3 a.m., of course. If you want someone to dismiss your argument as the ravings of a lunatic, sending them a long-winded message at a time when sensible people are sleeping certainly gives them a comfortable start with that. I went back to bed and slept, ran the email past a few less tired people the next morning, then pressed send during normal office hours. And then: nothing. No response, no mention of it, nothing at all.
I explained the situation as fully as I could to my daughters: the school’s request, my concerns about it, and my opinion that, within the bounds of the school rules, the decision about what to wear is theirs. My four-year-old is cheerfully indifferent to others’ disapproval in any form, and continues to turn upside down in summer dresses whenever the urge takes her. My eight-year-old, who worries about fitting in, wanted to be the same as her friends so asked for some shorts to wear under her dresses. My oldest, as always when she is given a choice between two things, created a third option: she asked for some sturdy shorts from the boys’ section of the shop, which she now wears instead of skirts.
As for me, the rage is still there. Every so often a little bubble of it blips to the surface, and I wonder briefly about chasing up that email. Something cheerful and breezy: “Hi, just wondering if you’d had a chance to think about my cold and relentless onslaught of middle-of-the-night rage that you’ve been deliberately ignoring for six months rather than admit you have no logical argument, just a hideous culturally-conditioned aversion to female bodies. Drop me a line!” I fear that it would make me “that woman,” you know, the weird one who wants people to see her daughters’ genitals, the one who doesn’t have a normal sense of decency, the one who refuses to keep her children safe.
I’m also concerned that, while I can live with the gentle simmer that results from feeling ignored, any attempt on the school’s part to formulate an argument in favor of the policy could only result in me becoming permanently and incurably furious.
For the moment, that low-level anger can stay: I’ve come to appreciate it as a kind of alarm system, a first alert when something isn’t right and I have to take a risk and speak out. Because it turns out I really am “that woman:” the weird one who wants her daughters to be in charge of their own bodies, the one who refuses be shamed into compliance, the one who knows that keeping her children strong is the best way of keeping them safe.