The Vagenda

Breaking News: Girls Hate PE

So, you heard it here last. Girls hate PE, and over half hated it so much that it put them off exercise for life. Surprised? Nah, me neither. As a teenage girl attending a large comprehensive in North Wales, our bi-weekly PE lessons provoked a sense of foreboding akin to that of a rice farmer standing at the edge of a minefield. I fucking hated it. 

PE was shit. It was taught badly, and ruled over by large well-built girls of Welsh stock who possessed not only the correct adidas popper trackie bottoms which would prelude them indefinitely from social pariahood, but also the ability to not get hit in the face by the ball. I hated them, skinny little slip of a thing that I was: I did not have the correct kit, as I was told (and in hindsight I can totally see her point) by a girl in my year, my PE trousers looked like pyjama bottoms.

It is a well-known fact that sartorially, PE has a lot to answer for. You have the hideous polyester pleated skirts worn by proponents of that most pointless of games, netball, which is like basketball for girls except you’re not allowed to like, move. Ever. Only pivot. PIVOT GIRLS! PIVOT! To add insult to injury, our school also had PE Rugby tops which were the same hideous marigold yellow and black of the uniform. Except we were girls, so we didn’t get Rugby, except the one afternoon when a supply teacher let us play and provided us with one of the most joyful, mud-filled afternoons of our schooldays. Not once did we go swimming. 

But if you forgot your kit, well, that was the worst fate of all, because then you’d have to delve into the storage, in our case called the “Frug box” and don the PE kits of athletes past. Greying vests starched stiff by sweat which had collected in yellow patches, and nylony shorts which flapped about your arse like the sails on the maiden voyage of the doomed Marie Celeste. Most unhygienic. Yet kitted out or not, I never saw a girl shower. Instead, we each had a £1 can of impulse with which we’d coat our bodies before Maths. We’d dress furtively and quickly, to avoid being told by Emma Roberts that, aged twelve, our legs were too hairy and our knickers not thong-like enough, or to avoid being eyed up by the PE teacher, who, despite no evidence to the affirmative, we were told was definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, a “lesbo.”

It got to the point where, sometime around year nine, most of us had thought “fuck the kit”, and just did PE in our school uniforms. This led to, one fine spring afternoon, us all being summoned to the sports hall and given a fairly substantial lecture on vaginal yeast infections. I will never forget the looks on 150 girls’ faces as they sat, lining the benches, and were ‘educated’ about thrush. Did it help? Did it fuck. We’d take a yeast infection over the Frug box any day.

And thus it continued: a constant rotation of hockey (which just allowed the more violent members of our class to work out their abandonment issues without the need of group therapy), tennis (played with impotent plastic rackets and spongy balls which squelched in the Welsh weather), dance (be a tree girls, be a tree), netball, and the most dreaded of horrors: cross country. When I think about cross country now, I become angry and withdrawn. I have to go and sit in a corner. Being made to run around the school grounds for hours at a time was the very worst of punishments, although it did have its positive sides in that PE teachers (much as they would like to be) are not omniscient, so you could usually pop around the back of the six form common room for a break and, failing that, just take a leisurely stroll around the football pitch. But it makes me angry because who, as an adult, would put up with that kind of fascist behaviour? I am angry at the teachers and the LEA for making me do it, and I am angry at my parents for not making it stop. 

And who, who can forget the depraved and sadistic “bleep tests”? The pointless tests, which basically tested how fast you could run from one side of the room to another, allowed the PE teacher another method for “ranking” their victims and have had no practical application in everyday life (had they taught me to run away at high speed from a pursuing attacker then I would certainly be more grateful) And then you had the ephemeral summer “Olympics” craze- where you were handed a dangerous implement, usually either a spherical object made of iron or a pointed spear, and firmly encouraged to throw it. What was most preposterous was that, come your termly report card, you were GRADED on your ability and your enthusiasm, a process which bespoke such delusions of academic grandeur that my teenage self felt justly proud of my consistent D4s (‘D’ for ability, ’4′ for effort- the lowest number available.) In that sense, PE did prepare me at least in some sense for the working world, for it allowed me to adjust to the notion that I would probably spent the majority of my adult life being bossed around by people of far lower intelligence. It may sound snobby, but I’m just telling it how it is. 

There were three things, and three things only, which would get you out of having to do PE. The first was a note from your parents, of which I had a permanent one, thanks to my mother, who had conveniently forgotten to date it, meaning that I spent the best part of three years sitting under a tree with a ‘sprained wrist.’ The second was pregnancy, an option a large amount of my contemporaries opted for, and who can blame them. And the third was September 11, 2001. 

