"There is also no escape since the network of girls and gossips is so small and tight."christopher–brown

I went to a private Catholic private all-girls’ school for four years. When I tell that to people in my high school and here, they tend to laugh and ask, “What were you doing there?” People who know me can easily see that I must have been out of place.

I am not sure how much of my discomfort in that school stems from the school’s single-sex curriculum, and how much from its religiosity. But strangely when I look back now, I immediately feel constrained, boxed, and almost choked. I can imagine the waist band of my school uniform skirt chafing my flesh, the small classrooms packed with 40 girls where we changed into our PE uniform, the endless checks to see whether my socks were pulled up to my knees, made even more uncomfortable by the heat of Hong Kong summers. 

The feeling of being out of place came from very small things: not willing to participate in gossips and drama, in social media popularity contests, and constantly acting too humble so I wouldn’t appear too attention-seeking. But the feeling also came from something bigger. Rather than a site of liberation and mutual support, the school was like a factory most of the time, mass-producing one batch after another of standardised perfect girls. We were taught to be ‘ladies.’ Our skirts had to reach the knees, with the socks pulled up to two inches below the knees. We had to clap in a certain way, and cheering and jeering were definitely not allowed. We didn’t have a basketball team, but a netball team instead – a sport somehow considered more ‘lady-like.’ Before my time at the school, there was even an etiquette class, where girls had to learn to walk with books on their head.

“Rather than a site of liberation and mutual support, the school was like a factory most of the time, mass-producing one batch after another of standardised perfect girls”

It was not that I was incapable of doing all of that. I could, very well, in fact. I was well-liked among the teachers. The problem is that while I was complaining about not being able to spread my legs in the school uniform, other girls were much less fortunate. There was a girl in the year above me who was bullied – don’t ask me why, bullying doesn’t require a reason. The way girls’ schools bully is not cut-throat. It is slow, and excruciating, like cooking a frog in warm water. They ignore you, and talk behind your back and get other people, your friends, on their side, too. They never talk about you or ridicule you in your face, never show physical aggression. You will just find yourself increasingly alienated in your class. There is also no escape since the network of girls and gossips is so small and tight. That is what happened to the girl. She intermitted and changed her appearance. She appeared more tomboyish, and she attracted more friends in her year. Then, the same old rumour that had been circulating was spread to her year, too. In the end, she had to leave the school, after injuring herself by punching a mirror in the bathroom during a breakdown.

Being in an all girls’ school is like being loose threads at the edge of fabric. If you stand out, you get chopped, either by your peers or the school. Don’t mistake it for promoting equality. Some girls get more attention from the school (again, I benefited from this), but they all come out of the same mould. It promotes conformity instead.

There is something paradoxical about single-sex schools. People tend to feel the sense of sisterhood or brotherhood at times and less so at other times. Being confined in a closed space with only people from your own gender promotes a sense of intimacy. From my experience, girls are more comfortable talking about topics they would never bring up in another gender’s presence, such as menstruation, and we tend to be less mindful about behaving attractively or in a ladylike manner in private. In other words, we forget that we are girls at times. Since everyone is female, we see one another not as other girls, but in light of their personalities and appearances. My friend who went to an all boys’ school also felt that there is more openness about topics like masturbation. However, this intimacy doesn’t transform to a camaraderie, or sister or brotherhood. There isn’t the mentality of looking out for each other just because we belong to the same gender. Among the girls, there always seems to be the looming presence of the other gender. You can become the centre of gossip if you are dating, and it is all due to envy rather than disapproval. We are always acutely aware of opportunities to meet boys, such as in joint-school societies. We don’t necessarily look our best in school, but on Instagram we always make sure we look perfect.

The issues with single-sex schools that I have mentioned above are not specific to single-sex education. A research published by NUS in 2012 shows that 50 per cent of students interviewed identified “prevailing sexism, ‘laddism’ and a culture of harassment” at their universities. The biggest problem of single-sex schools is their intensity. When people are enclosed in a hyper-masculine, or feminine environment, they tend to compete more, and from my experience, tend to be less kind to each other

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