Wednesday, 22 May 2013

An Interview with Ursula Goldfinger

Today is the eve of ‘Equality Day’: an event planned, devised and soon to be put into action by sixth-former Ursula Goldfinger, for, but not limited to the students at her secondary school in South London. The idea, as described on the Facebook event, is simple:

“May 23rd might be warm… it might even be hot. If you are male and your school/workplace does not permit you to wear shorts, may I suggest slinging on a skirt? After all, they are pretty breezy, just ask anyone who's worn a kilt.”

Students (male and female) cross-dress for the school day: the aim isn’t to shock (although that might easily be the result), it’s to educate. When I first cast my eyes across the page I thought I had the gist of the thing. Challenge a taboo, break a silence, get students talking about gender stereotypes and expectations. It’s something my school definitely could have done with. However, when I spoke to Ursula about her motivations for putting on the event, the story ran deeper than I had expected.

“I only joined this school in sixth form, and the school was always proud of how liberal it was. But then in assembly, there were all these messages [girls] were getting about how short our skirts could be and what was and wasn’t ‘appropriate’ to wear. And I found myself kind of confused and angry without really being able to explain why.”

Defining ‘appropriateness’ is something schools, and indeed teachers are famous for. I’m reminded of my own (all girls) sixth form, where we had a ‘smart-casual’ dress code with some curiously prescriptive rules: No tight trousers, leggings must be covered to three quarter thigh, no skirts more than 2 inches above knee length, no sundresses or strappy tops, no exposed shoulders, no visible cleavage. We were told, pretty much explicitly, not just what counted as ‘sexual’ dress, but that it merited someone else’s judgement. We had our own sexuality defined for us, and then we were told we’d be punished for it.

But this isn’t just a problem facing women and girls, as Ursula is quick to point out. Clothes are prescribed for boys too, possibly even more. Girls have more freedom in fashion because it’s acceptable for women to identify in ways as ‘masculine’: by wearing trousers, shirts, cutting their hair short. In contrast, a guy identifying with clothing or general visual attributes typically seen as ‘feminine’ is going to get an unfavourable reaction from the public at large, particularly, I might tentatively say, at school. Because, as Madonna famously (and awesomely) said,

"Girl can wear jeans
 And cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots
'Cause it's OK to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
 'Cause you think that being a girl is degrading"

Schools have the capacity to shape us and define us as people. And so far the standard message being handed out is an incredibly old fashioned one: boys dress one way, girls dress another. What’s acceptable for one group won’t be acceptable for another. Girls’ bodies are sexual, and sexuality has to be kept hidden. Your clothes are a reflection of the school, so they don’t get to be a reflection of you.

This is what Ursula wants to combat. What she thinks her school isn’t giving its students is a “specific education in being yourself. Or how to liberate yourself. We’re not being given any understanding of our own freedom, or self-expression”. Institutions of learning, particularly for young people, should be teaching young people that it is okay to stray from the usual definition of ‘gender-normal’. They should be teaching them that they deserve to be free to explore how they want to look, dress and identify. In short, they should be leading the way for gender equality, instead of tailing behind a movement that’s been sitting on the internet waiting to be discovered by young, disenfranchised people like Ursula and myself and hundreds of others for years now.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon, so Ursula has taken matters into her own hands. “I’m not expecting it to be huge”, she says. “A few of people have come up to me and said that they support the idea but they’re not going to come in to school in a skirt. But then I’ve had messages from people saying that they’re supporting because they’ve been thinking all the same stuff for ages and we’re finally making these connections between people who just haven’t been saying anything. I think the main thing is we just want people to think, and if just a couple of people go away with a different perspective on it then that’s a good thing.”

On the event, Ursula states that “Change begins with education”: as we round off our interview, she tells me, “I organised this as a one day thing, but really we shouldn’t just have one day a year when we can be ourselves and dress how we want. That should be how things always are”. Ursula, and everyone who participates in Equality Day tomorrow, will definitely be delivering some kind of education to their peers and teachers. My fingers are crossed that they’ll be ready for it.

Equality Day takes place on the 23 rd May 2013. To find out more or take part, please join the facebook group:

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