There was one good thing about PE, however. When it rained, we were allowed to play rounders with the boys in the sports hall. Bar the one time that I fell flat on my face and slid a good twenty metres across the lacquered floor in front of all the boys I wanted to snog, it was a pretty good laugh. I even got a rounder once, but unfortunately the game had finished and everyone had walked away from the field, so no one was witness to my solitary triumph. Other than that, PE was one of the most unpleasant aspects of my attendance at the fascist institution we called ‘school’. Which is why I am not surprised that girls don’t like PE. Because, while they may cite self-esteem as one of the major reasons for their aversion to it, that survey has merely chipped into the top of a gigantic iceberg composed of pubescent angst, institutionalised bullying and pointless, pointless sporting activities. Do I exercise now? Do I hell. But I can remove my bra without taking by top off and for that, and that alone, I am grateful. 

30 thoughts on “Breaking News: Girls Hate PE

  1. PE and associated games taught me to hate all forms of physical exercise (apart from swimming and a blissful term of 10 pin bowling). Luckily I found a bicycle to be practical transport or I would be a wreck.

    I’m given to think that all forms of competetive sport and athletics serve to turn the more ordinarily abled off physical activity, as (a) most participants inevitably lose (b) seeing the extreme levels of achievment makes our mundane attempts seem so feeble as to be not worth bothering :( And don’t get me started on spectator sport…

    Which is why I rejoice in leading cooperative activity where everyone is on the same team and we all win every time, and success is measured in fun not numbers or position :)

  2. I’m so happy we didn’t have a frug box!! I hated PE, and avoided it at all costs, I once told Miss.Vanderbeek(yes that was her name!) that me dog had puppies on my kit and I didn’t have time to wash it. She didn’t believe me but was so highly amused by my creative excuses I got away with not doing it half the time.

    In our last year they eventually finished building our new school and we got some cool equipment like table tennis and archery; there were less puppies born that year

  3. but cat isn’t that the point? If most people’s experience of PE is as awful as the author’s and mine (and so many others I’ve discussed it with over the years) then it’s training to hate activity. I’ve never before heard anyone have a good word for a PE teacher!

    as for the shocker, try as I may to be politically correct, lesbianism *still* seems very funny to me, even while I respect the lifestyle. For that matter heterosex is damn funny too but at least I have some engagement there where lesbianism is forever denied to me…

  4. I guess I’m different then because I liked PE and my PE teachers and still play a number of sports. I really think sports and exercise are a great thing for people to do so would be for the improvement of PE rather than just trashing it.

    My main issue is that there are more important reasons why PE teachers (and female athletes) are so commonly either insulted, called lesbians or objectified which feed into why “girls hate PE”. To me these are more important than having to wear uncool second hand gym kit. (my answer would be to just remember your kit)

    And don’t get me started on the “netball, which is like basketball for girls” comment. Basketball is for girls.

  5. I’m not keen to get dragged into a debate here, but doesn’t the last paragraph undermine the rest of the article? Aren’t all the issues raised further up entirely rooted in self-esteem (or lack thereof)? Having self-esteem crushed by bullying in the changing room; lack of self-esteem due to not being particularly good at the sports on offer; etc.

  6. Dear Cat,

    You have missed the point. Read the “lesbo” sentence again, and readdress whether or not you think it’s confirming stereotypes or disputing them. Proper analyse the language, like.

    P.S. Her PE teachers really were stupid. Lighten up.

  7. I can see how parts of this article could rub you the wrong way if you really enjoyed gym class growing up, but I still do think it’s a really legitimate article. I could really relate to it. There are so many ways to be active, and partly due to space and budget restraints, in gym class, you’re really only taught a handful of basically similar ways: basketball, soccer, baseball, volleyball…it’s all hand-eye coordination, getting a ball in a certain place, not letting the team do so. It’s great if you’re good at that and enjoy it, regardless of what gender you are, but it makes you feel like an incompetent moron when you’re not. If you’re taught that those are the only ways to be active and exercise, then you’re going to hate exercise. I wrote a blog post about how I learned all about how un-athletic I was in school, and didn’t rediscover how much I love to move and use my body until I was 23. That’s just shitty. Gym should make you feel good, regardless of what you’re good at, at least some of the time.

    P.S., she totally pointed out the absurdity of calling her gym teacher a lesbo within the article.

  8. I agree with the whole article. My experiences were the same…me and all my friends hated P.E. and my daughter hates it already without and comment from me. There would have to be pretty massive changes for any of this to ever change.
    p.s. back in the 80s we had no major disasters to fall back on so most of us had to rely on about 50 periods a year to sit out!

