Teenage Girls and the PE problem

By Hannah Mudge

A new report attempts to tackle the issue of girls hating school sports. Could it really change things?

PE. Two letters which, when put together, still invoke horror from people even decades after they last had to participate in sports at school. When it comes to the reasons why PE class seems so universally hated, everyone's talking about it this week, thanks to a newly published study from the Women's Sports and Fitness Foundation that sports at school are enough to put half of all girls off from exercising for life.

The survey of over 1,500 school pupils revealed that only 31 per cent of 14-year-old girls say they exercise regularly compared to 50 per cent of boys, despite the fact that at the age of nine, both boys and girls are doing about the same amount of physical activity. 51 per cent of the girls said that PE class at school had put them off doing sports.

45 per cent said they felt sport at school was "too competitive", while 48 per cent said that getting sweaty was "not feminine" (something backed up by a third of the boys surveyed, who claimed that sporty girls were "not very feminine"). 43 per cent of the girls said that they did not think there enough sporting role models for young women (BBC Sports Personality of the Year panel, are you listening?). 46 per cent said that they did not like the sports their school offered. They talked about the change from "fun" and informal sports at primary school to the aggressive nature of secondary school sports, often accompanied by little praise or encouragement from teachers.

Clearly, there is a problem. The report suggests solutions such as making sure there are "girls only" PE classes so that students don't feel self-conscious about exercising in front of boys, and offering "girl friendly" activities such as dance and rollerblading. If this will get more girls into exercise, then it would of course be a good thing, but I'm not sure how effective it would actually be.

When I tweeted about the report's findings, it elicited plenty of response and reminiscing from friends and acquaintances. It was telling that just one of them claimed to have loved school PE lessons. Everyone else talked of feeling "traumatised", "hating" every minute of it all, being made to feel "useless" by teachers or picked on by bullies.

And I can sympathise. At my school, one of the week's two PE lessons was actually "girls only". They used to think we would love these lessons because we'd get to do sports like dance and trampolining. Did it make any difference? In a word: no. PE was the subject where the teachers only liked you if you were on a school sports team. PE was the subject where everything that bullies enjoyed focusing on was magnified tenfold. Having the wrong trainers or sports bag. Being large chested or flat chested. Your body hair situation. Being made to do stuff in front of people where they would all watch and laugh at you if you did it wrong.

And those "girl friendly" classes, back then, signified one thing for me: mean girls. As a shy, self-conscious teen with anxiety issues and an utter fear of being made to look silly in front of people, there was nothing like being forced to learn the choreography to "Rhythm Is A Dancer" while the popular girls sniggered at you for not getting it right. There was nothing like having a ball chucked viciously at your stomach or face to make you hate every minute of netball. As a completely uncompetitive person, there was nothing like being shouted at by teachers to put me off putting any effort in to lessons, ever.

And so I was a confirmed PE hater. Things were marginally improved when I discovered the joy of being passive aggressive - so when someone hit the ball out to the other end of the field in hockey, I would saunter over to get it as slowly as I possibly could, enjoying the shouts of irritation from the teacher or from others on the team. As I discussed all this with friends on Twitter this week, it emerged that although we'd all hated PE class, many of us had found sports we'd enjoyed as adults: fitness classes, swimming, running, weight training, roller derby. So it's not all bad - but maybe we're the lucky ones.

Some people are wondering if the recommendations of the report are problematic because they made no attempt to change the image of many sports as "unfeminine" and "unattractive" and instead try to steer girls towards certain activities that only ingrain this further. It was interesting to me to read that girls see team sports in that way, because when I was at school the sporty girls were, in general, the popular girls, the girls who were considered attractive. The report claims that the girls surveyed did not see being sporty and fit as bad, but at the same time they saw being popular and pretty as more desirable and more important.

Girls quoted in the report said that competitive sports made them feel "embarrassed", "judged" and "pressured" - and that too often, boys tended to "take over" and "dominate" proceedings with aggressive behaviour - I can't argue with that, because that was how it used to be when I was at school. Reading a lot of the quotes from both pupils and teachers took me right back to being a teenager and dreading PE more than a decade ago. It seems like nothing has changed - are steps forward too much to hope for? On the other hand, I was encouraged by many of the report's other recommendations, such as making sure girls are not put off PE by the clothes they might have to wear (revealing gym skirts, for example), and making sure teachers are welcoming and supportive towards pupils at all ability levels. It would be quite frankly weird to imagine PE class being largely enjoyed by all, so could a difference really be made?

Hannah Mudge writes about all things news and feminism-themed for BitchBuzz. You can also read her blog, We Mixed Our Drinks or follow her tweets as @boudledidge.

Image via jeffbr13's Flickr

Fri, 04 May 2012 16:08 (GMT+01)
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