My Middle-School Nightmare

I think the absolute worst part of middle school was gym class. And I had a lot of bad times in middle school. I’m sure it’s every fat kid’s nightmare to be forced to run the mile, wearing skimpy shorts and t-shirts, while your classmates lapped you, teased you, maybe even gawked at you. I really honestly blame my middle school experiences in gym classes for my hatred of going to the gym today. They really did make it a race; we were forced to do all of these terribly stupid things, that really did not improve my physical fitness one bit. And worst of all, we were forced to do them in front of our peers.

I think that middle school institutionalized self-objectification. It built us into observers of each other in our physical exertions. It was, of course, the ideal location in which one could observe those individuals to which he or she was attracted. And for me, it was pure hell.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed some aspects of gym. Swimming, for example. I was among the best in my class because I actually swam on the swim team. I have almost no fear when wearing swimsuits for this reason. Basketball, too. I loved it so much, I even went to basketball camps. I would’ve tried out for the team if my gym teacher hadn’t told me I couldn’t because I didn’t have a physical on file (although, she let five other girls on the team without physicals. I still to this day think I experienced sizeism that day for the first time). I also loved Shot Put. They tried to get me on the track team to do shot put, but I refused.

What I hated about gym, though, was the feeling of always being watched. They would shout out our times when we finished the mile. And everyone would sit around the finish line when you were done to cheer you on. Sometimes, if you took longer than 14 minutes, everyone else went inside, and you had to cross the finish line alone. We show up at the end, and the Mrs. Shaffner would be standing at the end, shaking her head, and ushering us quickly inside to change and move on to our next class. It was like we were something to be hushed up, something they were embarrassed by. It was my biggest failure back then. That effing mile run as my peers stood on the sidelines, watching me jog to the end, red-faced, and close to tears.

Now-a-days I go into a gym, and I feel exceptionally self conscious. My college requires five gym classes for graduation. I have two left. Right now, I’m taking a course called “Individual Fitness” which just requires me to do a weightlifting routine with cardio at least 3 times a week, and journal on two other health-related areas (I’ve chosen to do a food diary, and a time-management journal). The problem is that lately, I’ve felt like I’m constantly being judged and watched at the gym. Yes, this is normal to feel that way, but gosh is it hard to overcome.

I’ve been trying, lately, to channel it into a positive-attention, rather than ignore my paranoia. I know that people probably aren’t looking, but just in case they are, I try to focus myself on having the best workout ever. Like, having the best form when running. Or having the most control with my higher weight sets. I try to look like I know what I’m doing, and I try to do everything to the T.

Thus far, I think it’s a good thing. I know it’s not good to think like that, but I can’t get rid of it. I honestly think it’s left over from that middle school long ago. Maybe it’s because I feel like I have something to prove to everyone around me: the fat girl can lift weights, can actually jog on a treadmill, can bench press, and she can be damn confident when doing it. Maybe it’s just a projection of my own feelings of inadequacy. But for now, I’m just going to use it as therapy. It’s my time for me. It’s my time to expel those feelings of inadequacy, and it’s my time to banish my stupid middle-school nightmare to the depths. I’m activating. I’m motivating. And I am moving forward.

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14 thoughts on “My Middle-School Nightmare

  1. I remember that Mrs. Shaffner used to threaten that if we didn’t complete the mile in under 15 minutes, we’d have to do another lap of the school. One time I and a couple of other slow runners/joggers/what have you decided that we were going to do that extra lap with pride; that she couldn’t hold that threat over us anymore (since it was never enforced.) So we announced that we were going to do that extra lap, and did. I’ll never forget the way she took us aside afterward and had a special “talk” about how we never put out any effort, and had bad attitudes. Ridiculous.

    Oh, and for me, the other torturous part of that forsaken mile was the fact that we ran around the school, and I remember thinking and dreading that all the students in the classrooms would be watching and judging us as we ran as best we could.

    When we had to run inside, I remember the male gym teachers lapping us and literally teasing the slower students; calling some of us wimpy, weak little girls.

    I specifically remember your sister being teased and talked about in the locker room–teased for not feeling ashamed of her body. She changed like it wasn’t anything to worry about, and others shamed her for her confidence. I truly regret that part of my life, that I was so self-conscious and ashamed of myself that I joined in.

    That part of my life was absolute hell. I still think about it and shudder. It was torture

  2. I guess I’m not the only one afflicted with these feelings… you’ve nailed it here. Great article!

    As much as I enjoy being active I retain a horror of public gyms or even jogging around others, and I too owe it all to gym class! I was a heavier kid, and just not a very competitive kid. But gym always seemed to be this dictatorship overseen by some callous teacher who wanted everyone to be on “the same page”, and if they couldn’t compete on that level well they were just lazy and needed to be whipped into shape.

