I went to an all-girls school for the six years of my secondary education. It was the kind of place where the achievements and ambitions of girls were celebrated. We were told we could be anything we wanted to be, and that the school would help us to get there. Sounds great, right? Most of the time, it was.
In a week where some schools have come out and told young women to censor their behaviour because of the school porn ring thing we thought it would be a good time to look at some other crazy sexist behaviour that’s being learnt in schools right now… Intentionally or otherwise.
Like many young women, I encountered a number of sexist and inappropriate messages about the world I lived in – about my body, my appearance and my role in society. And I’m sure I’m not the only one. Here’s four of those high school experiences:
1) Sex education: Be straight, get married (ie: not much mention of consent and sexual agency for women)
Unsurprisingly, as is still quite common in secondary schools, my experience of sex education was pretty overwhelmingly heterosexual. We had the puberty talk in Year 7, the ‘condoms on bananas’ seminar in Year 9 and some information about contraception in Year 11. There was no real conversation about consent, other than “don’t be afraid to say no” and “don’t let boys push you into something you don’t want to do”.
But that’s just it. It was always about men and women having sex with each other, not about any other kind of sexual identity, or navigating intimate relationships, or even sexual experiences that don’t involve another person….almost like we were being told it wasn’t normal.
2) Bizarre rules : Eating in public is ‘unladylike’
I remember being quite hungry one afternoon as I was leaving school, and so decided to eat some biccies. We had a teacher on gate duty, who actually told me that I shouldn’t eat while walking out of school and that I should save my snacking for home. I thought this was a bit odd, but went along with it until I mentioned it offhandedly to another teacher the next day, who said that it was an ‘unwritten rule’ that we weren’t meant to eat in public, with the implication was that it was ‘not ladylike’.
She also stated another unwritten rule that in previous generations at the school, girls were discouraged from socialising with boys whilst in uniform. While this one was never strictly enforced in my time, occasions where we would spend time with boys from local schools (such as a camp and ‘socialising’ days) were VERY closely supervised.
3) Discussion of our life choices: You’ll ‘marry for money’
In Year 11, we had the joy (hint: sarcasm) of studying Pride and Prejudice. In an attempt to make us feel the book still had some relevance to our own lives, my year 11 teacher posed the question to the class – “do you imagine yourselves marrying for money like the Bennet sisters and their friends?” Perhaps a discussion of the opportunities that have become accessible to women since the eighteenth century would have been more useful? (Or even, you know…getting us to read some more modern literature…?!) That’s enough about that.
4) Our appearance: You’ll be ‘enticing the boys’
My last day of Year 12. As is common place, girls were signing and ‘modifying’ their dresses – cutting and colouring them; one girl even spent a lot of time and effort turning hers into a strapless number. Looked great! After our final assembly, we all went back upstairs to sign our dresses before heading to the park as a group. Sounds normal, right? Apparently we were taking too long to vacate, and so the Vice Principal turned up to ask us to leave, realised we had no intention of going straight home and stated that we needed to put on our jumpers because our clothing was inappropriate, with the comment “you’ll be enticing to boys!” Yes…she actually said that.
Implicit in this old-fashioned comment is the concept that you will always be judged for your appearance, and that if any of us were hit on in our uniforms (or worse!) it would be our own fault. This is not, and never was acceptable.
So why am I writing about this, instead of pushing it to the back of my brain as High School Land and pretending it didn’t happen? Well, these everyday examples of sexism, add up to some pretty big social norms and ways of thinking that just aren’t acceptable and they need to be called out. I also know that lots of young women and men are probably still being told this kind of stuff. I want people to know that just because someone ‘ didn’t mean anything bad by it’ doesn’t mean that it’s not super harmful.