Margaret Hickey on why calls for gender neutral clothes are doing no favours for kids who need to be able to express themselves.

Our relationship with clothes is complex. What we wear can reveal a lot about how we see ourselves and others.

Even total indifference to clothes makes its own statement. In many ways, self expression begins with clothes because that is what people notice first about us.

Clothing runs the gamut of emotional responses, even to the point of signalling menace or triggering fear in others.

Distinctive dress, associated with anti-social or dangerous behaviour may be prohibited.

Few can disagree with bans of clothing that cover the face to the point where the wearer is beyond recognition.

The burqa is not the only such garment.

The hoodie or even the baseball cap can signal clear and present danger especially at locations like banks or late night service stations.

Dress codes and dress restrictions have recently hit the headlines at home and abroad.

In France, the ban on swimwear, favored by Muslim women, is driven by ideology rather than concerns for public safety.

In fact, this swimwear, mockingly dubbed the ‘burkini’ by the tabloids, is no more than a standard wetsuit worn under a loose pinafore type garment, quite appropriate wear for chilly waters actually.

Argument for gender neutral clothes is wearing thin

Along the Mediterranean coast, it is about cultural identity rather than comfort or convenience.

Banning it, like banning all religious dress and adornments, is in the spirit of French ‘laicité’, though hardly ‘liberté’.

It is about promoting a conformity that runs counter to the values of freedom, diversity and inclusion that a republic should promote.

It has antagonised the Muslim community, as it must no doubt other religious groups, though of course it has to be said that more liberal dress policies in other countries such as the UK have not prevented terrorist attacks.

The issues at stake are more complex and fundamental than mere sartorial enforcement.

Here at home, it is gendered school wear for four- year-olds that is attracting the notice of sartorial enforcers.

INTO head, Peter Mullan, has asked that primary schools adopt uni-sex or non-gendered uniforms, along with non-gendered toilets, so that transgender children are protected.

A homogenous approach to dress in schools will hardly have much impact if children continue to wear gender differentiated clothes at home and everywhere else.

If the gender dress code was ubiquitous, the inclination of children to express their emerging gender identity through clothes would be stifled.

Yes, gendered clothing is a social construct but so too is androgynous clothing.

What it comes down to is whether one construct is better adapted than the other to the underlying reality of being male or female and gives that reality a more satisfying form of expression.

According to current gender theory, everything is negotiable. Modern medical technology has made that possible.

Only to a point, however, as sex and the behaviour and attitudes associated with it, enforced of course by cultural conditioning, are determined by chromosomes.

That remains the non-negotiable DNA imprint which no scalpel or drug can reach, or change.

A lifetime of heavy medication may maintain an outer reconfiguration of sex but there is an underlying reality that does not change.

Identity dysphoria, which includes gender dysphoria, is not a new discovery.

Whether we understand dysphoria as something to be resolved by psychological counselling or radical and lifelong medical interventions is where old thinking meets new.

This is a new debate and it is absurd that people, like Germaine Greer, who hold the view that we are essentially the people we were born as, should be ‘non-platformed’ in universities, traditional bastions of free and open debate.

Germaine Greer,
Germaine Greer,

It is because of advances in medicine that there is this new openness to exploration of gender identity.

So Peter Mullan, for the sake of a demographic so small it will not be represented at all in many schools, wants all children to dress in some kind of nondescript uniform inspired perhaps by Mao’s cultural revolution.

The Chinese dictator decreed that put every man, woman and child wear baggy pants and shapeless high buttoned jackets.

Identical peaked caps enforced the cookie cutter conformity.

It was the outward, perfect expression of his newly constructed social and economic order that was of course on the side of history.

History has a way of turning the tables on its self-appointed spokesmen as Mao Zedong would have discovered if he lived longer.

Peter Mullan and his fellow social engineers have a battle on their hands because identity dysphoria is really hydra-headed and part and parcel of growing up.

It also means taking on far more than social constructs.

There are literary constructs, historical constructs, religious constructs and perhaps most powerful of all, marketing constructs.

He did not say whether the proposed unidress would be based around a skirt or a pants but everyone knows the answer to that.

So primary school girls will be androgynised at a stage when most of their dysphoria is around anxiety to conform to some ideal of femininity from what they see and read and the subtle ways in which those images resonate with them.

Little girls lose themselves in representations of idealised femininity represented by Disney characters like Elsa and Anna or Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

Elsa and Anna
Elsa and Anna

Despite decades of gender and feminist theory development, they remain perennial favorites, constantly re-worked and re-told for new generations of children.

Sure they are constructs, but they they are constructs children seek out and will eventually outgrow, just like generations before them, taking and leaving what best enables them to progress to the next phase of development.

Fascination with the glass slipper will give way in time to concerns over the glass ceiling as it always has.

As they move along the years, mythical princesses will be replaced by pop icons and a style of femininity that is more brash and earthy.

But the interest in female role models, their dress and behaviour will follow them into adulthood.

It is often reported that clothes worn by Kate Middleton, sell out in hours, even before newspapers have identified their provenance.

An unhealthy obsession, perhaps, but nothing like the clothes fixation of male to female transgender people.

Taken to extremes, Bruce Jenner, father and grandfather, former burly muscled Olympian superstar, made his debut as a woman trussed up in corsets and suspenders, all awkward angles smoothed away under well upholstered underpinnings.

Caitlyn Jenner
Caitlyn Jenner

There was an ironic aptness perhaps in a style of dress that suggested the chemical as well as sartorial shackles he had embraced in his search for gender authenticity.

Sure, gender dysphoria is about more than clothes but it has a lot to do with them.

Of course the transgender movement is two way.

However, there are far fewer female to male transitions. Male to female transitioning exceeds female to male by a ratio of approximately 4:1.

This brings challenges of its own to the mix. What form of unisex swimwear will boys now have to adopt? (Perhaps the burqa might have its uses after all).

It is doubtful that such questions have even occurred to Peter Mullan and the INTO.

Again, it is unlikely that the myriad other considerations, like questions around fairness in competitive sports where a transgender student might be seen to have an advantage over teammates.

Childhood is a time for exploring identities, not for making fundamental existential choices. Children have no concept about being anything other than the person they are in all their untidy uniqueness.

They need adults to affirm them, not offer them life altering and irreversible decisions.

The INTO should know better.


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