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August 20, 2009

Middle school blues and scary flashbacks to P.E. class locker room and gym uniforms, Walnut Creek circa 1970s


My son is starting middle school next week as sixth-grader. Part of that is, yes, taking a real PE class, in which you change into uniforms for class.

The mere idea of middle or high school PE class ... specifically, of changing in the locker room, undressing for the first time in a room full of other girls, and feeling all awkward about growing up and bodily changes and all that ... and of changing into school-designated uniforms ...

My son seems to be taking it in stride. Maybe that's because he's a boy, and maybe that's because he's been given a reasonable uniform to change into--a normal T-shirt and running shorts.

But knowing the world he is about to enter is giving me scary flashbacks.

Especially to the uniforms that we girls in Walnut Creek middle and high schools had to wear back in the 1970s ... I still remember those uniforms clearly enough--and with horror--that I was able to sketch one out (see above sketch). Well, I had mine long enough: The uniform we bought in middle school was supposed to last us through high school.

They were "jumpers," or some such thing. One-piece. Bright red with narrow white stripes. They had snaps on the shoulders and snaps in the crotch!


They were made of this weird synthetic fabric that absolutely did not breath when you sweated. I can feel that fabric on me now. Itching and riding up at the most uncomfortable places. And how they would smell at the end of the week, when I would bring it home for my mother to wash!

Meanwhile, not too many of us looked good in them. They had vertical stripes that were meant to be slimming, I guess. But that weird, thin clinging fabric didn't hide any new chest, hip, or tummy bulges you were embarassed about.

Actually, a few girls looked good in them, and the names of those girls come to mind. Yes, they were the "usual suspects"--the cheerleaders, or girls who were on the gymnastics or volleyball teams. There were girls with trim, straight bodies and long tan legs. Hmm, if I had been a boy back then, I would have been having certain kinds of dreams about certain girls wearing those these uniforms.


It's clear that those uniforms were somehow at the center of boys' fascination, considering that a male band member donned one as some kind of homecoming week joke, as you can see in this photo. This photo way, is from my high school class yearbook.

I'm sure there are those who will object to me introducing the topic of sex into a discussion about these uniforms and into a discussion about PE classes at the middle school level. But, c'mon. There was something weirdly, frightenly sexual about it all.

Upon entering my first official PE class as a seventh grader, I remembering feeling all weird about it, changing in the makeshift locker room (a portable at my school's campus) and into those uniforms. The whole process felt like something of a rite of womanly passage that I, a late bloomer, wasn't really ready for.

As we're changing from our school clothes to our uniforms, we're sneaking peeks to see who's got a training bra, and there are whispers about who has started her period. And, this was back in the day when you could use the "I've got my period excuse" to get out of PE.


Not too long ago, I found myself engrossed in re-watching the groundbreaking 1976 horror film Carrie, starring Sissy Spacek. It tells the story of a mousy girl with telekinetic powers, who gets bloody revenge on all the mean kids who have given her a tough time. Of course, the film is also an allegory about a young woman's emerging sexual power. Carrie is being raised a crazy single Christian fundamentalist mother who wants to repress her daughter's budding sexuality; she calls her breasts "dirty pillows" and doesn't prepare her for the advent of menstruation. Carrie's ignorance about the facts of life gets her into trouble in the film's scary opening sequence, set in a high school P.E. class locker room. I don't think I've come across a book or film that truly captures the, yes, sexual anxiety and bodily shame surrounding the American school girls' PE class experience.

Director Brian DePalma, talented auteur and sexual fetishist that he could be, gives us what Sports Illustrated appropriately includes it its Top Five list of horrifying gym-class movie scenes.


Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is responsible for her team's losing a gym-class volleyball game—"We can't win a game with her on the team," somebody yells. Then she's forced to cower in the shower, bleeding from her first period, while her classmates hurl towels and tampons at her. It's not only the most horrifying gym-class scene ever filmed; it's one of the most horrifying scenes of any kind ever filmed.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Man, this post brings back memories. Hated gym class, hated volleyball, hated those one-piece uniforms. Ours (in Illinois) were a little better than the ones that the guy in your post was wearing as a joke, however, due to the fabric in ours not being so clingy (think more like the stiff cotton fabric in a Scout uniform or something), and they were short-sleeved, but yes, they were all one piece, with a sort of elastic waist and snaps down the front. Most of us looked goofy in the uniforms, except for -- as you say -- the cheerleader types, who could look good in anything. One of the joys of adulthood: no more school gym class!!!

Cheryl said...

The PE shirts at the middle school are just like the ones they had at my middle school in SoCal in the late 80s. Those double layered shirts get HOT in the early fall and late spring.

At least the shorts they have now are a lot nicer than the awful cotton short shorts that I had to wear in middle school.

Lisa Mc said...

I remember the older girls on my block had to wear these. By the time I was their age, we were allowed shorts and t-shirts instead. I felt so LUCKY to not have to deal with these jumpers (ours were blue and white stripes--same synthetic fabric). No one was ever going to look forward to P.E. in one of these.

Anonymous said...

I haven't thought about gym class in many, many years. For good reason too. I was the smallest boy in our high school, for all 4 years. Gym class was hell. I think the worst was dodge ball. I was always the first hit and it was with a wickedly fast ball that usually left me crying. God I hated gym.

21stCenturyMom said...

Did you know that Stephen King was inspired to write Carrie when he was working as a janitor and had to deal with used tampons in the girls room? Seriously. It's all documented in his book 'On Writing' - check it out.

We wore cotton, blue, 1 piece "jumpers" for gym in high school. I remember them vividly.

PE at WCI is a zoo. I hope they have stopped mixing the 6th graders with the 7th and 8th graders because that was just so wrong.

Soccer Mom said...

Thanks everyone for sharing your own "happy" memories of PE class and gym uniforms.

Ugh.

And 21st Century Mom, thanks for the Stephen King recommendation. My husband brought up his On Writing book over the weekend. In what context I can't remember, but what a coincidence that you would mention it also.

Great minds think alike? I've always wanted to read some of those early Stephen King books, like Carrie. I read The Shining for a college seminar on depictions of evil in Western thought and literature. Carrie is a great movie, one I didn't appreciate until I watched it again.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the mandatory group showers in gym class. I still remember very clearly the first day that I had to shower buck naked with 29 other girls at the end of my first gym class in the seventh grade. From my understanding they don't make kids shower anymore if they don't want to.

Amy H

Anonymous said...

WOW, Thanks so much for drawing that picture and giving that vivid description. Ours in NJ were just like yours just Green with White stripes. ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE. When we got to high school I refused to wear one. I told them kick me out, I'm not wearing it and your lucky I'm showing up. lol I was just telling my 23 year old son about them. I do still love the feathered hair, tube socks and Earth Shoes, which I recently bought a new pair online. :)

atleast 35 said...

Thank you for this post! I had the same uniform in the mid 70s. It was horrible! I found it a few years ago and tossed it. Kind of wish I had saved it to show people. Strangely, the high schools next to mine (same county) wore tshirts and shorts for gym. I think it had to do with our sadistic gym teachers

Anonymous said...

I was telling my husband about my 1975-1978 gym suit. Thought I would google it to find an image. Your hand drawn image was the only pic I could find. These were our high school gym suits. Thanks for posting!