  9. I hated PE, every minute of it. I have no athletic skills. I couldn’t hit a ball if I had a racquet the size of a barn door, and that made me the last to be picked for any given team. Nobody wanted me on their team, and I didn’t want to undergo ritual humiliation on their team, but nobody had any choice. I fail to see why exercise in school has to be (or had to be, this was the 80′s) in the form of competitive sport.

    I was delighted to run around in the riding school as a helper for the Riding for the Disabled programme. I loved riding and doing exercise classes with adult women in my own time. It was the competitive crap at school that left me cold, that and the changing room snark that came with the territory.

  10. I loved this article, but your response to Cat’s post is pretty dismissive. Why would she want to read the ‘lesbo’ sentence again if you are saying she is unable to read an article?

    And it’s not fair to tell someone with a genuine concern for the silly stereotypical way people view PE teachers to ‘lighten up.’ Because it might be something you take lightly, but not others. At my school our PE teacher was accused of ‘perving’ on girls in the changing room, which was a complete fabrication from idiot girls, but she then gained a reputation as a ‘disgusting lesbo.’ I know that this article doesn’t perpetuate this steriotype, but let’s not turn into bullies by dictating what people should and should not take seriously.

    Keep up the great articles!

  11. Agreed – Vagenda’s response here is really rude and condescending. Also, Vagenda could take it’s own advice and read Cat’s post properly. I think Cat’s point isn’t an attack on the author, but an attempt to open up debate about the unfortunate fact that women in sport are mocked as ‘lesbos’, because they may be strong and skillful and enjoy their bodies not just insofar as they are capable of attracting a man. If it’s not that then sportswomen are often sexualised, trivialised or ignored by the media and by many people.

    There are a million problems with school PE, bleep tests were rank and gender stereotyping terrible (rugby for boys, netball for girls etc). But this article also perpetuates stereotypes by dismissing female sports as pathetic (‘netball’s just pivoting’ ; school sports kit not pretty enough, we never got to play with the boys…). Definitely agree with the main point that PE in schools could be improved but attitudes towards women in sport could improve as well.

  12. Oh god, I hated PE.
    Now and then a well scheduled Clarinet lesson got me out of it, but usually it was all the fun of warming up for a game of netball I inevitably wouldn’t get to play in since I was short and skinny and therefore clearly had no aptitude for sport. Or, when the weather was bad but not bad enough for indoor sports, we got to run around the field for an hour. Oh joy. I’m from the North East. The weather is bad more often than not.
    I still despise being made to run anywhere, but I love swimming and cycling (neither of which we got to do in PE) and loved basketball (I even scored a goal) the one time we got to play it, and joined a netball team in my last year at uni, just for fun, which I loved, and which I actually got to play (always Centre.)

    “Yet kitted out or not, I never saw a girl shower. Instead, we each had a £1 can of impulse with which we’d coat our bodies before Maths.” – This was a thing that I found bizarre in PE. I showered once, and once only, in school – I assume after out first ever class, in Year 7, aged 11, where the popular girls mocked and berated me for undressing and, y’know being hygienic after running about for an hour. Bizarre. I believe some girls did shower as we got older, but in their underwear, which presumably was damp for the rest of the day, which just strikes me as weird. (I made do with deodorant only after the first incident.)

    You’d think, as the ‘childhood obesity epidemic’ gets worse, the PE curriculum would be overhauled to make sure every child was actually exercising and had the opportunity to find some sort of sport that they enjoyed, instead of continuing to be forced to participate in the same 2 or 3 activities or any of the humiliating team picking which inevitably leaves the less sporty kids playing the least taxing positions, or not playing at all.

  13. Thanks. I really do think that there is so much more to be addressed here. Think of the amount of school kids that hate classes like maths and English, yet the sexuality of those teachers would never be brought up. But I guess I shall take my debate and opinions elsewhere!

  14. I remember having a terrible PE teacher who would make kids who suffered intense asthma attacks, and even some who were vomitting, keep running and running. It was actually sadistic and appalling and if they were trying to train their rugby boys for the nationals or something then maybe you can get away with being so hard on them, but these were just regular joes who were trying their best.

    I was actually alright at sports, I was a swimmer and a hockey player and I enjoyed things like football and the like regardless of being a bit useless. When we got a new sports teacher however, we played badinton and golf, both of which I’m terrible at, but while I always had a go and tried to have fun, she would bring me up in front of the class and say I was terrible and not even trying and I thought I was too good to be there, all because I was laughing while I was playing, and because I had been successful at sport in the past. Apparently because I had a sporty background (from my own hard work and enthusiasm) I thought I was “too cool for school” and she felt the need to make everyone turn against me in this obviously personal attack. Needless to say, no one ever respected that teacher and no one worth knowing believed I was full of myself because I smiled while I sucked.

