PE lessons are damaging pupils' self-image and encouraging them to exercise obsessively. Interviews with anorexic and bulimic teenagers reveal that discussions about obesity have led them to link healthiness with thinness.
Exercise is seen primarily as a means of losing weight. The study quotes teenager Jane saying: "We learnt in PE that, like, exercise, like, burns calories and keeps you, like, at a good weight."
PE encouraged girls to associate themselves with their bodies, often to negative effect. Ruth, one teenager interviewed, said: "When I lost weight, I was smaller and felt daintier, as if I could be protected more from anything."
Academics from Loughborough university interviewed girls between the ages of 12 and 18 at an eating disorder clinic. The interviews revealed that discussions about obesity led the girls to view those who were healthier and thinner as morally superior. Teenagers felt that being overweight showed lack of responsibility for their own health. Not being thin enough was seen as proof of laziness and poor health.
Teenager Tracey said: "In PE, they used to tell us not to be lazy, and called people lazy if they thought we weren't trying hard enough." PE was not about enjoyment of exercise but burning calories. Exercise became inextricably linked with losing weight. Physical activity was always equated with health, regardless of how often, or how obsessively, it was practised. And over-exercise was regularly legitimised by PE teachers.
Gemma said: "At school, I was on most of the teams. If you can get into them, then you can be on every team. There wasn't always time to fit in lunch or anything like that."
Those who failed to meet these often excessive standards of health and exercise felt ashamed. Along with common fears of communal showers, girls expressed a horror of being forced to display themselves during gym lessons. They were worried that their bodies did not live up to the expected standard. Vicky said: "I hated doing PE, cus you had, like, shorts and a T-shirt on."
Some felt that how they looked, rather than their body's performance, was being judged. Last year, research revealed that 40 per cent of girls do not take the recommended hour of moderate exercise a day. It cited communal changing-rooms, body-consciousness and teasing by boys as reasons for their reluctance to take part.
The Loughborough academics concluded: "Instead of experiencing acceptance of, and respect for, their bodies, and the sheer joy that the experience of moving them can bring, girls reported feelings of guilt, anxiety and distress, as they took up these messages about their bodies, health and selves, as they are embedded within the curriculum of physical education."
How young people with eating disorders 'read' the health messages in physical education, by Rachel Allwood, Emma Rich and John Evans
REINING 'EM BACK
Talk to girls and find out what kinds of sports they want to do. Many schools plan activities around the expertise of the staff or the equipment available, instead of pupils' interests.
Form partnerships with health and fitness clubs, and offer activities such as aerobics, step or boxercise.
Provide opportunities for creative exercise, such as dance, and problem-solving activities, such as orienteering.
Many girls do not like sharing PE lessons with boys. Offer separate-gender classes.
Do not make links between weight and unfitness. There is no research showing that school PE has an impact on child obesity. It is better to be fat and active than thin and inactive.
Don't force pupils to go out in the cold. Often girls are happy with conventional sports, such as badminton or volleyball, as long as they do not have to go outside.
Remember that child-protection responsibilities include keeping an eye out for pupils who are over-exercising.
Put a limit on pupils taking part in competitive fixtures. They should not be playing games on Saturdays, Sundays plus weekday evenings.
(Source: Association for Physical Education)