During the time I was with these young women I observed them in numerous physical education classes, had many conversations with them, gave all of them opportunities to use cameras to capture their feelings and experiences in physical education classes and encouraged each of them to keep a journal of their thoughts and feelings during our time together. These sources of information provided me with a rich picture of the experiences of these young women in a physical education environment.

Canadian Teachers' Federation. (1990). A. Capella: A report in the realities, concerns, expectations and barriers experienced by adolescent women in Canada. Ottawa, On: Author. cont'd...


One of the most important themes that emerged from this work was the intense and often unrelenting pressure many young women face from the media, their own mothers and their boyfriends to achieve the look of the fashion model (Humbert, 1995). It was not surprising to learn that many of them possess a negative body image. In a 1990 study of young women conducted by the Canadian Teachers Federation, 67% of the respondents stated that their body image was a real concern.

Filled with feelings of anxiety, then, these young women enter the physical education environment. Things like changing clothes and showering in front of others, being required to wear a physical education uniform, and the annual year end trip to the swimming pool made many of them very uncomfortable. They told me that in physical education class they felt “exposed.” For many this was very difficult, for some intolerable. When asked to recall a “critical incident” from her physical education experiences, Eva, a grade 12 girl who stopped taking physical education after grade ten, told me in a voice filled with emotion: “I remember in grade nine I had algebra in first class and that whole class the only thing I could think of was, Oh No, I have gym next. I worried myself about it so much, like I was just tormented about it. I made myself sick just thinking about it, I hated it so much. I just did not want to do it, I felt so awkward wearing that uniform and having to change in front of everyone, and then we had to shower, Oh God it was so awful. All during Algebra I couldn't do any work, I couldn't concentrate, I was just thinking about having gym next.”

Since in a locker room situation they were not able to change in private, these young women were again reminded that their bodies were not how they wanted them to be: “When you look at other people you don't notice their bad things you just see that they are really, really, skinny and you think that you have to look that way. You think oh, I wish I had their legs.” Others explained that when they were changing they tried to hide parts of their body: “If you have thunder thighs or something, when you change you try to hide them.”

For some grade nine girls, changing in front of others raised the issue of homophobia:

Camille: When you change you make sure that you don't look at anyone else. You might be just looking somewhere else but it looks like you are looking at another girl.
Melissa: If you do, people think you are lesbo.
Iris: Then people start spreading rumors.
Louise: So when you change you just look straight down?
Group: Yup.
Susan: You change really fast and then you get out of the locker room.

Another group of grade 9 girls explained that they used to be friends with a girl, but when she started to watch them change they “dropped her.” Several grade 10 girls told me that if a girl can beat a boy at a sport, the boys will call her a bitch. Griffin (1989) states, “homophobic name calling and accusations of homosexuality serve as effective social controls to keep people, especially young people, acting safely within the bounds of traditionally-accepted gender roles” (p.30).

“With this tiny little towel that doesn't cover anything you had to walk through all these people saying excuse me, excuse me”


Feeling uncomfortable about showering after class was an issue that cut across every grade of young women. The cry for shower curtains was universal. Many of the young women had attended schools other than Murdoch, but none of them had seen curtains or partitions in any locker rooms. The worst arrangement for showering is where, as Terri explains, “They have five showers around this pole and the water comes out. Five girls standing around a pole looking at each other, as if I would want to shower like that.” To achieve privacy many of the young women resorted to showering in their bathing suits or having a friend hold up a towel for them. Of course, the friend has to promise to look away.

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