My old high school made national headlines recently for discriminating against a trans student in gym class. The situation was positively resolved with the school being required to comply with anti-discrimination policies, but it also made me think about something that’s bothered me for a long time.
Why are we still forcing students to participate in this humiliating ritual in the first place? Why are we violating the privacy of minors by forcing them to change their clothes in a room full of their peers, during what is, for many, the most awkward stage of their lives? What do they actually gain from it?
And is that gain, whatever it is—because it’s highly debatable—worth the emotional pain and psychological damage it may cause?
You might say, “Everyone has to do it; it’s not that big of a deal.” But it is a big deal. It was such a big deal for me that it ultimately led to my dropping out of high school.
No point in mincing words: growing up, I was “the fat kid.” Think about every movie you’ve seen or book you’ve read about a lonely overweight kid getting bullied—that was my life. I’m not sure my former classmates would remember it that way or not, but as an adult I’ve realized that other people’s suffering (especially children’s) often goes completely unnoticed, even by those causing the suffering. Trust me when I say it was brutal.
It got so bad that one of my most vivid childhood memories is how much I wanted to die. That’s difficult to say, even now. Luckily I was too young to figure out how to make it happen.
Long story short, by the time I got to junior high and high school my self-worth was at absolute zero, and I was probably suffering from serious PTSD too. Self-conscious? An understatement.
So I didn’t go to public pools. Or beaches. I didn’t like wearing shorts unless they were knee length, and even then I was painfully aware of how much leg was showing at any given moment. Freshman year I wore my long coat every day, all day long, until a new rule was instituted banning outerwear in class. From then on I wore a lot of oversized hooded sweatshirts, since I was most comfortable when covering up most of my body.
I was on the thicker side of average by then, curvy I guess, but no longer “the fat kid,” which meant that to an outsider my severe inhibitions probably didn’t register or make a whole lot of sense. I wasn’t being taunted the same way anymore, but I was still intensely sensitive to more subtle slights and comments.
I’m sure my counselor thought I was full of it when I tried to explain why I couldn’t go to gym; I even got patronizing comments about how my hair and makeup would be just fine, as if that’s what I was really worried about. (I must’ve looked like a total diva in my baggy clothes, and you know, girls are only ever concerned about silly things like bangs and eyeliner.)
To me, every bit of flesh I could pinch may as well have been flashing like a neon sign, inviting ridicule and scorn from anyone and everyone.
The adults around me insisted that nobody was paying as much attention to me as I thought they were, so why not just shake off that debilitating self-loathing already? Well, probably because I’d just spent my formative years experiencing exactly the opposite. If they weren’t paying attention to me, then why had they spent so much time making fun of me?
Looking back, it seems like I was being gaslighted, except I didn’t have that term for it then. I just knew they were trying to shut me up by telling me my worries weren’t real, despite that what I’d been through was very real.
I dreaded the P.E. swimming unit most of all. I cried about it. A lot. The thought of putting on a bathing suit in front of a bunch of people launched my anxiety attacks into hyperdrive.
On good days, when there was no swimming happening and I felt semi-ok, I’d go to gym and change as quickly as possible, maybe even participate half-heartedly, or else sabotage the activity if I was in the mood to cause trouble (i.e. I'd refuse to run on the track; smoke a cigarette behind the bleachers instead; disrupt volleyball; argue with the teacher).
On the bad days—most of them—the very thought of showing up in the locker room triggered severe panic, and I just couldn’t do it. I was very cavalier about the whole thing, preferring to mask my sickening fear with cool defiance: I just didn’t feel like going, so nobody could make me.
It was empowering, honestly. It worked a lot better than begging authority figures for help, since they’d completely ignored my pleas. This was the only way I knew how to reclaim my self-worth.
Eventually I was ditching entire days of school, and again, this was framed as a discipline problem, not a depression or stress problem. I was sent to an alternative school part of sophomore and junior year, where there was no gym class, and I actually liked it there. But then they wanted me to return to my regular school. I’d have to make up all my gym credits to graduate. So I ended up quitting instead.
I would’ve had a lot of classes to make up. Illinois, my home state, requires students to complete four full years of physical education to receive their high school diploma. Yet they only require two years of science, two years of social studies, and three years of math, plus a single year of art, music, or foreign language. (English is the only other subject that requires four years.)
All these years later, I still don’t understand how playing flag football is more important than science, social studies, math, or learning another language. I don’t understand what benefit there is to spending an entire class period changing in and out of clothing in order to stand in line to kick a soccer ball around some orange cones for a few minutes. I don’t understand why swimming is more important than a kid’s mental health, or why it should be allowed to come between them and getting an education. I don’t understand the value of trying to do a pull-up in front of your entire class while they snicker behind your back.
I do understand that there are plenty of students who probably enjoy going to gym class. For them, physical education should be an elective, like art or music. But it shouldn’t be mandated across the board. Especially for four years.
As far as the so-called obesity epidemic (only because I know that’s going to be the first angry comment), researchers can’t even agree on whether genetics, junk food, adenovirus 36, corn, soda, a fundamental ignorance of thermodynamics, childhood infections,“microorganisms, epigenetics, increasing maternal age, greater fecundity among people with higher adiposity, assortative mating, sleep debt, endocrine disruptors, pharmaceutical iatrogenesis, reduction in variability of ambient temperatures, and intrauterine and intergenerational effects”, or a lack of activity is ultimately to blame, and though physical education has been instituted in Illinois since 1957, the epidemic has not abated; in fact, humans have been getting “taller, fatter, and older” for a century.
Gym class is not the magic solution. If we’re truly worried about kids getting enough movement, according to CNN: “recess appears to be the most effective way to keep kids active. A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 42 percent of the nation's schoolchildren get most of their total daily exercise at recess -- more than do so in P.E. or after-school programs.”
Yet, recess is being cut in our elementary schools to make room for more testing.
From an adult perspective, being so distraught over changing clothes or wearing a bathing suit might sound a little over-the-top, I know. If I had to get into that bathing suit today, I wouldn’t like it, but I could probably do it. I can change in a locker room without worrying about someone seeing my thighs or that my stomach isn’t perfectly flat like a runway model, though I still tend to avoid it.
But teenagers are not adults with fully-developed brains and control over their environments. And the psychological distress of being forced into embarrassing, potentially unsafe (whether emotional or physical) situations can have far more serious consequences than missing out on some jumping jacks.