On her first day of preschool, my daughter Greta wore thirteen ribbons in her hair. She purposely mismatched yellow and pink socks and insisted on wearing her favorite lime green Tinkerbell dress, complete with upright shimmering wings. Needless to say, my Greta (now fourteen and dressing like Madonna circa 1986) has been obsessed with clothes, costumes and fashion since she could dress herself. Sparkly crowns, feathery boas and electric colored gloves were a must for every occasion. To be clear, by every occasion, I mean a trip to Walgreens. Exhausting as it was doing multiple loads of laundry and helping her assemble up to four separate and unique outfits a day, my daughter glowed with pride every time she stepped out of the house. Clothes were clearly her thing.
And clothes continued to be her thing through preschool. Greta was obsessed with the dress up corner, giving fashion advice to fellow students who aspired to look like a Disney princess or to emulate characters from children’s books, movies or TV show. A red stray ribbon juxtaposed with a makeshift felt cape and plastic basket filled with crayons could transform a girl into red riding hood. Like a mini Tim Gunn, Greta could always “make it work”.
So when my husband and I decided to send her to a kindergarten that required uniforms, I started to worry. Was I stripping my daughter of her identity by forcing her to wear a uniform? Would she be prevented from expressing her true self? The answer was both yes and no.
Let me explain.
Yes, Greta was going to have to make a huge adjustment. Fashion would now be relegated to afternoons and weekends. So, that August before kindergarten started, I started mentally preparing her. I explained that she would now have not one, but two wardrobes. I explained that most parents need to dress up for work, and that she was old enough and responsible enough to dress up for school by wearing a uniform. She wasn’t having it. So I pivoted.
I bluntly explained that all the girls at her new school wore uniforms and that she would have to wear a uniform too. I showed her joyful images from the school website of smiling children skipping and laughing in blue and green plaid. She still wasn’t having it. So, I gave up, drove her to Dennis and just bought the mandatory outfits.
As predicted, my daughter struggled at first. Instead of leaping out of bed in the morning to devise a magical look for the day, she dragged herself from her bedroom, begrudgingly wearing what was required. But, slowly over time, Greta accepted her fate. She started expressing herself more freely with hairstyles and accessories, but more importantly, she eventually bought into the idea that if her friends wore uniforms, she would, too. She learned to creatively express herself on the weekends and wear uniforms in solidarity with her classmates during the week.
By Thanksgiving, Greta began to take a newfound pride in her uniform. She realized that her uniform identified her as a member of her new school community. A community she loved. Off campus, adults would nod approvingly and smile at my daughter saying kind words like, “my daughter goes to your school, too, and she loves it” and start up brief conversations. These short but impactful interactions gave Greta a new found confidence and a deeper feeling of belonging. She began to see herself as part of a tribe of girls who would support each other both at school and beyond the classroom. As a result, Greta started to take more risks during class by raising her hand and actively participating in discussions and group projects. She also made wonderful friends, uninhibited by the unspoken barriers of who was wearing an expensive outfit or cooler clothes. So, to answer the question once again, no, Greta did not lose her identity, she gained a new one.
So to those mothers out there, worried about squeezing their children into uniforms and stifling individuality or creative expression I tell you this. Worry less, embrace the uniform and most importantly, celebrate doing less laundry.