Why non-uniform days are (maybe) class conflict.

Thank you to my friend Shaan for encouraging me to write on this topic after hearing me rant in the car.

Part II available here, “A Response to ‘Mufti Day’ aka Judgement Day”.

Unpublished…for now.
Featured image is a still from the pilot of ‘Ugly Betty’, sourced from independent.co.uk .

CW: Bullying

Whenever I think about my insecurities about my sense of style and body type, I can always trace them back to my very first non-uniform day at my affluent, Catholic single-sex high school.

I come from a working class immigrant family living in the ‘hood’, we moved from the United States to New Zealand starting in a flat with saved deli containers as our crockery at one point. Despite this, I never felt like I missed out on anything growing up…until high school.

I went to a local Catholic primary school, where the majority of students would move on to the Catholic high schools. So that is where I would also go. Little did I know that the suburb and wealth barrier of the high school would mean that my experience would be rather different.

Year 7 was the year of doorstopper Twilight books, chunky neon skate shoes, Kanye West shutter shades, Sidekick phones, Macpacs and Smiggle stationery.

In an ‘About Me’ profile in the first term, I had written “Likes: reading, helping people, clouds / Dislikes: Catty girls”.
We first formers were guinea pigs to a new school system which would promote mentorship and community in the school, where year sevens and eights would be in the same homeroom and where we would get a year eight buddy and a year thirteen Big Sister, both of whom would welcome us in the school.

Like every well-intentioned intent to stop bullying, these arrangements merely exposed the newbies to a school pecking order. Peck or be pecked.

In high school, my clothes were mostly hand me downs from my older brother and mother and clothes received at Christmas and Birthdays. I did not mind so much, I liked wearing baggy pants and sweaters and random clothes meant that I was a bit more experimental and resourceful with colours and fabrics.
On the very first non-uniform day, I wore my favourite outfit, a sky blue angora turtleneck and a long knitted wool skirt with a chevron pattern in different shades of purple and sky blue with boots.
In hindsight, this could have been something I would have seen in my Arts lectures at uni or on Carrie Bradshaw.

But at the time, I knew something was wrong as I felt everyone staring at me when I walked into the school gates.

Everyone had a ‘uniform’ of jeans, a t-shirt and a puffer jacket or Abercrombie and Fitch hoodie or Juicy Couture tracksuit jacket, with Chuck Taylors, Vans or Uggs. Girls were sure to check the rear of the shoes for the logo to ensure that their classmates had the authentic ones too. Clearly, what didn’t matter was the clothes as much as the brand name. I was scowled at by a few girls coming into the class but didn’t think much of it until a year eight girl, Arielle* who talked about nothing but boys and getting periodic teeth whitening came up to me, saying “Why are you wearing THAT? The last time I saw a skirt like that was on a child. I last wore something that ugly when I was a kid, you better rip it off”.

Cue the laughter of her ladies in waiting.
I obeyed the useless advice of bullying PSAs to just ignore it all, but I felt my face get hot and that I was constantly trying to swallow a lump which kept rising.

I donated my favourite skirt to an op shop that weekend.
From that day on, I vowed to keep an eye out on trends and try to not be humiliated like that again.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, this point in time made me acutely aware of beauty standards and how much I didn’t fit with that. Girls at our high school were from old money families, who brand dropped frequently and maintained their physical appearance early on. And well, I was told I was [High School’s] answer to Ugly Betty.

Baby Me. Me in my high school days.

I had glasses, I had an overbite corrected with braces and I had the double threat of acne and eczema.
In other words, the ‘before’ of many makeover photos. I was extremely tiny and one of the few non-White students at the school.

But I never felt ugly until the days where people would point out I was short, but not in a happy way, but in a way that made me feel like a lap dog or worse.

It was the day of the ‘Big Sister, Little Sister’ shared lunch, the shared lunch of year thirteens and year sevens.
My year thirteen Big Sister, Tiffany* was a well known student, one of the tallest at the school and modelesque, she particularly took a shine to the younger sister of a popular girl in her year, called Aurora*, as though it was some currency to enter the school’s equivalent of The Plastics.

I was not too sure what happened to elicit this treatment, but Aurora started to mock me and berate me, calling me an ‘ugly midget’, to Tiffany and her senior friends laughed, one even said that she would adopt me like Angelina Jolie’s ‘ethnic’ kids.
I laughed too…until I had a moment to excuse myself to cry in the bathrooms. I asked to go home early that day under the guise of feeling sick, and I slammed the keys of my digital piano and cried and cried.

In year eight, a popular group in our cohort even surrounded my group, one girl throwing a banana peel in our direction, all saying that it was no wonder we never had a boyfriend. (We were 11 and 12 for goodness’ sake xD ).
Beauty and male attention in our society as a woman, is a form of power, and many learn that, even when they are not women yet. 

It would be in year thirteen when I would extract my revenge. I developed telekinetic powers and learned to control them by the time of the school ball.
Just kidding.
This isn’t the world of Carrie, nor was it the world of fairy godmothers, this was my personal hell.
To quote Janis Ian in one of my favourite songs, “dreams were all they gave for free, to ugly duckling girls like me”.
To this day my eyes get a bit watery thinking about it. To this day, I ignore Aurora’s repeated requests to add me on LinkedIn.

I became obsessed with not looking ‘poor’ and became clued up on trends, but this fed into a nasty and unsustainable habit where in university, I would go to random fast fashion stores whenever I felt ‘ugly’ to just spend for the sake of doing so.
I kept labels and tags just like the girls in my year, never mind if the clothes suited me or not.

In university and in hearing from friends who went to public schools with casual clothes, wearing what you wanted and experimenting with personal style was a liberating experience. I feel this way now. I think it is because there is very little judgement on what people wear, clothing is more about more on individuality and independence.
This was extremely refreshing when before, my world was mostly overhearing conversations where the girl’s biggest crisis was whether to get a Louis Vuitton Neverfull or a Marc Jacobs watch.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to wear labels or not wearing labels, but there is something wrong when being ‘poor’ is seen as undesirable and when people are publicly shamed for not fitting an arbitrary beauty or fashion standard. There is also something wrong when preteens are already at the stage of knowing that worth as a woman is dependent on male attention and Eurocentric beauty standards.

Everything of ‘fashionable’ and ‘unfashionable’ and ‘ugly’ and ‘beautiful’ is all made up.
To start dismantling the kingdom of comparison culture and fears of non-uniform days, thinking of that might just be the first step.

And to all those who are thinking of bullying someone for their clothes or looks, you never know what that person may be in the future. They may just be a freelance journalist and baby lawyer with a million diaries, who may have a revenge list or two. Or will block you on LinkedIn after asking me to join Arbonne.

*Names have been changed.