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Saturday, 16 July 2011

Could the way PE and sports are taught lead the way to obesity?

This is my next before last post on childhood obesity as the week on childhood obesity is about to close. It's been a great week and I have thoroughly enjoyed blogging about how to help children be healthy eaters and have a healthy attitude to food. Today I want to develop the idea that despite the best intentions of the government and the educational system and even the parents, the way physical education and sport is taught in schools and even structured could very well be the reason some children become obese and in any event, how it makes things worse for the children who are instead of better.

I will illustrate my point with my own very story.

As a child, I loved to dance. I had a passion for it. I would dance and hum at every occasion I could grasp. My mother signed me up for dances classes and took me regularly to the dance studio that was located in a basement of a modern building in Paris with a glass front door. The dance teacher was quite progressive: no pink tutus for the girls. It was a white bodysuit and a little red skirt. We danced barefooted.  So far, so good. I remember with great tenderness and a mushy feeling every step I took from my home in to the dance studio. I loved the fact that it was always at the same time (don't children love routine and predictability). I loved the glass door, the changing rooms which greeted us right at the bottom of the steps leading to the dance studio which opened to a huge room full of light as one entire wall of that room was made of windows overlooking a garden and the rest were the classic mirrored walls with rails. I could not wait for these classes. My whole life revolved around those classes. It was my breath of fresh air from a life of bullying and boredom in school. Yet from one day, I pretended that I couldn't care less and I refused to continue to go. I got into a head conflict with my mother who insisted that I finish the year. She never understood what happened that day.

What happened that day was the following: as the wonderful Miss Choquette (I have changed names for the sake of anonymity) asked me to do a demonstration to the class of a specific movement (I was the teacher's pet) I looked at her with the pride of a child who knows she is talented and who loves her teacher for encouraging her and... my eyes crossed in the most obvious fashion on her. I felt her cringe at the sight. Not only that, the entire class laughed in embarrassment and I wished to vanish into the earth into a secret opening in the floor. The magic was gone. I was no longer her prized pupil, I was an ugly little girl who had pretended she was talented at something that was clearly beyond her reach due to her... let's face it, handicap. Not only that, I had faced the ultimate humiliation of being laughed at by the entire class and the teacher did nothing to say to the other children how wrong this was. They all pretended nothing had happened but they all knew something very important had happened and I could bet that a lot of those little girls in that room that day rejoiced at the fact the teacher's pet had been demoted from the teacher's pedestal at the blink of an eye (if you will excuse the pun). Not only that, as I changed in the so loved corridor at the end of the class, Miss Choquette asked for a private talk with my mother and said over my head: "Oh my God, that poor child, her eyes. It is so sad. I had no idea. Blah blah. blah." My mother as the extremely polite and the people pleaser that she was engaged in the conversation "over my head" and I heard every word that these women uttered about me and something in me froze to death. My desire to dance, my feeling of being beautiful and talented, my specialness, the very reason that kept me wanting to live despite all the abuse I was going through, flew out the window in one instant and was replaced by a numbness that was to stay with me for many years trapped into my body. I suddenly realised that my dream didn't match society's expectation. I was wearing very thick social security glasses that I hid in my dance bag before getting to classes but my handicap had caught up with me. Even if the teacher had been more understanding and less obsessed with physical appearance (she was after all an ex ballerina), I had a strong built and heavy bones. That would have disqualified me later on in life if I had wanted to pursue my dream of being a ballerina. Strangely enough, my mother never allowed me to grow my hair long either, which was my dream, but I am digressing quite a bit. Life had granted me with a physique that contained a huge contradiction in it: whenever I managed not to wear my glasses, I was an extremely beautiful little girl with curly blond hair and porcelain blue eyes and delicate features, but in school, where I had to wear my glasses, I would turn into a todd, with extremely thick glasses with heavy frames that ate my face (we were in the seventies and choices for children's glasses were extremely limited) which make my eyes look enormous and to make matters worse my right eye would randomly get stuck inside, next to my nose. I don't need to tell you how cruel children are especially at that time when glasses were still a rarity.