    PE in schools should be better monitored for this sort of treatment, as apparently you are scrutinised no matter what your level of achievement or enthusiasm.

  15. In my experience even nice PE teachers came across as creepy because they made you run and stuff and then stood there watching you all sweaty running around. They also had a habit of popping in on the class while they were changing to make sure they were behaving yourselves. Bitter teenagers who don’t like a class will usually make fun of the teacher and when these two things are taken out of contest they do seem pervy so it’s only natural that ALL PE teachers get these reputations, that’s just what teenagers are like :P

  16. I really enjoyed PE. It would be interesting to know why the people who didn’t like it thought that. Was it because it was one of your weaker subjects and, unlike not doing so well in English, say, your “failure” was in front of everyone rather than just being the mark you could keep to yourself? Or was it because the teachers were uninspiring? I’m genuinely interested. My fiancée is training to be a teacher (not PE) and the main problem with most children is apathy.

  17. Cat: “Think of the amount of school kids that hate classes like maths and English, yet the sexuality of those teachers would never be brought up”

    the difference being that in those classes, you’re not required to strip off or get into compromising positions…

    I’ve been pondering this, and it may be that for more studious or less coordinated people (and I am both) PE seems completely pointless where other subjects offer something possibly of lasting value – whereas excelling at PE only qualifies you to become that hated category of PE teacher ?

  18. A friend, after getting lambasted by our P.E. teacher for not putting enough effort in cross country, said “Someone’s got to come last Miss…”

    Brilliant article, after EVERY lesson the changing rooms would reek of Impulse. Ahh memories.

  19. I am a very naturally unatheletic person. My parents put effort into making sure I was active as a kid, and my school (unlike apparently most of the others here) had a wide range of types of sport (including basketball, football, touch rugby and swimming, as well as netball etc). There was still the impulse and hairspray (How could you forget the hairspray? One girl had impulse, two hairsprays and mousse. She was the regina of our school)as well as judgement of your development – or lack thereof. There wasn’t the assumed perversion – a small town, so we knew all our PE teachers were happily married to other teachers, and the real ones to watch out for were the paedos in the english and art departments.

    I think the reason I (mainly) enjoyed PE where ‘thousands’ (?source) didn’t, was that I gave up giving a fuck quite early on. Like the author, I was never going to be cool – despite a VERY YELLOW ellese jumper, and some hand-me-down poppers. Thankfully (?) I was just autistic enough to just give up and enjoy myself instead.
    Sadly I’m not an olympic standard (yet). I’m a doctor, and with our current pension issues I’m going to be working til I’m 74 – I’ve seen first hand the difference fitness makes in the kind of 74 you are. Sport and health should be the same kind of compulsary as maths and english – and I do think its psychologically healthy for people to have to cope with being good AND not good at things at school.

    I find i disagree with the overall tone of the article. In a website aiming to encourage female strength, an article negative about actually encouraging physical strength seems incongruous. So many female athletes are working unbelievably hard in male dominated fields and could do with your support, that to belittle sport because ‘you weren’t good at it’ smacks slightly of the catharsis columns described here a few weeks ago.

    Really enjoy the site people (was about to type guys, then thought I could do better and go gender neutral), since starting reading I’ve been thinking so much more about what I’m doing, and what I’m willing to accept others doing. It’s also given me added joy to my guilty pleasure of trashy magazines, as when I get upset about all the pretty shiny things I cannot afford, I then judge all the scary diet/surgery trend articles and the strange people who seem to think they are necessary…

  20. I don’t mean to say “what about teh menz” here on a feminist site, but I hated sports at school. It’s not just a female thing. I think many people of both sexes can identify with it. In my case it was absolute misery.

    In my primary school I was always one of the last to be picked for teams on compulsory sports afternoons, when we played football, which I loathed. I’ve never been good at it and when you’re 10 and a boy everyone judges you by your football skills or lack thereof. So I was a social outcast.

    At my secondary school, we had compulsory sport three times a week, rugby in autumn, hockey after Xmas and cricket in summer (or athletics if you were dead sporty) and I loathed all of it, particularly the Jocks and their stupid ultra-competitiveness and body facism. In the end I took up rowing because although I’ve never been a team player, the opportunities for taking out a scull on my own and pissing off down river, tying up on the bank and having a shifty fag and reading a book under the trees were excellent. More than anything else, compulsory sport turned me into a misfit and perennial outsider.
    I can empathise with the author. Had the school actually tried to find sports the girls enjoyed and were good at, I’m sure they’d still all be hooked on it.

