UNIFORM: Enforcing professionalism, or erasing individualism?

By Sarah Lee

When I inform people that I attend a private school, the inevitable question is asked: “how does it feel to wear a uniform to school everyday?” Although I have been asked this question too many times to count, I have never really put much thought into it. My usual answer goes along the lines of it being time efficient; I no longer need to worry about picking out a different outfit every morning. I have never held a negative opinion towards uniforms, as I could always understand the other side of the opinion: it enforces professionalism, avoids possible targets of bullying, and sets the school apart from others. But is it really as accommodating as it seems? After recent events, I believe I have found my answer to this question.

This Thursday, I was struck with the reality of attending private school: one’s own individuality is actively oppressed. In an effort to enforce recent uniform rules, teachers have been cracking down on students wearing non-school issued clothing, specifically sweaters and jackets. I was asked by one of these ‘enforcers’ to take my sweater off and leave it in my locker, but when I was seen wearing it again, it was confiscated. As I was handing it to the teacher, I was overcome with a sudden wave of anger. Why was I so furious? I knew that I was in the wrong: I was not following the rules, and after not fixing my behaviour even when asked multiple times, I was facing the consequences. It wasn’t the fact that I was cold and my sweater was taken away that enraged me, however, but instead it was the feeling of my identity being stripped away from me. That simple, long, red and green plaid flannel had been my choice of garb everyday for 2 and a half months already; it had somehow become a part of me. When people see that one particular sweater, I am the first thing that comes to their mind. So, when I was left without one of the only things that define me in this restrictive environment, I no longer felt like myself.

When breaking the news to one of my peers, they replied, “I knew something looked off about you; it was because you were not wearing your sweater.” When breaking the news to one of my counsellors, they replied, “your sweater – THE sweater – was taken away?” When breaking the news to one of my teachers, they replied, “well, you know why it was taken away: it is the rules.” Are the rules trying to enforce professionalism, or erase individualism? Teachers oftentimes tell us, “I do not understand why it is so difficult to wear your school cardigans,” to which my peers answer that those cardigans are of poor quality and do not keep us warm; I dare to disagree. One’s own identity is an important aspect of their life, especially for teenagers. As developmental psychologist Erik Erikson theorized, not completing this piece of themselves could fill their lives with distress and misery, or even the same anger I felt on Thursday. Being teenagers of the small community that occupies our school, we are constantly searching for ways to express ourselves that set us apart from those surrounding us. Whether it is a new hair colour, different clothing, extra piercings, or even ink on our skin, these actions help us feel like our own, unique person; this is the nature of humanity. Our actions are not a sign of ‘teenage angst’ or ‘rebellion,’ but instead they are methods that we employ to feel like ourselves, and not like a sheep in the herd. It is no wonder why teachers are bewildered by our incessant desire to disobey the rules: our school forbids every action that helps us feel like our own, unique person.

This issue is different than wearing an outfit of casual clothing: we are still representing the school by wearing the fundamental pieces to the uniform. It would be reasonable if it were a defamation of our school or a misrepresentation of our values, but to confiscate a simple, red and green plaid flannel that reflects my character, it seems as if our uniform policy does the opposite of representing our values. On the school website, inquiry in our school is defined with, “[the students] become who they are and feel supported on their journey,” while joy in our school is defined with, “we enable them to experience the joy of self-discovery.” How are we to lead lives of inquiry and joy if we are not free to explore and reflect our identities? We are forced to conform with little to no methods of self-expression and monotony everyday, leaving no room for “self-discovery.” Ironically, in a community where we are intended to feel accepted and encouraged, we cannot “become who [we] are,” nor do we “feel supported on [our] journey,” when it is prohibited to do so. While wearing our sweaters, we feel comfortable to express who we are, our interests, and our personality. As we spend more waking hours in school than in our own homes, school becomes a place of learning not only academically, but also personally; yet, this cannot be executed if we are restricted to exploring the identity of a uniform that is consistent with the 940 other students attending this school. On the school website, action in our school is defined with, “we ensure each student has a voice for change;” today, I am leading my life with action in hopes that my voice for change allows for a more open, expressive, and accepting environment in our school.
In saying this, I hope that my opinion is reflected upon seriously and taken into consideration. I am grateful for the recent uniform rule change, allowing us to wear our Wolves Athletics hoodies, and I would like to thank the administrators for being considerate and willing to compromise in accordance with our complaints. However, after my ordeal on Thursday that managed to imprint a bleak, melancholy spirit into the rest of my day, I felt the need to communicate my troubles and concerns regarding our uniform policy. I realize that, because alterations have recently been implemented, administration is not as likely to budge at this moment; nevertheless, I am writing this to demonstrate the flaws of our uniform policy, from a student’s point of view, and to propose for change that allows for a more accepting and expressive environment in our school. I assure to the school and to the administration that, if our policy recognizes the struggles and point of view of its students, our school would see many more lives full of inquiry, action, and joy.