For many people, physical education (PE) was, and still is, one of the more traumatic aspects of elementary, middle, or high school. From being forced to complete pullups in front of your peers to changing in front of your classmates at a stage in life when body confidence is perhaps at its lowest (especially for adolescent girls), it’s an experience many students today would rather forgo.
A recent article published in The Atlantic echoes this sentiment. The piece takes a closer look at the realities of PE in America, including current policies that seem to create a setting ripe for bullying and body confidence issues, higher instances of truancy, and, ironically, no positive impact on students’ physical fitness.
But for us adults who have already gone through the trials and tribulations of PE, was every experience a negative one? And did these experiences play a role in shaping our self-esteem?
To find out, we spoke with five adults who discussed what they remember from their formative years and whether these experiences shaped how they viewed themselves as adults.
Here’s what they said.
‘I’m 32 years old, and the negative experiences from PE have stuck with me.’
I’m definitely one of those girls who hated PE. I was skinny growing up, borderline sickly skinny, and was bullied mercilessly because of it. The changing rooms were the worst. Middle and high school girls can be ruthless, regardless of how you look, and I was not shielded from that. I remember being ridiculed until I cried because I wasn’t wearing a bra in middle school.
I went home crying to my mom who didn’t understand. Even to this day she still doesn’t. I was even told once by other girls in the dressing room that I would never be the kind of girl a man would want because I had no curves or body shape.
And when it came to doing sports in front of my peers during PE, from team sports to the Presidential Fitness Test, I wanted to shrink into the background, despite the fact that I was good at sports. There was nothing more humiliating than, for example, being forced to do pullups in front of your entire grade.
I’m 32 years old, and these experiences have stuck with me. I have a body that I should be proud of, but I spend a lot of time hiding it because I’m scared of what other women will say about it. I hope to one day move beyond this. —Trista D.
‘PE was the one thing that made me feel body confident.’
While I was really skinny and everyone made fun of me for it, I was strong and fast. Basically PE was the only thing that made me feel body confident. So whenever we did races or had contests, I would either win or be in the top group.
I’ll never forget when my PE teacher made me stop doing situps because everyone else had petered out. I could have gone on for an hour.
In short, PE helped me to accept my skinniness. It also allowed me to see how strong I was, and still am, to this day. This realization has helped me even in adulthood when I set my fitness goals. — Sarah A.
‘My teacher made me feel like a prize rather than an actual person.’
PE for me was deeply uncomfortable, mainly because my teacher constantly expected me to be good at running. He would say things like “It’s in your blood and heritage,” referring to the fact that I have African heritage. This left me feeling really uncomfortable.
Though I was good at running and I had the body type that was ideal for short-distance running, his comments made me feel as though he was viewing me as a kind of prize for the track team rather than an actual person. Even when I expressed interest in other sports, such as tennis, he kept pushing me to join track instead. — Alexis M.
‘It definitely gave me confidence in myself and made me competitive.’
PE definitely had a positive impact on my self-esteem. From elementary through to high school, I loved PE. My parents did not sign my sisters or I up for very many sports, so it gave me a number of opportunities to try things I wouldn’t have otherwise.
I realized in PE that I was good at certain kinds of sports, and while I’m not sure it gave me body confidence, it definitely gave me confidence in myself in general. It made me competitive. I wanted to be the fastest runner or the person who could jump the farthest. While I wasn’t great at certain classes, I could look forward to playing tennis and having fun. It was nice to feel good at something. — Alissa G.
‘PE convinced me I was terrible at running.’
I always sucked at PE, and it made me think I wasn’t a good athlete, which is kind of ironic because my profession is based around rock climbing. I remember when I was in school, I had to run around the track and I could never do it. Though it didn’t make me feel bad about myself specifically, it did convince me I was terrible at running.
There were also other instances that left me feeling as though I was terrible at other activities, like pullups. I’ve been thinking more recently about how this experience contributed to the way I think of myself as a climber. I’ve been good enough to be satisfied with my ability, I’ve even surprised myself on occasion, but I’ve never had a deep-down sense that I could be the best at the sport. So, I think I’ve been self-limiting in a way that I’ve only recognized when meeting other people who don’t do this, and I definitely think some of that comes from elementary school PE. — Jackie H.
Jessica has been a writer and editor for over 10 years. Following the birth of her first son, she left her advertising job to begin freelancing. Today, she writes, edits, and consults for a great group of steady and growing clients as a work-at-home mom of four, squeezing in a side gig as a fitness co-director for a martial arts academy. Between her busy home life and mix of clients from varied industries — like stand-up paddleboarding, energy bars, industrial real estate, and more — Jessica never gets bored.