As an overweight nerd, or as my mother like to say, “husky,” gym class was never my favorite. It was the one exception to an otherwise positively reinforcing experience at school. I was the kid who raised her hand as often as possible, always knew the answers, and loved report card day. They were filled with As and said things like, “Colleen is a joy to have in class.” Gym class though, that was different. I had no natural athletic ability to compensate for my chubby awkwardness. Most days this was not all that bad. One day though, this difference between myself and my thinner classmates was made quite clear.
In the 5th grade, my gym teacher, Mr. Fleck, had an idea. He decided to test the commonly held belief that fat kids are better at tug-of-war than skinny kids. So, he brought in a scale and weighed us, the entire class, in front of everyone. Fat kids went to one side, skinny kids to the other. Most of the kids went to the skinny side. Only a few of us, in all our chunky glory, were exiled to the other side. Out of a class of about 30, somewhere around 5 of us qualified as fat, per the arbitrary definition of not-a-scientist Mr. Fleck. I have no idea what criteria he used, what his cut-off weights were, or anything else. All I remember is that he put the scale in the middle of the gym, had us line up one by one, weighed us, didn’t tell us what we weighed, just told us which side to go to, and thus divided the class in a visibly unequal way. Needless to say, it was embarrassing. It was like he took a branding iron to our fat little faces and certified us as Grade A Midwestern Butterballs.
Once the division and inherent shaming was complete, he brought out the rope. The tug-of-war experiment began. It didn’t take long to prove his hypothesis. Indeed, fat kids, on average, do better than skinny kids. I don’t remember the specifics, who went first, how many rounds we did, or anything like that. What I do remember is that this day was the only day anyone ever cheered for me in gym class. I was a classic pudgy nerd, doing nothing to break down the stereotypes. The gymnasium was the one room in school where I felt awkward, like I didn’t belong. I would have rather gone to the Principal’s office. Finally being cheered in the one class I didn’t excel in, for being what I was incredibly self-conscious about, was more than my prepubescent mind could handle. I wasn’t the strongest, or the most strategic in leading my team. I was just the fattest. I, and my partners in plump, had proven Mr. Fleck’s point, that weight matters. Indeed it does. It wins tug-of-war games and it sears such “wins” right into the fat of a little girl, like a swollen Scarlett Letter. Look what I did. I won. I finally won in gym class. For being the fattest. It was worse than a participant ribbon.
Now, I wasn’t actually the fattest. Other kids were fatter, and had the Good Scientist continued his experiment, I surely would’ve lost to one of my more corpulent counterparts. But that wasn’t necessary, neither for his purposes nor for my humiliation. The damage was done. No amount of dieting today will erase that memory. I could run a marathon and celebrate with a salad, but it wouldn’t matter. I will never forget the cheering, the jubilation, the chanting of my name, that one time I won. Finally, my natural ability came in handy. Lucking fucking me.To bring this into modern times, I felt like Lauren Zizes in Glee, when fellow Glee clubber Puck sings “Fat Bottomed Girl” to her. This was his attempt to woo her. After the song she replies, “No one has ever sang me a song before,” [cut to Puck smiling because he thinks he’s done something good], then she says, “and it made me feel like crap.” Not exactly the serenade little girls dream of.
In case you’re wondering how a teacher a got away with this, I can only say I have no idea. Apparently no one complained. I know I didn’t tell my parents. I suspect none of my fellow fatties did either. What can I say? It was the 80s and it was public school. This was still the era when playgrounds were on concrete, only the winners got awards and no one knew what a helicopter parent was. We walked around with shirts that said “No pain, no gain.” If the obesity epidemic had begun, I don’t remember hearing about it. Not that there wasn’t a diet craze. People were counting calories, jazzercising and drinking Crystal Light , but there wasn’t a concern about fat kids yet. Diabetes was still primarily a Type 1 problem.
Another favorite phrase of that time was “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I don’t know that Mr. Fleck’s sorry excuse for physical education made me stronger, but considering all of the other messages inflicted on girls and women about body image, I wonder just how much worse his was than the mean girls who taunted anyone fatter than them at the pool every summer. Or how much inferiority he caused compared to any random page from a women’s magazine. Granted, his job is to instill in children a sense of well-being about physical activity, as opposed to say, heaping amounts of shame and a learned aversion to gymnasiums and rope. No, he was never my favorite teacher. He was, however, one source of many in creating a lasting body complex. That’s a lot for a little girl to have to endure, even if she’s not all that little.