Schoolgirl innocence in Sierra Leone? Why selling fetish as fundraiser doesn’t fly

The schoolgirl dress is widely considered to be exciting. Even when it is not. flickjr/Christie Jane

As a woman, as a woman who menstruates, as a woman who menstruates and has written a book about menstruation, I’m easily sold that charity One Girl’s efforts to buy pads for girls in Sierra Leone is admirable.

Sold on the idea, just not completely on the how.

I teach public policy and spend a lot of time talking to students about pitching policy, communicating policy, measuring it, evaluating it. If, for a moment, I step away from the good intentions and look at the strategy, at the very least I have some questions.

One Girl – a girls and women’s empowerment charity - have followed in the clown-shoe steps of the red nose-wearing, moustache-sprouting novelty fundraisers and concocted one involving school uniforms.

A riff, no doubt, on the stock standard money-spinner where school kids pay to wear “free dress” for a day.

The campaign is called Do It In a Dress.

Truth be told, when I first read the press release, my thoughts immediately went to a uniformed Chrissie Amphlett and her fantastic Boys in Town performance. But I, although quite enjoyably, digress.

As the universal toilet door pictogram aptly demonstrates, dresses mean women. Women wear dresses; attire was, in days of yore, the quickest clue to sex. When men - invariably on football television shows - want to “play lady”, it’ll be an (ugly and poorly-fitting) dress they don. Dresses maketh a person feminised, if not actually a woman.

Boys In Town - Divinyls.

To draw attention to menstruators in Sierra Leone, presumably there aren’t many “palatable” options. Ours is a culture that flipped out when the words vagina and discharge were uttered in a TV ad: evidently we’re not actually all that coo de la with menstruation afterall.

While a more literal and perhaps more educative route would have been the Arunachalam Muruganantham path of having men don a pad for a period, most men probably wouldn’t partake - hell, most committed tampon-wearers probably wouldn’t partake - and those male pad fetishists are, sadly, too small in number to make a decent dent in the pad bill.

Frocking up, therefore, becomes the superficial way, the attention-grabbing way, the news-friendly, way to spotlight a serious women’s issue.

But are school uniforms really the way to go?

My thoughts went to Chrissie Amphlette just as they went to Sailor Moon and the girls of St Trinians in my next two heart beats. Sure, I went to a public school where I had to wear a suitably contraceptive ensemble for five of my six years there, but as a sex researcher, to me school uniforms for anyone not in school are about fetishism.

In the awful film Sex and the City (2008), Miranda makes a comment about costumes: “The only two choices for women; witch and sexy kitten.” Add to this the nurse and schoolgirl uniforms to get the complete clichéd party dress-up picture. It’s a simple role-play manifestation and an enduring one.

Not for the moment am I criticising the fantasy. Whatever gets you through the night, as Lennon would say. (Insert a disclaimer about consent, of course). Whether, however, the uniform fantasy is one relevant to the poverty of girls in Sierra Leone, is a different question.

The school girl fantasy is at least partly about eroticising a subordinate. And I’m pretty sure if you can’t go to school because you’re bleeding without product, fetishising subordination is a tad unnecessary. For us to do the fetishisation under the aegis of fundraising makes me feel just a little icky.

Sure, at the end of the day it’s a bit of fun and most people won’t read as much into it as I have - such is my personality shortcomings - but the trivialisation of issues, of skirting quite literally, around topics that we continue to have trouble discussing frankly, forces us to ask whether this effort will merely pay for a few packets of pads without any useful dialogue or lasting cultural change.

No not a worthless outcome - good works are still good works - but perhaps just a missed opportunity.

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