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Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

How the gendered body is constructed in physical education

Oct 17, 2023 | Research, Education, Sport, Domestic abuse, Gender, Health, Body, School, Feature

The following article is a condensed version of a book chapter of mine that was published in June 2023. This is part of a book entitled Gender, feminist and queer studies: Power, privilege and inequality in a time of neoliberal conservatism that was developed by Charles Sturt University’s ‘Gender Network (Gender, Feminist and Queer Research and Practice)’ – of which I am an active member. I recently gave a presentation on my book chapter to kick off the Guest Speaker Seminar Series for the ‘Research in PE and Sport’ (RePS) community.

The body has been governed in physical education in England since the first syllabus was introduced in 1902. My PhD focused on this corporeal regulation across a 114-year timeline from 1902 to 2016. The recent book chapter that has been developed from this, focuses more specifically on the end of the twentieth century to today, considering what forms of governing have arisen, and what their effects are, on the construction of (gendered) bodies. As such, the analysis highlights how contemporary physical education discourses and regimes of practice have come to be as they are today.

What is genealogy?

A genealogical approach was adopted in my PhD and my associated book chapter. Genealogy is predominantly associated with Nietzsche’s (1887/1998) book entitled On the genealogy of morality, and the more recent text by Foucault, published in 1977, Discipline and punish. Although written ninety years apart, both theorists contest the assumption that history moves forward from some specific origin, arguing that a genealogist often finds these origins are fabricated or even cease to exist. At the heart of genealogy is the notion that there are no essences to be determined behind historical progressions, that is, there is no linear and teleological sequence of events.

A genealogical approach aims to unsettle the ‘taken-for-granted’, disrupting rather than cultivating consensus, and thereby facilitating an examination of power relations in order to illuminate marginalised/new ‘truths’. It exposes contingent and ‘shameful’ origins of particular long-held traditions and practices. Foucault’s conception of genealogy is as problematisation; how and why certain things (e.g., behaviour, phenomena, processes) became a problem. His concern therefore invites reconstruction, by posing problems that require responses and resolutions in order to transform the present.

As academics James Joseph Scheurich and Kathryn Bell McKenzie suggested in 2007, genealogy therefore reveals details, accidents, and errors; it discovers “randomness, piecemeal fabrications, dissension, disparity, passion, hatred, competition” and it does this “in lieu of origins”.

The body as the primary document in the forms of evidence

When discussing genealogy, the famous French philosopher Michel Foucault described the body as the primary document for the genealogist, since it is the body that is “the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated Self (adopting an illusion of substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration”.

To explore the rationalities and discourses through which different forms of governing have been constituted in physical education, time-bound physical education documents and associated policies, reports and Acts were analysed. My selection of grey literature corresponded with Foucault’s belief that such everyday documents can help to expose ‘truths’ and marginalised knowledges through an analysis of their minutiae.

Public health promotion from the late 1990s

From the late 1990s, public health promotion emerged as a particular problematisation of governing and this came to shape the regulation of the body in physical education in England. This led to the development of healthism as a rationality of ‘third way’ neoliberalism and governance.

As I advise in my book chapter, [Kenneth R.] Dutton explained the notion of healthism a little further, linking it explicitly with the body when describing it as “a particular form of ‘bodyism’; in which a hedonistic lifestyle is (paradoxically) combined with a preoccupation with ascetic practices aimed at the achievement or maintenance of appearance of health, fitness and youthfulness”.

Obesity was contemplated as a key focus of this problematisation process since it was perceived as a public health risk and an economic burden.

One example of this phenomenon is the following British policy that was released in 2008: Healthy weight, healthy lives: A cross-government strategy for England.

Girl upside down: Picture: Pixabay

Girl upside down: Picture: Supplied/Pixabay

In this, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown commented: “There should be no doubt that maintaining a healthy weight must be the responsibility of individuals first – it is not the role of Government to tell people how to live their lives and nor would this work. Sustainable change will only come from individuals seeing the link between a healthy weight and a healthy life and so wanting to make changes to the way that they and their families live”.

He continued: “…on current trends nearly 60 per cent of the UK population will be obese by 2050 that is almost two out of three in the population defined as severely overweight. If we do not reverse this, millions of adults and children will inevitably face deteriorating health and a lower quality of life and we face spiralling health and social care costs”.

As Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller suggested in their 1992 paper Political power beyond the state: Problematics of government, curriculum documents were redeveloped to support third way thinking that involved students needing to take personal responsibility for the weight, appearance and general health of their bodies; this signifies the presence of healthism and ‘governing at a distance’.

Additionally, the power modality of discipline is shown to increase in significance through the technology of sport, intertwining with and complementing healthism as a key form of governing underpinning physical education.

In High quality PE and sport for young people, released by the UK Department for Education and Skills, several of the ten outcomes connect PE with healthism. For instance, outcome three states: “When schools and sports clubs are providing high quality PE [physical education] and/or sport, they see young people who understand that PE and sport are an important part of a healthy, active lifestyle.”

The overt pro-sport ideology during this epoch bolstered perceptions of physical education as being sport in the school context, and this concurrently led to the suppression and exclusion of certain other forms of physical activity.

The effect that this neoliberalising process has on girls, in particular, is identified by scholars such as Macdonald and Azzarito, who discuss its ‘othering’ consequences. While some maintain that girls are socialised into ‘female’ activities such as dance and gymnastics, this should not undermine the right for girls (and boys) to have experiences other than health-driven activities and competitive team sports during their physical education journeys.

As I further state in my book chapter: “The neoliberal drive for sport – over and above other informal and collaborative physical endeavour – overlooks the gender-based research in this space”.

Although research across the 1980s and 1990s examines the lack of opportunities for girls to engage in traditional ‘male’ activities such as football and rugby, ironically, the pendulum seems to have swung to competitive sport dominating contemporary physical education for all. In so doing, other ‘feminine’ activity choices such as dance and gymnastics are being marginalised. The possibility of a student being an individual with multiple identities, and the shifting nature of gender and gender relations within physical education pedagogy, are also not recognised.

Hence, overweight bodies and the gendered body enter class as the alienated other, with the imperatives of neoliberalism – self-regulating, ‘healthy’, competitive citizens – being prioritised. Worryingly, this has the effect of further alienating many young females in a school subject that is already well known for its enduring gendered regimes.

  • Please note: Picture at top is a stock photo. 




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Dr Rachael Jefferson-Buchanan is a Lecturer in Human Movement Studies (Health & PE) and Creative Arts, at Charles Sturt University, on the Albury campus in New South Wales. She loves to trouble body-focused conventions and regimes of practices, particularly when the gendered body is under the microscope.

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