Supporting pupils to appreciate their bodies by Dr. Sarah MacIsaac

Most of us have been there: we have been handed notes that tell us Lucy can’t swim for the 3rd week in a row; we have felt conflicted when slim pupils have asked us, the ‘body experts’, how they can get rid of their ‘muffin tops’ or ‘bingo wings’; we have had to intervene upon overhearing John being called a ‘fatty’ and we may have a Jack in our class who refuses to change his t-shirt after a lesson in case the other boys call him chubby. Yes, we are aware that issues relating to bodily appearances can impact pupils’ experiences of, and engagements with, PE and we want to try and make things better for our pupils. But how? We may feel up against it, especially in an age where our pupils are surrounded by images of bodily perfection. We know that many of our pupils are constantly browsing Instagram, seeing those ‘gym selfies’, serene yoga poses and strong bodies performing Olympic lifts. Many of our pupils just do not feel that their own bodies are good enough. We also know our pupils are conflicted. They see images and slogans telling them to love their bodies but they are still trying to negotiate a context where the social rewards are given to those who look ‘good’.  In amongst all this, we have to consider whether or not PE is just another space that makes things worse or whether PE can be a context for transformation and empowerment. Research tells us that there are pupils who feel physically sick with anxiety before coming to PE, especially before entering the PE changing rooms (Atkinson and Kehler, 2012). However, research also alludes to the potential that PE teachers have to transform pupils’ relationships with their bodies and with each other (Fitzpatrick and Russell, 2015). Some papers suggest that we should encourage our pupils to become more critical of the body messages and images that they are exposed to and help them to question why certain bodies are valued by deconstructing dominant meanings and stereotypes (Oliver and Lalik, 2004). These papers give us lots of ideas: group projects, discussion and debate, reflective diaries and so on. However, many of these interventions are classroom based and, in Scotland, the majority of our PE is practical in nature. This is where we have an opportunity to really make a difference. Although these ‘thought based’ interventions have potential to help pupils change their perceptions, there is also research showing that critical interventions may be much more effective if they are embodied, focussing on mind and body (Liimakka, 2011; Scott and Derry, 2005). For example, it may be through activities such as dance that we can help pupils to question and disrupt bodily norms and express themselves and tell stories in new ways. We also have great opportunity within PE to support pupils to ‘re-learn’ to appreciate their bodies for the sensory experiences and feelings that their bodies afford them and we can help pupils discover that their bodies can perform physical skills that they never thought possible. These pupils, who are often immersed in an environment where they feel the need to look strong and fit, can feel strong and fit. It may be that we need to prompt them more to realise this. For example, a pupil who finally manages to vault over a box will feel amazing flying through the air but when they land, we are the ones who can reinforce to them just how awesome their bodies really are. We can remind them of the strength and coordination that was required and of how each of their body parts allowed the movement to ‘flow’. Nevertheless, if we are to have the opportunity to do any of that we need to first foster a safe social environment for our pupils. That is, an environment where our pupils do not feel fear of judgement or ridicule if they mess up and of where pupils work cooperatively to support and encourage one another. We also must continue to work on developing fitness and practicing skills, our bread and butter, if our pupils are going to be able to have these bodily experiences. It all seems very idealistic and we cannot change things overnight but, in my opinion, PE is one of the very best places to start.

Further reading:

Atkinson, M. & Kehler, M. 2012. ‘Boys, bullying and biopedagogies in physical education.’ Journal of Boyhood Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, pp 166-185.

Fitzpatrick, K. & Russell, D. 2015. ‘On being critical in health and physical education.’ Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, vol. 20, no. 2, pp 159-173.

Liimakka, S. 2011. I am my body: objectification, empowering embodiment, and physical activity in women’s studies student’s accounts. Sociology of Sport Journal, vol. 28, no. 4, pp 441-460.

Oliver, K. L. & Lalik, R. 2004. ‘Critical inquiry on the body in girls’ physical education classes: a critical poststructural perspective. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, vol. 23, no. 2, pp 162-195

Scott, B. A. & Derry, J. A. 2005. ‘Women in their bodies: challenging objectification through experiential learning.’ Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 33 no. 1/2, pp 188-209.




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