Famous Blue Gymsuit (Guest Post)

I didn’t like phys ed in high school when I went in the early 70’s. I didn’t like it for many reasons.
I didn’t like the outfit the girls were compelled to wear – a weird blue onesie made of non-stretchy cotton that buttoned up the front and had a completely unnecessary belt in the middle. I guess somebody thought it was cute.

There were elastics in the short-short legs that poofed them, bloomer-like, around our legs, presumably to protect our modesty from the boys. I guess they thought a glimpse of underwear as we cartwheeled would be terribly distracting. It wasn’t like they were ever close enough to see us, so I don’t know.

I was plump, and sprouting big boobs, and the largest size we could get barely buttoned across my chest. It fit like a sausage casing. It had no give whatsoever, pulled up into my butt crack when I bent over and showed embarrassing sweat stains magnificently. It was completely uncool.

As a self-conscious teenaged girl, this was the single most humiliating garment I could be asked to wear. “Why can’t we just wear t-shirts and shorts? I’d wear t-shirts and shorts!” I whined to myself.

Then there were my boobs. They were already inconveniently large, and there was no such thing as a sports bra, so my regular bra had to unsuccessfully keep them from bouncing uncomfortably as I ran. I ran as little as possible. I could walk, and did, for miles, recreationally and to get to school, but running was not something I did voluntarily, and walking was not something we covered in gym.

My shoes, like everyone’s, were canvas flats with no arch support. Nobody had ever heard of orthotics. After a little pounding, my feet killed me too.

We were introduced to various sports by putting us on a field or in the gymnasium with the appropriate equipment and a rundown of the rules, and then turned loose to play. Since many of the team sports had running as a primary activity, you can imagine how that went over with me. Since I was short, fat, not too co-ordinated and not very fast, I did not have any of the qualities that made me a valuable player. I always got picked last.

As a bookish and introverted child, this just made me feel more apart from my schoolmates, and “school spirit” was something I regarded with amused contempt. I had no interest in watching other people do things I had no interest in doing myself. I didn’t see the point. You couldn’t have paid me to go to a school sporting event.

They did try to expose us to a few unusual things like golf, where I enjoyed the walk but not losing my ball in the rough, and archery, which I liked quite a lot but my boobs didn’t. Getting whacked with a bowstring was no fun. They introduced us to karate, where a guest teacher stood a boy in front of him and pretended to kick him in the face. At that point in my innocent young life, I did not yet understand why I might want to kick someone else in the face. It did not appeal to me.

They gave us curling rocks made of coffee cans full of cement with bent pipe handles and got us to curl. I was cold and unimpressed. They tried orienteering, where we could get confused by maps and compasses as we ran up and down hills. That was also a big “no” from me.

It wasn’t till I was well out of school that I realized that there were physical activities that I had done on my own or with my family that I actually enjoyed – it was just that none of them happened at school. I loved being in the water to snorkel in the lake, I loved to ride my bike, and walked for miles as I’ve mentioned. I loved to dance though I was shy about it, but the thought of having to stuff myself into a leotard to do it was a definite deal-breaker.

The Participaction program started when I was in high school, and, of course, being unathletic in the various high-school ways, I bombed spectacularly. It confirmed to me that high school gym was not for me, and I skipped it as often as possible.

I think my biggest problem with my high school gym experience, aside from the horror that was my gym suit, was that I don’t recall being given any real information about HOW to do any of these things. How to get stronger, run faster or jump farther, how to learn balance and agility, how to develop the mental toughness to deal with teenage insecurity and body shame. You just got good marks if you were already good at something – already strong, already fast or flexible or co-ordinated. Working to improve the abilities of chunky little klutzes like me were just a waste of everybody’s time, not the point of physical education. I learned some of these things on my own, doing things I enjoyed as an adult. I’m glad I did, but I wish I could have learned them as a basis for adding activities as I went on.

A lot of people point at team sports as a way of learning how to work as a team, learning to hone your own performance and contribute to a group effort, and I’m sure that’s true. They think of it as learning valuable skills for the workforce, but I’d suggest you could learn some of the same things by learning music and playing in a band. I’m not convinced team sports are good for every kid. They need not be held up as an ideal. There are other ways to learn those things.

I know things have changed. I am currently in the process of helping decide on a suitable high school for my stepdaughter for next year, and so we’ve been visiting various places in Toronto. I see that they offer fitness centres as well as basketball and football, and my stepdaughter tells me that they don’t emphasize team sports as much as just showing up and doing something.

The gym suits are long gone, and shorts and t-shirts are fine for everybody. There are sports bras for those who need them, and much better shoes with more support. Being a bit sweaty might actually be cooler now. Kids in general seem to be taught to have less body shame and more confidence in themselves. I hope they are being taught that living and moving in their bodies is a source of pleasure and joy. I hope they’re being taught how to do it in a way that lets them do it for the rest of their lives. That’s what I would want.

Alison Reid is always a little surprised at what she’s actually done, considering she’s often been rather sedentary. Over her 61 years to date, she’s been involved in: walking, hiking, swimming, snorkelling, sailing, cycling, kendo, karate, weight training, and drumming (see also – marching while playing a heavy instrument). She’s also tried running, cross-country skiing, shooting, boxing, and almost falling off a horse. She is pretty much recovered from multiple pulmonary emboli in both lungs about a year ago, but is still working on recovering strength and stamina. She is currently hoping to improve her knife throwing skills. She lives in Toronto.