Elle Griffiths 3rd January 2019
It started as a throwaway remark, a few years ago. I was watching Orange Is The New Black, the popular women’s prison dramedy ,with a friend. There was a particular scene where the naive new inmate and protagonist Piper Chapman is navigating the sadistic corrections officers, the intimidating fellow inmates and communal showering area for the first time, with trepidation.
“God, it reminds you of PE doesn’t it?” I said, off-hand.
“Er, no PRISON doesn’t remind me of PE. Where the hell did you go to school?” came my mate’s confused reply.
The answer was, nowhere particularly out of the ordinary. True, my bog-standard northern comprehensive was a bit rough around the edges in comparison to my friend’s home counties grammar school, but it certainly wasn’t a US prison. Why then was I left with such lasting unpleasant memories of Physical Education lessons and everything that came with them?
Genetic evidence suggests there was never much chance of me becoming an Olympian, but at primary school age, I enjoyed rounders and netball, the latter of which I made the team for when I went up to high school. As primary school kids, we’d always been fed the terrifying rumour that once at secondary school, you’d have to shower stark naked in front of everyone, teachers included. On arriving at secondary school, we were disturbed to discover it wasn’t just a rumour — it was a rule that was ruthlessly enforced.
Our best ideas to circumvent it — underwear hidden under towels, hair dampened to suggest we’d already been in, etc — usually failed to throw the teachers off, and the showering experience became one of the most dreaded parts of the school week. Eventually, a group of us came up with the idea to petition the school for cubicles or, at least, shower curtains.
I was volunteered to write the accompanying letter — a perfectly polite, if precocious, piece outlining our disdain for communal showering. Nearly everyone signed it, with support transcending all high school cliques from the sporty and conscientious to the older bullies. But upon handing it in to senior staff, all hell broke loose.
Rightly suspected as the ringleader, I was immediately kicked off the netball team and my card was marked by the PE department for the rest of my school life. No puddle was too muddy for me to run through, no gymnastics position too undignified to be attempted, no pair of spare shorts too ancient and mouldy to be foisted on me.
By my GCSE years, I simply stopped going to the lessons. Any amount of detentions was better than putting up with such humiliating nonsense.
I decided to ask around in my wider friendship and peer group to see whether my experience was an anomaly. I was pretty amazed by the response; women desperately wanted to talk about this. Many of them were genuinely angry about the unpleasant treatment they’d received at an impressionable age and many, like myself, believed the negative associations they had with PE had put them off exercise and sport later in life.
“It was just pure humiliation, like they revelled in it,” Lauren, 33, says of the teachers at her Midlands comprehensive in the 1990s. “They laughed at and mocked whoever dropped out first in that awful ‘bleep test’ and made us clean out the equipment cupboard as punishment.
“It sounds far-fetched but I always remember that feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment.”
She adds: “There was no encouragement, no interest in finding something else I might be good at. It was as though it was never supposed to be enjoyable, and so I pretty much just banished any ideas of sport or exercise from my mind the second I escaped secondary school.”
Research shows a gender gap in physical activity levels in the UK, with 40% of women not doing enough exercise for their health compared with 36% of men.
Men being more active than women is largely consistent across the world, but the UK has one of the bigger gaps between the sexes. And while anecdotal evidence suggests PE wasn’t a cakewalk for a lot of men at school either, some of the reasons women cite for not taking part in exercise in adulthood fits with a theme of what many of the people I spoke to hated about PE — worries about ability and, particularly, the fear of humiliation.
Mandy, now in her early 40s, told me how she’d been singled out to the rest of the class one September as an example of someone who had gained too much weight over the summer holidays. A naturally sporty girl, she wasn’t active again until well into her twenties.
Several women spoke about being forced to take part when on a particularly heavy day of their periods only to leak and have mortifying accidents, and a girl from my school reminded me of the time our teacher had barked at a particularly flat chested girl to stop covering herself up in the changing rooms as she had “nothing to hide anyway”. And as if the teachers weren’t bad enough, any underlying tensions or bullying issues elsewhere in school often had a habit of boiling over during a PE lesson.
Indeed, some of the fights I saw between teenage girls in the PE changing rooms make 10 men brawls outside a Wetherspoons look like a tickling match. As one former school friend succinctly put it: “When you were soaping yourself down naked, you could bet your life the teachers were there. But when someone was getting their head caved in, they were nowhere to be seen.”
For libel reasons, if nothing else, let me clarify that I do not think any of my former PE teachers were sadistic paedophiles. Instead, I think their behaviour was part of a widely inappropriate and cruel culture handed down over generations of teaching staff and never questioned.
The era had plenty of bad teaching practices and, pre-camera phones and widespread internet use, both teachers and pupils got away with a lot of things I’m assured wouldn’t fly now. But as recently as 2012, a study by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation found that school-age girls still, by and large, disliked PE, with over half those polled saying their PE lessons had put them off doing any exercise at all.
While sexist headlines at the time zoomed in on issues such as not wanting to get their hair dirty or ruin their nails, a more nuanced picture shows that there were still valid concerns over intimidating competitiveness, ability levels and humiliation.
Millennials have long been ridiculed as the “snowflake generation” irredeemably entitled in adulthood because we got “medals simply for taking part” as children. But as shown, that stereotype certainly doesn’t correlate with a lot of people’s experiences. I hope for their sake, the generation below us, Gen Z, live up to their reputation for getting things done and making changes.
And they should start with PE.
Elle Griffiths 3rd January 2019