    I’ll never forget the particular horror of running laps. I was so damn slow, plus I was pretty well developed so I hated the accompanying teasing and looks. Ugh. One day I just could not face it so I hid out in the bathroom and then as everyone was finishing up, I tried to creep out and mingle in…but no, I was busted! And as punishment, I had to run the laps while the class sat and waited for me. Talk about a gym teacher without a modicum of insight or sensitivity.

    Anyhow, I won’t get started on the many, many more gym horror stories I have (one even involves running off the field in tears and hiding out in someone’s garage all afternoon!) But I am glad you’ve got the insight to still do your own thing, and set the bar on your own terms, despite earlier traumas. It’s enough to put off anyone, but you’ve found the reasons you want to be there so yes, focus on those and not the past…

  3. Your college requires gym class to graduate?! Please tell me that you’re in some kind of health-related fitness and nutrition degree program! Otherwise, that’s absurd. I share much of your same gym class angst. I had to take it all throughout middle school and then a half quarter of it in both my freshman and sophomore high school years. I rejoiced when I finally completed the requirement and didn’t have the specter of gym class hanging over my head like a dark cloud anymore.

    I remember in middle school the gym teachers made one student “lead” the calisthenics each class. I dreaded the countdown until it was my turn, but if you were out sick on your assigned day, you’d just be picked for it the next day. There was no escaping it. I never had any problems with the exercise routines, but being in front of a class full of people who already made fun of me for my weight was horrifying. People asked me afterward if I was okay, because my face was so red — it wasn’t red from exertion, but from anxiety and embarrassment.

    Things only got slightly better in high school. I found that I liked going to the weight room, but the taunts of my jerk classmates, mostly jock guys, made it hard to find anything enjoyable about it. In my sophomore year, I befriended a boy with Down Syndrome who had been mainstreamed into my gym class. The other guys made lots of sexual innuendos to Eric and tried to get him to do or say bad things. I stuck up for him (I have a cousin with Down Syndome), and this above all motivated me more than anything to actually go to gym class. Five years after I last saw Eric, I ran into him at a local grocery store. He still remembered my name and gave me a big hug. I ran into him yet again just a couple years ago, and although its been nearly 15 years since our gym class, he still remembers me by name and still gives me hugs. I guess gym class wasn’t all that bad after all.

  4. Oh that’s such a good ending to that story, Rachel. Although I wish immaturity didn’t give people leave to be jerks.

    Sometimes I think my gym class experience has made me stronger. But at the same time, thinking back on it is just like…gosh, why did they make us do that at such a terribly awkward time in our lives? I swear, they didn’t need to give my classmates an excuse to tease me…

    Oh, and also, my college is a small liberal arts college. They give a number of options that are sort of blow-off, healthish classes, rather than real gym classes in the traditional sense, but still. I have to take 5 of them, and you can only take the same class twice for credit (otherwise I’d do kickboxing the entire time, it’s so much fun). I think it’s an attempt to get us to be healthy. I personally think they should start in the cafeteria and work their way from there, but that’s just my opinion…

    Kathy, do you think there was something particularly small minded about our middle school, or is it universal?

    Grumpus, that just sounds terrible. And absurd. I’m sorry you had to go through all of that! But really, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, yes?

  5. The thing is, today, I support gym classes as part of a school curriculum. I don’t think kids today get enough physical activity and I do think an appreciation for fitness ought to be taught in schools, just as schools also ought teach the basics of nutrition. But the way my gym class was structured and the social hierarchy then didn’t make me appreciate fitness or exercise; it led me to conflate it with the people in my class. I began to fear and loathe it instead, which actually contributed to weight gain.

    I think teachers today should be better informed about and responsive to bullying of fat kids. I also think that gym classes should not consist of tortuous mundane exercise, but rather structured activities that help kids learn about diverse and various sports and movements. Our class always, always followed a routine: We’d warm up on the gym and then be forced to run at least one lap around the track and then walk or run it until class was up. Exercise was also used as a form of punishment: One day I forgot my gym clothes and the teacher made me run an additional lap as the class looked on in my jeans and Eastlands. How are kids supposed to come to love exercise when its also used as a form of punishment?

  6. I have a feeling that the experiences is quite prevalent, almost ubiquitous; though from what I’ve heard, our middle school took a harder line on gym class than most others. For example, at Joe’s middle school, they only had to run the mile once a semester or year.

    Did we have to do it once or twice a week?

    Oh, and don’t even get me started on the joke of the gender-segregated “activity” classes. Remember how the boys learned wrestling, while the girls did line dancing?

    I also love to relate the story of my breaking my ankle in gym class and being disbelieved by the teachers; and thus having to walk from the far field of the middle school all the way to the office without assistance, stopping to sit every once in a while because the pain was so excruciating I didn’t think I could make it. I still flush with anger at how awful that was.

  7. I am going to have to agree with Chrissy on this. I don’t remember anyone having a non-awkward experience in middle/high school. Everybody is defensive about their body changes and immaturity is at an all time high. If you were picked on it could be from an array of things such as being too skinny, too fat, too short, too tall, and too white, etc. It seemed everybody was equal when it came to being picked on for something.

