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Why High School Gym Made Me Hate My Body

And how Sonny and Cher helped to change all that.

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gif of girls and gym teacher talking while another side stands on the side shy, gym, body shaming
Vidhya Nagarajan
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Recently, on Facebook, I posted how my high school gym class had traumatized me. Over 100 soaked-in-misery, me-too kinds of responses popped up soon after, and I began to wonder, why and how had a class meant to generate a love of physical exercise and a respect for our bodies turned out to do just the opposite for so many? Because it had been designed that way.

Right from the start, our gym teachers made it clear that there was a great divide between us. They doted on the athletic and popular girls, mocking the overweight, the skinny, the graceless, with monikers like Fatty Patty, Skinny Minnie or Cow on Ice. That latter group, of course, included me.

We had no choices. We had to play volleyball and touch football in fall, basketball in winter, baseball in spring, the unathletic and the clumsy up against the agile stars. There was never any talk of discovering what activity you might succeed at, of experiencing how good that might make you feel.

Instead, the teachers wanted you to play to win, no matter what that took, which meant dodgeballs slammed deliberately toward your head or your being shoved to the floor. The most dangerous times were when the gym was filled with apparatus that even the gym teachers had no real idea how to use. Uneven parallel bars. Rings. Horses. Ambulances were called four times to cart away injured girls, one of whom, to our terror, broke her neck and didn’t come back to school. But no one, not even our parents, protested.

How could I possibly feel good about my body in that situation? How could I like gym? The ugly, sallow blue uniforms didn’t help. Neither did having to take showers with dividers covering only our torsos, providing more cruel opportunity for body-shaming. The gym teachers as well as the popular girls stood on tiptoes, judging our bodies. One of the head cheerleaders who always picked on me because I was so skinny even encouraged other girls to do the same.

But if gym showers made me hate my body, there was something far worse, a scandalous practice that was not stopped until 1995: posture pictures. Girls had to strip down to their panties to have photos taken, ostensibly to show any physical weakness that might call for specific exercises. The gym teachers took the photos while we all stood in line, waiting our turn, humiliated except for the lucky, confident ones with lusher bodies and lacier bras. When the photos were developed into silhouettes meant to hide our identity, everyone got a chance to look at them. There was no anonymity because our hair, noses and body shapes always gave us away. There were no special exercises, no talks about better posture. Instead, there was just the shame.

I couldn’t wait to go to college, to get out of a high school where most of the kids in my town either entered the service or got married and popped out babies. Two thoughts filled my head at graduation: I was going to be someone—and I would never have to take gym again.

But I was wrong. In college I was shattered to hear that we had to take a year of gym. Happily, I soon learned you didn’t have to wear uniforms, just whatever was comfortable. You didn’t have to shower if you didn’t want to. And the choices? Golf, yoga, fencing—whatever you wanted.

I joined a class called Dancing Along With Sonny & Cher. Nobody said, “This isn’t really gym.” Nobody cared how good you were. The teacher put on the music and then ebulliently danced with us. I began to notice that my body felt strong, my mood brightened, and I felt confidant and excited. I fell so in love with moving that I couldn’t wait to get back to class.

Flash-forward. I’m a wife and mother, and I’m thrilled that gym is so different now. My grown son went through his gym years in school without uniforms and got to choose whatever sport or activity he wanted.

Gym class changed, but it’s important to note that people can, too. One day, to my surprise, the same cheerleader who had tortured me in the shower area of our high school befriended me on Facebook. I couldn’t resist accepting because I wanted to know the why behind her behavior. She told me that she had been drowning in her own life, as the daughter of two brutal alcoholics. “The only way I could feel better was to excel in gym, and when that wasn’t enough, I could belittle others who weren’t,” she explained. We talked for two hours. We became friends and managed to heal both of our gym-caused traumas.

I know how important respecting and appreciating your body is. How crucial it is to have encouragement and support. And that’s why every day, I pull out my mini-trampoline and bounce, to stay strong and feel energized. And once again, I turn to the best, most life-changing support I’ve ever had: the musical accompaniment of Sonny and Cher.

See? Gym class had a positive influence after all.

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