By Rupal Ramesh Shah
While attending schools in Tanzania and Kenya, we always had to wear school uniforms. In Tanzania, it was blue skirts with white shirts and blue scarves, and in Kenya, it was checked red and white sleeveless dresses. I never liked uniforms as a kid because I wanted to wear different clothes every day. I wanted to wear colorful clothes, new ones, and different styles rather than the same uniform each day.
When we first moved to the U.S., one of the most exciting things about attending school was that we could wear whatever we wanted. I looked forward to being able to wear jeans, shorts, dresses, and pretty much any style of clothing that I wanted. In the beginning, the idea of being able to do that was thrilling. However, that was just until I actually attended school. Then I realized that I didn’t have the coolest clothes, and that I wasn’t following the latest trends. I realized that my Tanzanian clothes, while considered stylish back home, were outdated and – simply put – weird in our schools in the U.S.
I obviously stood out because of my clothes. I quickly started to feel self-conscious and uneasy because of my dressing style. Within weeks, my siblings and I decided that we had to change our dressing style and somehow buy a new wardrobe so we could fit in and be considered cool enough to our new friends. The pressure increased as we realized we needed to come up with our own money to buy new clothes, which were much more expensive than they were in Tanzania. Dad was focused on settling his family into this new country, so didn’t have much more to spend on our clothes, especially considering the fact that we already had nice new clothes from Tanzania.
We managed for a bit as the “immigrants with different clothes.” Eventually, we were able to work part time and earn money. And so we were able to buy new clothes from money we earned. Finally, we fit in and made new “American” friends. At long last, we were cool enough to be included among the American social circles.
Thinking back on those experiences, I realize that our clothes say a lot about us. People judge others by their clothes, especially in schools where children are very impressionable. The clothes we wear as children depict the class we belong to in this country – middle or lower class versus the wealthy class; working class versus the affluent class. Unintentionally, our clothes form divisions between children.
Children face bullying in school, especially if they stand out. There are many reasons children get bullied. Appearance and dressing style has often been cited as one of them. In my opinion, uniforms create a standard that everyone can follow collectively. They form cohesion. Additionally, they encourage discipline, as individuals are required to take care of their uniforms and maintain them to ensure long-term usage. Wearing uniforms has the potential to reduce the pressure to follow the latest trends and purchase the newest styles. They also create balance, so that the clothes that you wear during the weekend are different from the ones you wear during the week. Uniforms create a distinction between the professional and personal worlds.
I know that for my family, it would have made things easier in American schools if there was a uniform in place that we could have worn every day. It would have made the task of assimilation smoother. Oftentimes, developing countries learn practices from the Western world. In this case, I believe the U.S. could learn something from schools in Tanzania, Kenya, and other countries, and perhaps even adopt the usage of mandated uniforms.
Rupal Ramesh Shah is a third-generation Tanzanian who grew up in an ethnically Indian family in the town of Moshi, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was a teenager.