    You can stay a victim or you can rise above it. These experiences make us more understanding and compassionate towards other’s feelings. I got picked on for not being as fast so I learned to run faster. I got picked on by other bullies so I learned how to fight. It is really that simple and being fat does not make you the only group that gets picked on.

    Btw, my wife, daughter and myself love the MMA and kickboxing.

  8. Pingback: Too fat for fitness? Weigh in with your experiences » The-F-Word.org

  9. It is really that simple and being fat does not make you the only group that gets picked on.

    My husband was the kid singled out for being too small. He was always tall for his age, but he was also very slender, too. He never really got picked on, but he said that kids would make comments to him all the time about how he needs to eat something and about how skinny he was. When he told me this, I kind of rolled my eyes and said “Oh, yeah, it must have been so hard getting picked on for being too skinny.” He replied, “Well, it was when you didn’t want anyone to notice you.”

    To a degree, I agree with Richard about victimization, but I don’t agree that its “really that simple” to rise above it. There are a host of factors that contribute to how a person comes to see themselves and what steps, if any, they take to empower themselves and not all of them are entirely within our control. I don’t want to promote the “Oh, woe is me” kind of mentality, but I also don’t think that those who have a tougher time of overcoming childhood abuse (and yes, bullying is a form of abuse) can be wholly blamed for their passivity.

  10. If “rising above” bad stuff were so simple, my guess is that genuine reconciliation would be a myth.

    Anger can be a gift, and I think the commenters here probably have rich and rewarding lives. I resent the implication that recalling the hard part of our lives means we’re valorizing victimization.

    I had a great time in gym. I’ve always been a smaller chubby person. But I was strong, fast and flexible.

    I noticed a lot of jeering at a lot of bodies, but nobody got grief like the fat children in gym. And this was the only jeering supported by teachers while in the *classroom.*

  11. Sending the kids inside while you’re the last one to finish the race, I wish my school did that. My gym teacher had the class wait for me, and then said I was at fault for making them late to their next class.

    It wasn’t long after awhile I just stopped bothering to do well in gym class, cause it made no difference anyways. I was still going to be called out for something.

    I did go to a Special Ed type of gym class where you did weight training stuff, and I was okay at that. However they canceled the class the next year, to the dismay of the parents. Apperantly you need to pratically slice your arm off to get help from them.

  12. Cindy, try being a lanky guy in middle school. It is like blood in the water around other guys. They immediately think they can beat you up and do so to climb the social ladder. This happens to lots of us guys and we have only two choices. We can either let them beat us up or we learn to stand our ground.

    It is the same with names and cruel gestures like making the kids wait until you finished running. That happened to me and it angered me so much I would run after school to build up my speed. No more problems after that. No tears, just sweat and a good run time that later on helped with entering track.

    Challenges in life do not build character alone, they reveal it.

  13. A huge problem with school gym class is that it’s stuck in this 50’s mentality. That’s why I love the idea of schools using Dance Dance Revolution (unfortunately, most are using it for weight loss motivation) instead of getting kids to feel good about just being able to move around for 45 minutes). Schools have stepped up with classroom technology; they need to apply it to physical education as well. This mindset of “we’re going to do this sport and you should already know how to play it and if you don’t, sucks to be you” needs to stop now. And those physical fitness challenges (they were called Superfit in my county) should also be done away with.

    Like Chrissy, I went to a small community college that required six credits of fitness (not sure if they do this now). A class called Personal Fitness was mandatory. It was like Curves. You did rotations on different machines, as well as a balance beam, and you checked your heart rate and pulse. The goal was to increase the time you used the equipment. I think a structure like that for school gym classes would be a lot more beneficial, and it places more emphasis on activity and movement than skill and coordination.

    Richard, I assume that you agree with shaming and bullying children to “be faster” and “tougher.” I certainly hope not. No child, regardless of appearance should be subject to that kind of behavior, especially from their own teachers.

  14. No Bree, I would never agree with shaming anyone like that. I would do my best to help those that have delt with that by trying to empower them and help them move beyond it. Too many people choose to carry those mental scars like a cross. There is a huge difference from picking on your peers and challenging them to doing those mean, spiteful things.

    A good example would be runners teasing other runners for falling out on a run but the underlying message is “we are a pack” and that it is not done out of respect. We do this in martial arts too. My instructor sometimes teases me and others for getting tired doing insanely intensive things and later on its joking and hanging out as usual. The big difference in these dumb coaches and the smart ones is caring and taking the time to motivate others effectively. Empathy and intelligence seems to be dying traits these days.

    I find it odd that you had to take a class on physical fitness unless it is part of your major. The whole idea of treating grown adults like that is foolish in my book. The whole “we are doing this for your own good” mentality is what this sounds like and if so, its a waste of money and time. If I want to learn about a non-related subject I will do it on my own time.

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