    I agree with above comments about sports teachers. There is a lot of gender stereotyping, calling female PE teachers lesbians, etc, which is cruel and misogynist. But many of them (male and female) are complete morons. Take that awful, cliched way they speak. Mind you, I’ve never understood why anyone would leave school, go to University and then run back to school again to teach sport. Bizarre.

  21. I totally agree that physical activity is essential to healthy living – my life was transformed when I found a (non competitive) sport I liked aged 42, but I’m wondering if compulsory school lessons are ever going to succeed in getting this across, particularly when it seems to attract teachers of limited empathy?

    ClareLabrooy is so right about “someone’s got to come last”, and serial humiliation is unlikely to result in positive outcomes :(

  22. This year I’ve taken up sculling (aka rowing with two blades and another woman simultaneously in a very narrow very long boat) on the windy tidal Thames, aged 50, and I lOVE this shit so much, and recommend it to other wimmin so often, that it makes me sad that hockey and netball and bleep test runs at school put me off exercise so comprehensively. I do recall cross-country fondly, as we merely ambled to a near-by friend’s house where we drank lukewarm Nescafe and discussed Healthciffe’s potential as a lover, then returned, unsweaty, to school, an hour later. Hockey (Left Back position) was ghastly, freezing immobile hours in micro-PE-skirt, thighs mottled blue with cold. As an adolescent, I did enjoy riding horses and roaming the moors on my own, which also permitted unsupervised day-dreaming, far from my mother’s exhortations to “Join a tennis club, darling, such fun!”

  23. I too hated P.E at school, but have recently discovered running again – More for general health reasons than I actually enjoying it. All I remember doing in P.E was rounders (both sexes) and netball (just girls). Both involved 2 ‘captains’ being picked by the teachers who then picked their own teams. Absolute torture. The teachers always picked the sporty kids to be captains who then chose me and my best friend last. I’m sure the teacher did this on purpose to punish the rubbish people for being rubbish. Although, in their defence, not only was I terrible at ball related sports, I would actively protest by just standing around and making no attempt to catch the ball or get involved. But I only did that because of the constant torture of being picked last.

    I remember the girls got to play rugby once for some reason. That was probably the best P.E lesson I’ve ever had. I think teachers should make more of an effort to try different activities that would suit less sporty kids more – Non-competitive things like trampolining or swimming. There should be a lot less emphasis on boys sports vs girls sports now. Girls should be allowed to play football, rugby etc. and boys should have to endure netball :)

  24. Yeah, I agree with SampsonBrass, hating PE isn’t something unique to girls. My boyfriend also hated PE when he was at school – something we have in common. I think because PE is something you’re either good at or you aren’t, so if you aren’t it’s humiliating to fail in front of your whole class, repeatedly, every week. Also, around puberty, you don’t really want to show your body off. I HATED having compulsory swimming classes – I just feel like I’m naked in a swimming costume, and not to mention that around that age me and my friends were disgusted by the idea of using tampons, so had to invent elaborate excuses to get out of it every month. I had one friend who used a different excuse every week and ended up avoiding it altogether.

    I was so happy once I got old enough that PE classes weren’t compulsory. I hated it because my kit always looked awful, and also because I have allergies and am just generally gross, my nose would always run, especially when we were outside. Trying to play hockey in the middle of winter when your hands are frozen and you can’t breathe wasn’t an experience I’d ever want to repeat. I wore glasses too, and had to take them off to do sports, so I couldn’t see. I think I’m just perfectly evolved to be terrible at sports. I’m so glad I never have to do PE again.

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  26. I am in the US and PE is pretty much the same here. There’s always a “lesbo” teacher, and stripping down and suiting back into regular clothes without anybody seeing my hairy legs became a skill one mastered as the semesters went by. I, too, thought the teachers were all less intelligent than their math, science, and language arts colleagues. I had large breasts as early as age 12, and running a mile in Southern California’s hot desert climate with breasts painfully flopping around drew me to go to PE without my uniform just so I could sit in the shade with the rest of the “slackers”. They changed the PE program a few years in. I was finally able to choose sports and activities I liked to do: badminton, yoga, archery, and Tae-Bo. When they did that, I actually looked forward to PE and my grade raised from a D to a B (I still hated running days). Also, my opinion of my PE teachers improved tenfold.

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