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.
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.