Many parts of my school experience have faded into a blur, but I can remember PE with disturbing accuracy. The stench of Lynx Africa. The humiliation of being picked last. The sting of a ball being kicked against my skin. The anxiety of being surrounded by boys who I knew I was different (some of whom I fancied).
I know that even famous queer people feel similarly: see Years and Years frontman Olly Alexander tweeting: "I skived every PE lesson my last two years of school as it was pure trauma… team sports were not kind to the femme boys," or singer MNEK sharing: "i 'left my pe kit at home' all the time. one time i purposely left it on the bus. i was NOT doing it.'
However, traditional ideas of what constitutes "exercise" have changed significantly in recent years. Today's young people are just as likely to gravitate towards yoga or barre as athletics or hockey. I’ve often wondered whether PE today could ever be as awful for minority groups – or anyone who isn't an Alpha gym brototype – as previous generations seem to remember.
"I can confirm it is still hell," 19-year-old Bella tells me. "It’s 100 percent set stuck in its ways and change seems impossible. My PE lessons were still strongly gendered, with many teachers enforcing and encouraging stereotypes. Girls at my school were even told off for how they wore their uniform because it was 'distracting' for boys." Another teen, Ameena, describes a similar lack of progress: "Everything [is] about being the best, and if you aren’t, you’re immediately less important. Generally, the group with the most social sway, or the 'popular group', were all good at sports."
A common grievance with PE is that it prioritises a narrow set of sports. To many, it instils the notion that being good at football or rugby is a prerequisite of being sporty or fit. "I was rubbish at the sports we did in PE," says Jack, 18. "Thankfully I took up tennis outside school, but the sports people cared about most were always the team sports mostly played by 'the lads'. If you weren’t good at them, no one really cared."
PE teacher Sarah, 41, tells me resources can drastically alter the pupil experience of PE. Having been a PE teacher for 15 years, she has taught at both private and state schools. She describes a significant gender split in "traditional" sports at her school, with boys being offered rugby and girls playing hockey. In her view, boys and girls get more out of PE when there are a range of sports available, taught in single-sex classes.
"I used to teach a mixed hockey class that started off with 15 boys and 15 girls, but ten of the girls ended up dropping out because they didn’t want to play alongside the boys," she says. "Teenagers, but particularly girls, can be self-conscious in mixed sex PE classes."
Henry, a 28 year-old PE teacher from Edinburgh, tells me his school allowed students to choose the gender makeup of their class. He says: "Students got to choose between boys-only, girls-only and mixed gender classes, depending on what makes them more comfortable, which I think worked well." He highlights funding as the major issue standing in the way of PE teachers. "Where I teach, PE is counted as a 'non practical' subject, which is pretty ridiculous," he says. "This means classes can be up to 33 [pupils], which can make it very difficult to cater to all needs, abilities and interests in a class."
Changing rooms can be awkward at the best of times, but for fast-developing teenagers – particularly LGBT+ people – they can be excruciating. Sarah says that one of her pupils uses "they/them" pronouns and changes in a separate area. But sadly not all schools are as understanding.
"I asked to change in a separate area or to be allowed to just wear my PE kit home when I had it at the end of the day, because I knew I wasn’t a girl," says Jake, a gender-non-conforming 20-year-old. "But they didn’t listen and I didn’t want to get my parents involved to challenge it. I felt like I was in the wrong changing room, and I remember feeling such intense hatred for my body."
Morgan, 19, says the swimming pool changing rooms still haunt him to this day. "I’ve had major body dysmorphia issues ever since I was a child, and PE lessons definitely didn't help that," he says. "Even the idea of taking my clothes off in front of other people was awful, so I used to skive lessons."
To Morgan, PE instilled the idea that masculinity is achieved through arrogance at the expense of others. The PE changing rooms were a common backdrop for his homophobic bullying. He says: "Remembering the boys showing off their dicks and calling each other ‘gay’ made me feel like my whole sexuality was a joke."
The connection that Morgan draws between struggling at PE and body insecurities is common. Henry tells me that body insecurities are one of the biggest challenges facing teachers. "There’s quite a lot of anxiety for pupils relating to PE, in terms of body image and having to look a certain way, particularly because of social media," he says. "I do think body image has a big impact in terms of how pupils view themselves and their ability to do things. Often pupils 'forget' their kit regularly, which gives the impression they don’t want to participate, and makes it harder for us teachers to engage with them."
Despite all this difficulty, many Gen Z people I spoke to, even the ones who didn’t like PE, spoke warmly of their PE teachers. "One of our teachers ran a yoga class after school in her own time on Thursdays," says Marnie, 20. "That was one of the first times I enjoyed exercise in school, and I still go to yoga classes now I’m at uni."
This positivity is a stark contrast to the experiences of even slightly older people. Nick, 32, told me that one of his PE teachers encouraged homophobic bullying against him, saying: "I had a teacher who was a vicious homophobe, who turned out to be behind a petition for me to get changed in a separate room because 'I made the other boys uncomfortable'."
Child and adolescent psychologist Dr Laura Kauffman gauges that role models – both positive and negative – can significantly impact teenagers. She says: "Young people, instinctively, recognise that it is a big, intimidating world out there, and they seek guidance and approval from important adults in their life, such as teachers." With more female and LGBT+ sporting role models emerging, LGBTQ PE teachers like Sarah – who is out to pupils, and in a relationship with a coach at her school – are more free to be themselves. Henry tells me that he is motivated by a desire to give people the skills to "enjoy exercise and live active, healthy lives", and was inspired by his own PE teachers at school, which shows the impact that positive experiences can have.
For the sake of the next generation of young people, a PE curriculum in every school that reflects and respects people’s diversity of interests – and is properly funded, so teachers can actually deliver it – can’t come soon enough.