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The Legacy of School

I’ve had ‘school’ on my ideas list since not long after I started this blog back in February. I knew which of my own experiences I wanted to build the post around, but never got round to thinking how to articulate it.
Then in June @chintzcurtain tweeted this from a parents’ evening:

Yes. That!
Year 11 is far too late to be talking to young people about their attitudes to their bodies. The Institute of Child Health and Great Ormond Street Hospital published the results of a 6000-strong study in the British Journal of Psychiatry last month which showed children as young as eight are showing signs of body dissatisfaction that can trigger eating disorder behaviours in adolescence. Researchers are recommending public health initiatives that focus on body image. If this is going to reach children of primary school age then schools have a huge role to play in that.
When I was nine my primary school teacher decided I needed to lose weight. She suggested to my Dad I go on a diet and regularly announced my ‘achievements’ to the whole school as a cause for celebration. I went to a tiny village school with only 30 pupils, my Mum had left home and the teacher was trying to be a female role model in my life. I’m sure she thought she was doing right by me, but before I hit double figures age-wise I’d already started to be defined by the figures on the scales.
What is odd is there was no real consideration from my teacher about my family’s lifestyle or my natural shape. We walked a lot as kids. From the moment we could toddle we were off walking the dog across the fields. My brother was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at five-years-old so we had a ludicrously healthy diet. Yes I was a portly little girl (and I am a portly woman!) but a lot of that was body shape and puppy fat, not a need to be put on a diet.
Happily I didn’t develop an eating disorder, but that early experience did set the tone for three decades of on and off dieting where I always felt that rush of pleasure when friends and I went to Boots to weigh ourselves during a lunch break, or when my loss was announced at ‘fat club’.
I put on weight again last year after running the London Marathon. More than one person warned me about the ‘marathon stone’ and I laughed at them. They were right. It is predictable I guess – however much you promise yourself you’ll stick to the running few people have the motivation keep up the weekly mileage that training for a marathon requires after the race has passed. But of course you’ve got used to the carb loading and the alcohol consumption creeps back up and your body makes your gluttony known in the pinch of a waistband. A couple of months back I decided the time was right to start shifting it again, but for the first time ever I am not weighing myself. I am exercising more and drinking less but I made a conscious decision that I was not going to be beholden to numbers, but that I was only going to judge myself on the fit of my favourite frock and how I felt when I pulled myself out of the pool.
And with that I’m going to (not very) neatly segue into my other point about school. Sport. Bloody sport. School does not always build a healthy love of exercise. Oh how I hated P.E. At 5’10” I should have been the best goal defender in netball; with my legs I should have nipped across the hockey pitch. But I have zero coordination, am clumsy, the speed of the balls always terrified me and I panic in team activities because I think I am going to let people down. I lived for summer term when swimming was on the timetable. With swimming it was all about the lengths, I was only competing against myself. I think this is why later in life I have come to love running so much; I happily plod away, writing stories in my head or working through problems, sometimes I am slow, sometimes I am really bloody slow, but that’s ok because nobody is waiting for me to pass or catch a ball.
If my P.E. teacher who yelled at me for not being able to cartwheel and made me stand in the playground in my leotard in January to “take six deep breaths and don’t yawn in my class again” had told me that 30 years on this would me I’d have rolled my teary eyes at her. I don’t know what school sport is like in 2015 but I hope someone tells young girls and boys that even if they don’t take naturally to school sport, they shouldn’t give up on finding what physical activities are right for them. The saddest legacy of school sport for me was that for years I was one of those people who carried the notion that exercise was something I should do rather than wanted to do. It took me years to see the fun in it.
So what made me finally ‘put pen to paper’ on all this? I read this in the Guardian this weekend.
I am about to go to university and really want to have a proper relationship with someone, but I’m too embarrassed to have sex because of my droopy, ugly breasts. I can’t imagine ever taking my clothes off for anyone.”
I’m assuming this young woman is going to university at 18, but whether that’s out by a year or so because of gap years, it doesn’t detract from the fact that this is incredibly incredibly sad. She should be excited about independence, freedom and the possibility of not-needing-to-worry-about-waking-up-the-parents-sex, not fretting about the shape of her breasts.
There is growing debate about the importance of SRE in schools and programmes like Sex in Class are taking it out of the broadsheet comment pages and onto the sofas of the great viewing public. This is good. But I hope that as well as developing appropriate sex education schools also start to consistently and responsibly help young people to deal with their body image issues so they learn to judge themselves not on what their body looks like or how much it weighs, but on what it can achieve, the wonder of how it works and the fun it’s helping them have – inside or outside of the bedroom.


