Looks Before Books: How Irish Women Learn They Don’t Own Their Bodies
Fun fact about Ireland: The Irish constitution still states that the woman’s place is in the home. This is not enforced, and Irish women are afforded opportunities in education and the workplace, and are, on paper if nowhere else, treated equally in those respects. However, it still spurred my high school history teacher to remind us of it daily in an attempt to get us to do something about it. Well, I’m finally doing something! LOOK AT ME NOW.
It seems somewhat peculiar that in this day and age, in a country that boasts one of the best education systems in the world, that part of that education is learning who has control over your self-expression. (Hint: it’s not you.) Most schools here on the Emerald Isle are same-sex (because much like Tinkerbelle, our tiny brains can only deal with one emotion at a time, and in the presence of the opposite sex, that can only mean true love), and more importantly for this article, most have a uniform policy and/or a very strict dress code. There are a small minority of mixed schools without a uniform, but these institutions, where the students frolic naked, unkempt hair blowing in the wind, impaling themselves on eachother’s facial piercings, are few and far between.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand the benefits of having a uniform. They eliminate a huge amount of bullying and keep everyone on the same level in that respect, they can also be useful when you have fallen out of bed an hour late and don’t have time to assemble a mind-blowing ensemble. That’s all gravy with me. The point at which my little jaw begins to clench is when the uniform extends to parts of you. Actual you. Physical you. Not what’s hanging on you, but what is actually part of you. Hair, for example. ‘No unnatural coloured hair’ was the rule in my school. What possible difference can it make to my education if I’m learning calculus with excellent, confidence-boosting electric blue hair, rather than my natural wheat-coloured affair? Well, apparently there’s something, because the powers that be declare that I am not allowed alter my body in that way. Because they said so. Detention for questioning authority. I’ll never forget the day my friend Megan (pictured with incriminating hair colour and facial piercings) finally, after months of trying, invented a brighter, more alarming shade of red than had ever been seen on anyone’s head in the history of hair dye, and survived with it in school for approximately half an hour before being suspended. And therein lies the problem, friends. Therein lies the lesson that your appearance effects your education. It is so important in fact, that if you don’t look a certain way, you can’t come to class anymore. If you don’t appear to fit the standards of ‘decency’ set by the authority you’re under, you will be denied your fundamental right to education.
The school will break it down to the very basic ‘We have a rule and she broke it, therefore she must be punished,’ but it’s not as simple as that, and to claim it is, is, frankly, insulting to all involved. It’s not the same as ‘We have a rule against dangling another student out the window and she broke it and therefore must be punished.’ Dangling another student out the window is punishable. It’s dangerous and evil. Altering your appearance as you see fit? Not so much. It’s the same with piercings. No facial piercings was our rule. But so what if I learn how to correctly conjugate French verbs with my nose pierced? Taking that piercing out isn’t going to make room for more knowledge. But that argument, for Megan at least, was met with the memorable command: ‘Take that out of your face and come to my office.’
The one that gets me the most though, in a society that does its utmost to ensure that the vast majority of girls do not have the self-esteem levels they deserve, is make-up. Whether or not a girl wears make-up is up to her. Sure, objectively there’s ‘no need’ to sport make up into school. But the people saying that are usually the adults who have forgotten what it’s like to be painfully insecure, constantly comparing yourself to others, and being encouraged to do so. Basically, what it’s like to be a teenage girl. Saying, as several teachers did to friends of mine, ‘I didn’t realise it was Halloween yet’ because of the make-up they were wearing is not only scathing and petty, but damaging and unnecessary. I am in favour of teen girls doing whatever makes them feel good about themselves (as long as it doesn’t endanger anyone), because they deserve it. Telling them they can’t wear makeup, yelling at them and punishing them for doing so, sends the message that they don’t have control over how they present themselves and how they feel about themselves as a result of that. In fact, I don’t see how yelling at them and punishing them for it can have anything but a negative effect. So they broke the rules? Those rules shouldn’t be there in the first place. How someone feels good about them self isn’t anyone else’s business. Yes, hopefully someday she won’t need make up to feel okay, but maybe today she does, and she doesn’t need to feel worse.
While makeup rules are not usually an issue in boy’s schools, hair rules often are. In many all-male schools, the students are not allowed to have their hair coloured, or to let it grow passed a certain length, which strikes me as hugely problematic for a number of reasons. The first of these being that, as I have previously discussed, your hair is part of you, and it is no one’s business what you do with it. The second is that forcing boys to have short hair perpetuates the myth that boys must look manly, and that people who are biologically male must therefore do all in their power to live up to that label, or, as Judith Butler would have it, to perform that role. It insists on masculine performance and expression that may not come naturally to some students, and assumes that it is the norm, and that to deviate from appearing ‘manly’ is punishable. Not a particularly helpful life lesson, I’d have to say.
I’m going to finish by hurling my little argument into the wider context. As a country, Ireland doesn’t have a sparkling track record when it comes to women’s rights. Only a couple of weeks ago did the government issue an apology for the Magdelan Laundries, and they’re still dilly-dallying over abortion legislation. (Reminder: as it stands, abortion is totally illegal in all cases. Which is just outrageous – in case you were looking for a suitable adjective.) So as you can see, bodily autonomy isn’t exactly being thrown at the women of Ireland, which is something that we internalize from an early age with the help of school rules that dictate what we can and can’t do with our bodies. By being taught that it is acceptable for whatever authority we are under to make decisions about our bodies, we learn to view our appearance as equal in worth to our education and our bodies as not our own.
Ireland is on its way to change. The government have promised to legislate on abortion before the year is out and women have more rights and freedom than ever. But we’re not there yet. And the proof of that lies in how much school Megan missed for seeing fit to have outstanding hair.
Written by Laura-Blaise McDowell
May 19, 2013
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