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An uncomfortable uniform

Jun. 14, 2018
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On the first 90-degree day under the New York summer sun, dark marks of sweat had bloomed in the armpits of my t-shirt by the time I finished my walk to work. I could feel the rectangle of skin on the back of my neck between my two braids where a patch of red warmth was beginning to develop. I walked past a high school on my way, kids fanning themselves on the extra-hot track and packing themselves into dense patches of shade before class, boys surreptitiously loosening their ties and girls lifting their heavy hair away from their neck. I expected to step into cool air in the school I worked at but was sorely disappointed.

When I had gotten dressed that morning I felt the urge to pull on shorts. The weather app was boasting unfaltering, unobstructed sun, but shorts didn’t seem appropriate, so I settled for an old, thin, worn-in pair of jeans. I rolled up the ankles and slid into sandals. 

The school I worked at required their students to wear uniforms: bulky khaki pants and light blue stifling polo shirts, collars stiff with starch. I could feel my shirt sticking to my back as I stood by the fan—the school either did not have or did not turn on air conditioning. Rings of sweat circled the back of students’ necks. I watched kids pull on their collars, pause in front of the fans, shift uncomfortably to hide sweat marks behind their knees. I couldn't imagine how uncomfortable they were if I was hot in thin jeans and a breezy t-shirt. 

While the debate on school uniforms has been going on for a long time, I had never considered comfort as an important factors. At my public high school there were no school uniforms, but on days when choosing an outfit felt like a chore it seemed to me that having a school uniform would’ve been a blessing in disguise. But I had never considered on those tired mornings as I slipped into leggings or athletic shorts or anything that didn’t require much thought that a school uniform might be uncomfortable. The students I was tutoring certainly seemed uncomfortable. The students I passed on my walk seemed hot and sweaty and stiff. Some individuals might think the comfort of students isn’t a valid point in the discussion of school uniforms, but I would disagree. 

I am someone who likes to dress for comfort, but I am also someone who does not have the body type for which retailers traditionally make clothes. I have a hard time finding pants that fit right or shirts that don’t hang too long or hug me in weird places. And that being said, I still don’t have a body type that is that different than those for whom designs are traditionally made; I’m a little shorter, a little wider in different spots, but not that different. So while I struggle to find clothes that fit comfortably, students with body types that are much different than the traditionally-designed-for body type have an even harder time finding uniforms that fit right. One of the students I worked with once told me that she had to buy men’s pants, because she couldn’t find women’s uniform pants that fit her body type. We have all, at one time or another, experienced the discomfort of wearing ill-fitting clothes, and most of us have the option to wear whatever we please. This courtesy isn’t passed on to our students, though. We ask uniform-wearing students to purchase specific types of clothes that are often only sold at specific stores. They usually only come in a ‘normal’ range of sizes; anyone outside of that range, anyone that isn’t considered an ‘average size,’ has to make do however they can. 

I also was struck by the colors of the uniforms. As I watched students pull at sweat-darkened collars and shift to hide underarm sweat, I felt awful that they had no choice in the color or material of their clothing. Though I was slick with sweat, I adorned a white cotton t-shirt, so it wasn’t very noticeable. Students with dark patches on their shirt had red cheeks to match; sweating was embarrassing and uncomfortable to them, and there was nothing they could do to hide it. I thought of my sister with her sweaty palms and her hyperhidrosis diagnosis (excessive sweating), and I was even more thankful my school didn’t require uniforms. As a fellow heavy sweater, I’m well acquainted with the discomfort of sweat-marked shirts; I tend to only wear white or black tops in the warmer months to hide just this issue. But for these students, there wasn’t an option to choose a different color top—this was their uniform, and that is what they were to wear. 

Not being able to choose the colors of clothes goes hand in hand with not being able to choose fabric. As I watched kids adjust and readjust their stiff uniforms I could not imagine that those uniforms would be a comfortable option. But I am also an able-bodied person. I don’t have any kind of sensory processing disorder or similar disorder that makes it even more difficult to find comfortable clothing. For those with sensory processing disorders, things like a stiff shirt or pants with a thick waistband can make clothes unbearably uncomfortable. 

There’s a question of numbers when it comes to the practicality of this discussion. How many students actually have trouble finding uniforms that fit? How many kids actually suffer from hyperhidrosis? Do a significant amount of individuals actually have sensory perception problems? The answer to these questions is a lot, some, and not many, respectively. But even so, why should only a small amount of students have to suffer because a school system could not come up with a solution to cater to them?  

I question the strong need for school uniforms, and if it’s necessary to do so at the cost of student comfort. There are a number of different arguments for school uniforms—they help students take pride in their school, they limit appearance-related peer judgment, they create a cohesive school environment—but at the end of the day, school is for the students. Does it still make sense to have students wear uniforms despite the drawbacks?