Sunday, September 08, 2013

Dear Phys Ed Teacher...

My daughter is one of dozens of new middle school students just experiencing their first taste of a big new world beyond the elementary schools in their community. For my daughter it is the very first time she has to "dress" for gym. She has been excited to learn new skills and try sports that weren't available at her previous school. I'm so happy for her that she is still confident in her body and in it's abilities.

I was excited to hear all about her first gym class today until this is what I heard…

She told me how glad she was that she wasn't the one who jokingly got called a "loser" more than once during the class. She is certain that the boy involved "didn't mind" and that he was maybe "encouraging it" but she was just as happy that it wasn't her that was at the receiving end of that nickname from the teacher.

Then she told me how glad she was that it wasn't her that the teacher pointed to as an example of "what not to wear" for gym class. That girl "turned bright red" and "seemed really embarrassed" because the teacher pointed out that her bra straps were showing and used her outfit as an example of what is not appropriate to wear.  Next the teacher told all the girls that "you can't have your boobs hanging out because it is a distraction for the boys."

I don't know if those were the precise words used since I wasn't in the room...
 but those were the words my daughter heard and brought home to her parents.  She also noticed another girl who was more developed than all the rest in the room, start tugging her T-shirt higher at the neckline and look uncomfortable with the attention that had just been placed on all the "boobs" in the room.

This is what we talked about at home that night:
  • Sometimes bra straps show and it is not a crime or anything to be ashamed of. Showing them off shouldn't be the point of the outfit but if it happens - it isn't worth being stressed out over. 
  • Girl's are never ever responsible for boy's thoughts or behaviours - no matter how they dress.
  • Sometimes boys will be distracted by girls and sometimes girls will be distracted by boys.  Girl's bodies are not actually ever a "problem". 
  • Some girls are much more developed than others and it can be really hard to feel like all anyone notices about you is your breasts. It must be especially hard to be the girl whose breasts were the centre of attention and referred to as a "distraction" in front of both boys and girls.
  • Even if you hear an adult do it - it is never okay to call people losers or other demeaning names. 
Having worked as a counsellor with youth who often struggle with negative body image & self-esteem, I know that gym class is notorious for being a difficult experience for some kids. This is particularly true for those who don't feel skilled or athletic and those who feel uncomfortable in their bodies for a wide variety of reasons.

I'm certain that you want to make your classes body-friendly environments where girls and boys can have the confidence to try new things, take healthy risks in order to learn and grow and feel safe under your leadership. 
With that goal in mind, please consider addressing the subject of appropriate clothing for gym class in a different way.

Here are some suggestions:

  • You could tell the kids that gym clothes should be comfortable, not too tight and allow room for moving and breathing freely.
  • If you require their shorts to be a certain length or their neckline to reach a certain height - say so. You can do that without centering anyone out or telling anyone that his or her body is a problem in any way. 
  • If you have genuine concern about a girl not being dressed appropriately by school dress code standards - please speak to her privately.  It is possible to do this in a gentle constructive way and use the opportunity to build your relationship with her; she may be a girl who needs a reliable adult to talk to at some point. 
  • It would also be helpful to include your gym class dress code guidelines on the school supplies list that is provided to families weeks before school starts. Parents are still the ones supplying and/or approving the clothing worn by most 11 and 12 year old children.
  • Finally, please don't call children losers - even as a "joke" - even if they are playing along. You are a role model and you have the awesome opportunity to work with kids in ways that build their self-esteem and create a positive learning environment for everyone. Make the most of it! 
Sincerely, a concerned mom.