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Why PE for Girls is an Issue Worth Sweating Over

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On Wednesday, The Huffington Post reported a study by the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), which had found that 51% of UK girls are put off physical activity by their experiences of school sport and PE lessons. Some 45% think sport is too competitive, while over a third say their PE teacher only pays attention to pupils who are good at sport.

Reading the story was like looking in a mirror - albeit one slightly clouded over with my own reluctant teenage perspiration. I loathed PE. I was one of those girls that the WSFF are worried about, and have subsequently become one of those women. Even now, in my twenties, exercise = blarrgh.

I went to a single sex high school, where sporty girls were the popular girls and if you were terrible, it was far cooler not to try at all. Add to this our teachers' sadistic disregard for weather conditions, termly foot inspections (yes) and the ritual humiliation of the summer's uniform knicker shorts - which were never anything other than giant, saggy navy undies, no matter how hard we tried to rock the hot-pants vibe - and you can see why my 'period pains' get-out excuse surfaced more often than is biologically possible.

To give them their due, the school did try to offer some variety. There was trampolining (bouncing is fun, bouncing as a 14-year-old without an adequate sports bra, less so), nice summery sports like rounders, and even an ill-fated term of trips to a golf course to try and jump-start our athletic aspirations. But nothing stuck. With every soggy hockey match, enthusiasm slumped further, until by year 11 even putting the kit on at all was more effort than most of us were prepared to give.

It was partly about ability, of course. In the same way some kids dread being asked to read aloud in class, us unsporty types felt exposed and judged, both in body and in skill. "At least we have our dignity" we'd sniff, as we bowed gracefully out of each bleep test for a session of learned conversation and spot-squeezing. Although during rare proactive moods we made the best of it by inventing our own sports such as 'sitty-downy badminton', which was like badminton but - well, you probably don't need me to explain.

I'm not suggesting we offer girls different PE. I don't believe our feeble muscles and cosmetic commitments require daintier pursuits, like needlepoint or medium-impact gossiping. No. We should offer ALL kids different PE, if they want it. True, us gals have the meaty side project of body confidence to contend with (and won't it be nice when that old chestnut's finally roasted?), but labelling the issue as a girl's problem isn't helpful. Besides, for all the girls who would rather accidentally call the teacher 'Mum' every single day for a year than do one cross-country run in the drizzle, there must be plenty of boys who feel much the same. Surely?

Trouble is, school experiences of exercise are such a bad advert for getting active later on. There are no chai lattes and meditative cool-downs after PE. Playing a basketball match, getting changed in three minutes flat and pegging it to the other side of the building to sit, gently stewing, in a geography classroom for two hours isn't the serene, endorphin-jazzed experience that grown up exercise usually promises.

While the mimsy, "getting sweaty is not feminine" reasoning given by 45% of the surveyed girls can be swiftly filed under 'Bah, Patriarchy', there's plenty of sympathy to be found there too. Who DOES like getting sweaty, really? You wouldn't nip off to play a game of netball in your lunch hour without the promise of a shower and tidy-up afterwards, would you? And you are a supremely confident adult, without the body odour issues of the average adolescent.

(Before you say it - my school had showers, and in my entire high school career I never witnessed a single person use them. Showering involves nakedness, and contrary to anything Skins may have taught you, the average teenage girl would rather do anything than cavort around publicly in the nuddy.)

Yes, it's vain. But yes, teenagers ARE vain. They're hormonal fondue pots of bubbling personal image angst. And if they learn to equate "doing sport" with "feeling publicly scrutinised, and a bit gross for the rest of the day" then it's hardly a surprise when TVs and X-Boxes win out in the end.

Team sports have their place, but to my mind there needs to be more independent activity and less of the "nice one doofus, you just cost us that goal" to convince kids that exercise is worth doing for their own benefit. They need activities that translate more smoothly into the kind of workouts they might do as an adult. GCSE Zumba, anyone?

It's crucial to get kids exercising as early as possible - but it's equally important that they learn to enjoy it. Because eight years later, I'm still trying.

Around the Web

BBC News - Girls and sport: Schools urged to make PE more ...

CBBC Newsround - Half of girls 'put off exercise' by PE at school

Girls put off exercise for life by PE lessons - Telegraph

Part-time Girls' PE Teacher Candidate Brief