Fast forward four years, I start secondary school and take part in PE classes. I am a year younger than everyone else. I have started to become a little podgy, my mother has started to enrol me in her mad diets to help me to curb what she believes is an overweight "nature" and I have to undress in the presence of my peers in one big room. I feel awkward. I hate having to be compared to other children without the comfort of my own clothes. I am forced to run on a track with everyone else and invariably finish LAST looking hot and bothered, red with my glasses steamed up and feeling absolutely horrible. Not to mention the name calling that I hear and the laughter as I make it last on the track for the... let's face it, hundredth time. Considering I still love dancing and dancing is what makes me happy, why am I forced to run on a track in total humiliation. Why am I forced to be timed when perhaps if I wasn't put in a race with my peers, I might just enjoy running for the joy of it? I end school loathing physical exercise and embrace the intellectual life of University with very little physical activity. I still enjoy dancing socially, but the desire for regular exercise and moving my body has been literally drained out of my body through years of humiliation and being taught that my body is not good enough and certainly not as good as others, through countless of measurements, comparisons, etc.

Fast forward thirty two years: at forty two years of age, after asking the angels to help me find a way to keep slim forever (having battled with my weight for all that time and despite the fact that I was a perfectly normal and slim child until that fatal day at the dance studio) I wake up the next morning with an irrepressible desire to run. This is so bizarre that my partner wonders what has been happening and my ex husband does not believe my children when they later tell him that I have become a runner. Before that prayer to the angels, I would not even run for a bus or a train even if it meant being left behind on a family holiday. Running was forever associated with humiliation, feeling sweaty, red, embarrassed and terribly inadequate. What the angels did, as an answer to my prayer, was to restore me to what I call "my factory settings". They erased the damage done by "education". And I have been running ever since. I call it a miracle. But it's almost beside the point. PE and the way men look at sports and organise it in schools and gyms has completely drained me of any desire to exercise. I believe however that this desire came at birth as it does for every child born on this planet.

My elder son is the same. He actually told me when I tried to organise sports activities outside school for him to encourage him to be more physical after he had been enrolled into school: that he wouldn't mind doing it but he doesn't want anyone around him and no competition whatsoever. We have not been able to find a single activity in the ten years I tried to encourage him to be physical that met his criteria. I am hoping to enrol him to come running with me over the summer when I break gently back into running after having had my baby girl.

Isn't it time we changed the way we looked at sports and took away the competitiveness, the pressure, the group settings so that every child, no matter what his built and physical appearance could enjoy moving their bodies and as a result keep the desire to move which comes as a birth right. A quick look at little children until the time they start school shows that there absolutely no need to organise gym or dance classes for little ones: they know how to move, they enjoy it and you cannot actually stop them from moving.

Then they go to school and are forced to sit at desks or stay still for most of their waking hours and once a week, for one hour, are required to move in a certain controlled way. Instead of being able to kick a ball as nature intended them and by organising rules among themselves (as they would be perfectly capable of doing given the change by adults to do so) they are taught to follow rules which for the most part will kill creativity and the incredibly powerful desire to move their bodies.

You would think that things had changed since I was a child, but my son's sports day only a few weeks back has reminded me that nothing has changed in the way things are organised. Children who have physiques who are out of the ordinary and who are perhaps less talented than their peers are still pushed into races and hear the laughter of adults and other children as they make mistakes and struggle with the tasks. What is the matter with us? Can't we see what we are doing to our children. I ended up wishing and praying to the angels that my beautiful son who just started school this year won one race so that his beautiful confidence in his own body wouldn't be crushed by society. It so happens that my youngest son is physically gifted and he did win one race but what if he hadn't? What about all the other children who didn't? What about the children who always come last, like I did as a child? What will happen to them. I left sports day with great sadness in my heart and more prayers to the angels that something be changed.

Blessings of lightness

Anges de Lumiere

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