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Feminspire | April 19, 2014

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Looks Before Books: How Irish Women Learn They Don’t Own Their Bodies

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.

Megan Hair and PiercingsNow, 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

  • Kiana

    We have a huge group of exchange students this semester from England and Australia. While all of them were in schools quite like yours (strict uniforms and rules), one Australian girl absolutely blew us away with her recitation of rules that she had to follow for eight years. Just a sampling included the specific type of hair tie and ribbon in her hair, the size of her earring posts that couldn’t exceed a certain millimeter, and the exact shine of her shoes. She once got detention for having a tiny hole in her stocking and forgetting the ribbon in her hair. While I do support uniforms, these rules are way too strict and hinder the ability to learn and practice acceptance for boys, girls, and all of those in between. What is this telling our youth? That we should all adopt a cookie cutter persona and punish those who outwardly display any type of self expression? My experience with school uniforms was extremely positive. We were allowed to wear a wide range of clothing from pants (trousers, as my British friend frequently corrects me) to several lengths of skirts, as long as it was a certain color and embroidered with the school crest.

  • sarah_m_g

    At my high school (in the US, Texas to be exact) we didn’t have uniforms, but we did have some similar rules. No unnatural hair colors, no visible piercings or tattoos, guys’ hair couldn’t be longer than their color, guys couldn’t have facial hair. Their logic behind those rules was that those things would be distracting in the classroom. Riiiiiiight. . . .

    I *think* some of those rules may have changed since I graduated 11 years ago, but I’m willing to bet that they haven’t changed enough.

  • Liane Graham

    Hah. Just wait until you make your way into the workplace.
    Look, I’m into self-expression as much as the next person, but we are talking about children, and schools do have the right to decide how they want the children to look, because schools are designed to shape pupils into members of society, which means fitting in. These rules apply to boys, too. I went to a school that had a psychotic dress code, and it was annoying, and limiting, and I vividly remember crying in the bathroom because a teacher forced me to remove my lipgloss or because I was forced to wear my gym sneakers when the principal (a man, obvs) decided my heels were too high. At the end of the day, children don’t have the same amount of self determination that adults do, and for good reason. Uniforms and dress codes seem like a petty and pointless way to control children, and they kind of are, but it’s less about *schools trying to control our bodies* than schools (as, think about it, a business) trying to maintain an image of having an orderly student body.
    I would be much more interested in reading about all the other, much more important issues going on in Ireland.

    • Cluisanna

      I went to a school without any dress code or uniform at all (in fact, most schools in Germany don’t have those), and I can’t see this as anything else but schools trying to control their student’s bodies. We didn’t have any problems with people dressing in “unorderly” ways.

      • Liane Graham

        I’m not saying this is an effective tool, I’m just pointing out the reasoning behind it. Schools DO have a right to control their students’ bodies much in the same way that employers do. Students are seen as representatives of their school, meaning they have to project whatever image the school wants them to. Because schools are businesses. That’s what keeps them running. Unless they’re public, of course, in which case it’s actually really, really hard to maintain an educational standard even with arbitrary rules like uniforms.

  • Mrs Wally West

    I’m Aussie and we have pretty much the same uniform rules, but they’re far stricter in private and religious schools than public ones. I went to a public school and whilst we had to wear the correct uniform, our hair, piercings and makeup were often ignored, apart from one year when our head teacher had to crack down on makeup rules due to my sister sporting panda eyes everyday.

    I do understand why private and religious schools have stricter rules, as they want to convey a certain image but can’t if their students walked around with piercings or brightly coloured hair and lots of makeup. Of course a lot of these private and public schools go overboard, forcing students to wear school socks (socks with the school colours striped on them), having their hair pulled back at all times, skirts have to be a certain length, etc. Getting ready in the morning shouldn’t be such an arduous process!

  • Litsot

    Definitely took my Canadian high school for granted.

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  • Cluisanna

    I have to say, I find this quite terrifying. I’m from Germany, where we usually don’t have uniforms or any sort of dress code in schools, and it’s not like everybody comes to school in the most absurd clothes. The thought of some random authority figure telling me what color my hair should be for no other reason than “because I said so” sounds pretty Orwellian to me. (And no, in most jobs this isn’t the case either.)

  • Rai Chill

    yup, this is irish schools completely. i had black and blonde hair and my school suspended me for unnatural hair colours. ehm, both black and blonde hair is natural so how is a mix of the two not? i hated every second of school in this country.

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  • ced

    The point about there being ‘no need’ for makeup is something I haven’t heard in a long time, but it’s really gotten me thinking. There are two fucked-up underlying assumptions in that comment: firstly, that they know WHY you’re wearing makeup, and secondly, that there is a situation in which one might ‘need’ makeup.