  1. Molly

    Oh yes this… It took me years to find a type of exercise that suited me and I think that was mainly down to the fact that I was ‘forced’ to play sports in school that I HATED, including cross country running and gymnastics….arghhhhhhh. I LOATHED PE and it really did put me off exercise for years. It was not until I finally got a dog that I found not only exercise I loved but ultimately a body I liked hidden beneath all the years of eating and 2 babies fat that I had acquired. I do look back though and I di feel anger, those horrible bullying women in the PE department did me a great disservice

    • Exposing40

      I hated cross country running too, so it was quite a surprise when I ended up loving pavement pounding! Xx

  2. F Dot Leonora

    i just always love when you write E40, you really know how to write thoughtful and provocative posts…

  3. HappyComeLucky

    I have a weird relationship with PE and exercise. At primary it was mostly fun. I wonder if that was because I went to school in the non-competitive 80’s. We did random things like maypole dancing and the ‘Let’s move’ radio programme. Gymnastics or lessons were a chance to ‘play’ on the big climbing frames, balance on the benches and play games that have since been banned. At my first secondary school I found that I loved hockey especially in defence or in goal. Unfortunately we moved after two terms and from then on there was no hockey and my new pe teacher was so scared of my asthma that she made me sit out of over 50% of pe. That harmed me in an insidious was because it taught me that sport wasn’t even on a list of things to try for me.
    I didn’t have body image issues at all as a teen. I wonder if part of that was my disconnect with the intellectual side of physicality. I certain was physical and was a force to be reckoned with in games like ‘British Bulldog’. I never thought about those as sport or exercise. They were just go on, get in there’ fun. Even now if you ask me about sport, exercise or anything like that, I will wrinkle my nose. Give me a physical game with a bit of a wrestle involved and I am happy.
    With young people today, there is good and bad. In good schools the PSHE lessons address body image all the way through from the beginning with deeper exploration at around age 8 upwards. Talking to children who get that provision is wonderful and is absolute proof of its value. Unfortunately, none of that is compulsory and is squeezed out in some schools.
    You know what though, schools can’t do everything. If we all took on the responsibility to talk and challenge these issues with both the young people in our lives and with other adults, we can make a wave of change wash through society. It will be nice to see schools supporting positivity in society and having the best foundations to work on, instead of needing to plug gaps and add in missing support structures.
    *thinks back to some fun times in a wood*

    • Exposing40

      Oh my gosh…I forgot about Maypole dancing – I didn’t that too (at the school where the mad head put me on a diet!) and I loved it…though I did always manage to be the one to miss up the ribbon!
      And yes, agree schools can’t do everything! Xx

      • HappyComeLucky

        I have had the ‘joyful’ experience of teaching maypole dancing to 30 six year olds. Xx

  4. bustythewench

    I’ve struggled my whole life with weight and body image.
    Only now in my forties am I discovering my strength for swimming and my love of resistance training in the gym.
    My daughter is a gymnast, I really worry about what she will think of her body in years to come. At the moment I praise her strength, her stamina and her flexibility.
    I never mention her body in terms of fat/thin. I was determined my daughter would never have the food/weight issues that have been my personal demons

  5. mariasibylla

    This was so, so good! My heart started beating a mile a minute when you mentioned your teacher talking about your weight in class! Im not sure I would have survived that. I still remember exactly how much I weighed in fourth grade during the presidential fitness test. We all had to get weighed and our PE teacher had the whole class crammed into his office (where the scale was) and he said our weights out loud as he wrote each one down. I was 93 lbs. My mother had already set the ball rolling in the body-hatred department so even though, looking back, I imagine that is a fairly normal weight for a ten year old, I was mortified, but at least he didn’t comment on it. I am so sorry you had to go through that.
    Thank you for writing this!

  6. Healthy in Bangalore

    SO MUCH THIS. The school experiences and the later experiences with swimming and running – totally me. And the breast thing – I did feel like that a lot too when I started college. It can be so crazy.

  7. theotherlivvy

    The relationship between teenage body image and school is such a difficult one. I don’t remember being taught anything sensible at school – it was all very generic ‘this is a balanced diet’ type education. And we certainly needed it! Although my mother famously claimed she was confident she could cure me of an eating disorder with a carefully placed packet of donuts, what we were taught was not enough as a good friend was admitted to an eating disorder unit and countless others had really unhealthy relationships with food.
    As for exercise – I blame gym knickers for destroying any enjoyment in PE until it was much too late!
    Great post! Xxx

  8. The moonraker

    I find this really interesting as I was always tall and skinny, excellent at sports, always told I need eat more. Coming from a not well off family, I was even sent home with food from school. I took up boxing at age 15 and was told the same thing! But now I have an 12yr old son that says he’s too skinny and a 11yr old daughter that says she thinks she two big. Even now I eat like a horse.

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