I didn’t always hate gym.
In first grade, gym class meant zipping around the gymnasium on little tiny butt scooters, learning how to jump rope, and practicing Important Life Skills such as hopping up and down on one foot. This prepared me for all the later times when I dropped heavy objects (boxes, bricks, file cabinets) on myself; I knew how to properly respond.
In fifth grade, physical education was still basically good. The tortuous days — like running the mile (four times around a boring brick building staring at the same 30 pairs of green polyester shorts) and long jump (because we had no nice, soft landing pit) — were few and far between. In the interim, I discovered that I could, in fact, play basketball — that there were ways to compensate for my lack of aim and use my broader body to my advantage, that even if I couldn’t shoot, it was unwise to get between me and a rebound. I learned that there were different sports and different ways to be good at those sports.
I never wanted to hate gym.
But in ninth grade, our first PE unit was competitive fitness testing. As in, our grade for each test — aerobics (running), muscle strength (situps and pushups), flexibility (various stretches), and body composition (BMI) — would be determined by our rank compared to our classmates. That’s right. Part of our grade was determined by our height and weight as compared to the height and weight of our classmates.
It was supposed to be private, supposed to be confidential. Of course, in a high school where gossip was flung like poo from a monkey, it was anything but. Both the measuring sticks and the scale were set up in a corner of the gym. The rest of us were supposed to be working on something involving our notes. We weren’t: we were all shushing ourselves and each other to try to overhear everyone else’s numbers as Mrs. D. called us over one by one.
When she called my name, I was terrified, both because I knew everyone was listening and because at that age, I was very, very preoccupied with grades. The idea that I could be graded on my body itself, rather than what my body or brain accomplished, was new to me. It contradicted everything I understood about the point of gym class, which was to Do Things.
I did things. I stood with my back to the measuring sticks while Mrs. D. pressed the top of my head with a ruler. “To make sure we’re not giving you credit for your hair,” she said.
“My hair is part of my body,” I countered, but it was a moot point on two fronts. The first is that my hair was utterly fine and flat, adding nothing to my height. (On the plus side, at least I didn’t have to walk around with dented hair for the rest of the day.) The second that she pressed hard enough that I actually felt compression in my neck. It didn’t hurt, exactly, so I think I flinched more from surprise than from actual pain — but I flinched nonetheless. It was a fatal error.
“Five-four,” she announced.
That was wrong, and I knew it. I’d had to get a physical both for high school and another the year before for sports in eighth grade. I was solidly five-foot-five both times. Being convinced by my family that I was embarrassingly short already, I was prepared to argue my extra inch. “But — “
“I take off two inches for shoes,” Mrs. D. explained. “It’s okay. I do it for everybody.”
I contemplated telling her about my science class, where we were learning how to measure with accuracy, wondering if she had taken such a class and if so, had she passed? Instead, I stepped on the scale.
Mrs. D. slid the balance over. “Thirty-one… thirty-two… thirty-three.” The heaviest weight I’d heard for someone my height, the second heaviest weight I heard all day. “We need to get you running some of that off.”
Never mind, of course, the physical activities I was already engaged in, which included riding horses and mucking stalls seven days a week. Never mind that I used that mass to throw hay bales and convince thousand pound animals that I was bigger than they were. Never mind that what my body did for me was just what I asked it to do. And never mind that sometimes, I don’t have the words to speak my thoughts until it’s too late.
I scanned the bodies of students who’d not yet been weighed, looking for someone whose BMI would be larger than mine. Even then I was aware how wrong that was, but it was important that my body not be the “worst.”
It took me years to recognize all the ways that day was made of fail: that the measurements weren’t private, that they were part of our grade for class, that we were measured against our classmates instead of an accepted standard of health, that BMI was used as a reliable indicator of body composition, that some of the measurements were of questionable accuracy, that they came with a recommendation to lose weight without first asking about my diet and exercise habits.
What upset me most, though — and what I recognized right away — was that this was going to be a class where what my body looked like counted for as much as what it could do. And that my immediate defense was to seek another body to shame.
Tori is, among other labels, a feminist, a yogi, and a teacher in Southern Arizona. She works with her school to make yoga more accessible to students and staff and blogs at Anytime Yoga to do the same for readers online.
Want to guest blog for Fit and Feminist? Hit me up at saltonmyskin at gmail dot com.