Social media, the body and physical education by Sarah MacIsaac

Happy New Year and welcome to our first post of 2016. This is a post from Sarah MacIsaac, a final-year PhD student (part-time) at the University of Edinburgh and a lecturer on the BEd and MA PE Programmes. Both her research and teaching explore sociocultural issues within PE. This blog introduces and explains the background to her PhD research and some of her findings to date.

Research aims and method

For my PhD research I wanted to explain contemporary body-related culture amongst young people and explore the implications of this for PE. I designed my research so that I could spend as much time within a school as possible as I was convinced that the best way of understanding pupils’ thoughts and social practices was to get to know the pupils themselves, to spend time interacting and building relationships with them so they could talk to me openly and honestly. Therefore, I conducted ethnographic research where I assumed the role of a PE teaching assistant within one school for a whole academic year. I mostly conducted ‘participant observation’ and engaged in informal conversation with pupils but also spoke to a variety of pupils in more formal focus group interviews. Participants ranged from S1-6 (22 girls and 19 boys).social_media_strategy111

I anticipated that my research focus would evolve as I spent time finding out what was important to the participants I was interacting with. Sure enough, I gradually became drawn towards certain aspects of pupil culture which I felt were important to investigate further and which had not yet received much attention within the PE literature. Principally, it became clear that the ingraining of online social interaction within young people’s lives was adding new dimensions to how young people interacted with each other, to how they viewed themselves and their bodies and to how they learnt and accessed knowledge.


My research uncovered three over-arching tenets of pupil culture: the centrality of the body and bodily appearances, the omnipresence of social media and the celebrification of the self. The first of these three tenets was not new and previous studies have shown that the body is highly symbolic within social interaction and influential to how individuals judge each other and negotiate power relations and social hierarchies.

Mona Lisa SelfieHowever, the omnipresence of social media and the celebrification of self were bolstering the salience of bodily appearances within pupil culture. Young people had almost constant access to social media and struggled to imagine life without it. Social media platforms allowed young people to engage in large and complex social networks of friends and ‘friends of friends’ which extended throughout the school and throughout the city.Here it was considered good to become known and be known to be known and certain pupils acted, and were treated like, celebrities and were renowned across large audiences. However, these three tenets of pupil culture also meant pupils negotiated a hyper-risky environment where their bodies were hyper-visible, hyper-scrutinised and therefore hyper-controllecyber-bullying-finalcolord. For many, these risks could be ‘devastating’, with identities being spoiled on a regular basis, for example, by being tagged in unflattering photos or shamed in front of large audiences and online ‘gossip’ pages.

Some thoughts and implications for PE

The online environment afforded young people with opportunities to carefully craft and establish idealised identities, particularly in relation to their bodily appearance as they had the resources and time to ensure that they were portrayed flatteringly. They therefore had unrealistic expectations of how they ‘should’ look and often felt feelings of envy, needing to be ‘better’ and needing to work harder on their own bodies. Like the online environment, the PE environment is place of increased bodily exposure but an exposure which in contrast is characterised by a lack of control. Within PE, young people cannot use apps, camera angles and filters to censor how others see them and the PE environment is a place where a carefully crafted bodily identity can quickly unravel. Further, what happens within the PE environment does not necessarily remain there. A young person’s ‘audience’ can include those who are not necessarily there when social situations occur. This can make offline environments even more ‘risky’ than ever before. The findings of my study revealed that intense focus and scrutiny of the body was very much framed in relation to the ‘healthy’ and ‘fit’ body.imgres

Young people were continually exposed to images of muscular, toned and lean bodies online which were virtuously presented as the results of eating ‘clean’ and working hard in the gym. As my participants claimed, ‘it’s like soooo fashionable right now to be healthy.’ It is tempting, as PE teachers to capitalise upon such ‘trends’ which circulate positively framed messages such as, ‘strong is the new skinny.’ Perhaps, we could argue, this will encourage some young people to engage more with PE, to become fit and healthy? However, the focus here is still very much on appearances and looking ‘healthy’ as opposed to being healthy, on never quite being perfect enough and on superficially judging others. Could we not instead challenge this body objectification and help young people re-define what they value about their bodies? Could PE be the ideal site for attempting this and be the place where young people gain an appreciation of what they can achieve and experience through their bodies as they learn to move?

Useful reference

Johnson, S., Gray, S., & Horrell, A., 2013. ‘‘I want to look like that’: healthism, the ideal body and physical education in a Scottish secondary school,’ Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 34 (3), 457-473. 10.1080/01596306.2012.717196

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