“I’m a successful, formidable woman, but PE still hurts.”
“I’ve had a hard time forgiving my PE teacher for her cruel comments.”
“It’s been 15 years and I’m not ready to talk about it.”
“This topic still haunts me.”
About a week ago, I posted a tweet and an Instagram picture asking women to share their thoughts and experiences of school PE. I was startled and overwhelmed by the responses, both in their number and in how raw and emotional many of them were. I’ve recently realised that school PE is a raw experience for me too, and has had a greater impact than I thought. But I didn’t realise just how many other women feel the same. For many of us, it goes beyond feeling put off sport, contributing to poor body image, a disconnect with our physicality, and even to eating disorders.
Either a Brain or a Body: My Experience
“You were always climbing things and trying to do forward rolls”, my mum told me as I looked at photos of my toddler self. For a split second I wondered when I stopped. Then I remembered what I’d learned at school: “Hannah’s clever and quiet (read: bullied into silence), academic, studious, great at reading.” And this seemed to mean I couldn’t be good at sport too, and it didn’t matter that I got nothing out of PE physically, mentally or emotionally – well, nothing positive anyway. I accepted this lesson all the way into adulthood. Even a brief foray into some bold and challenging dance classes in my mid-twenties didn’t shake this belief. Then the anorexia reached the point where I was ordered to sit still, and the four flights of stairs to the four walls of my little room felt like climbing a mountain.
From the point of complete disconnect with my body and total lack of physical energy to where I am today in feeling the return of some strength, I’ve suddenly realised that my PE “lesson” was wrong and unacceptable. Why couldn’t I enjoy movement and physicality? Why couldn’t I develop physical strength and skill? Because I spent my “lessons” in the line of shame, anxiously waiting my turn to “perform” an untaught task, “failing”, feeling ashamed, going to the back, listening to the bullies, and waiting for round two.
I’m Not Alone
Don’t get me wrong. Not everyone who answered my question had such a negative experience. Some women even had positive stories to share. But the reasons for those stories aren’t necessarily a positive reflection on school PE.
Among the positive responses, a common theme was being “naturally sporty.” I take this to mean someone whose body naturally does things others have to learn. Just as I’m what they call a “natural linguist”, picking up and feeling my way through a new language untaught, many of these women are perhaps natural gymnasts, runners, or netball players. The other theme was having parents who enjoyed and encouraged sports outside of school. The most positive responses in my view came from a couple of women whose experience of school PE was shaped by supportive teachers who they could look up to. Here is something positive that school PE itself fostered.
But from my research so far, the majority of those who have felt moved to speak out have shared negative experiences. I realise that in life people are often more motivated to speak out in complaint than praise. But larger surveys have also highlighted that so many women and girls have negative relationships with PE and sport in general. A recent BBC News Article reported on a survey of 25,000 secondary students in England and Northern Ireland which found that over a third of girls aged 14 and above felt insecure, hated others watching, and are self-conscious about their bodies during PE. Almost two thirds disliked competitive PE lessons. My research suggests that PE is one reason why 1.5 million fewer women than men take part in sport and physical activity each week in England (Women In Sport)
The Problems Then
For those of us who’ve left school, even those of us who left much more recently than me, I’ve found the main problems so far to be neatly summed up in these responses:
“Humiliating, very public failure”
“I felt ashamed of my womanly body.”
“obsession with playing sport with a competitive edge”
“Being forced to take part in sports I loathed with no element of choice”
“lots of standing in lines waiting”
“Navy blue knickers and communal showers”
“No one ever taught you the rules. You were expected to know and if you got it wrong, you were yelled at”
The responses on the situation nowadays do suggest some improvements. At least the clothing is less exposing and more practical for most. Choice seems to be increasing too, with some PE teachers are even giving girls questionnaires so they can better tailor lessons to motivate them. But there’s definitely still work to be done – particularly on providing more choice, and shifting the focus away from competition.
My brief glance through the national curriculum guidelines suggests that there is quite a lot of flexibility for individual schools when it comes to choosing the particular sports, with the curriculum setting only broad goals. If this is the case, then I think choice should be given as far as it’s practically possible. For me, sport is something we do with our bodies. It’s more personal than science or history. It might sound radical to some, but I think taking away choice in how we move our bodies is a bit like choosing exactly what we eat for school lunch. Would we let our employers choose what sports we do? But even if this idea of maximum freedom is too much for some, surely most of us would advocate a bit more choice?
But what about us women?
My focus isn’t as much on the girls than on us women. It seems there are programmes designed to improve the situation in schools and to boost girls’ confidence in sport. There are also programmes aimed at women too, such as This Girl Can and Women in Sport’s initiatives. But I haven’t seen anything that focuses on letting us women who had a negative experience of school PE confront it head on, shout out how terrible and unacceptable it was. We need a space to find a supportive empowering sisterhood to shout out with, and where we can take the first step in re-claiming our physicality and the love of movement we had as little kids.
That’s why I’m hosting my first ever campaign event, with the support of my inspirational friends from Body Positivity In Real Life. Get Over School PE will be taking place in London in the near future, and I’d also love to do this in some other cities too, or for others to take the lead in hosting an event there.
Get Over School PE: What’s It All About
I’ve got some fun and empowering ideas in the pipeline, including an alternative anti-competitive feminist sports day, an empowering and joyful dance class, and a “Speak Out” style debate about what we can do to support each other practically offline in a push to make the sports and fitness industries more body positive. Plus all proceeds will go to supporting a woman’s cause to be announced soon.
Keep a look out for updates on my social media. And I’m looking for London-based ladies who’d like to help me organise things, so please do email me if you’d like to get involved: email@example.com. All are welcome, and if you have any sports or dance related skills that you’d like to volunteer, that’s great too!