Call for papers: Special issue of Fat Studies – Fat and Physical Activity

Call for Proposals – Special Issue on FAT AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY of Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society

 Guest Editors:

Dr Louise Mansfield Brunel University London (UK),

Dr Emma Rich University of Bath (UK),

This special issue of Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society will examine issues of fat and physical activity. Globally, there is an established weight-centric approach to policy-making about physical activity. Physical activity is promoted as a panacea to the pathologized problems of “obesity” and “overweight.” Yet there are examples of more inclusive forms of embodied movement and physical activity which challenge these imperatives. The guest editors invite manuscripts which engage with theoretical, methodological and political frameworks that challenge moralised obligations towards physical activity as a means of achieving health through weight loss.

This special issue invites contributions across a range of disciplines and methodological and theoretical approaches within fat studies that pursue questions advancing knowledge about physical activity, fat, health and wellbeing. It will also highlight work that can support the development of better informed, more inclusive and appropriate physical activity policy, pedagogies and practice for fat people. Papers which address the failure in most physical activity literature to recognise and understand the experiences of fat people in becoming and being physically active are invited.

Potential topics might include, but are not limited to:

  • Historical representations of fat and physical activity
  • Fat subjectivity and physical activity
  • Fat, stigma and ‘athletic’ cultures
  • Fat activism in sport, leisure and recreation – How sites of physical activity contest and resist normative notions of fat
  • The anti-fat ethic and the promotion of physical activity
  • “Obesity science” and the prescription of exercise
  • Innovative and inclusive physical activity programmes
  • Fat, physical activity and affect
  • Fat pedagogy and physical activity
  • Intersections of space/place and fat identities
  • Emerging theoretical and critical approaches to understanding physical activity and fat (e.g. posthumanism, new materialism)

To submit a proposal for inclusion in this special issue of the journal, please send a 250-500 word summary of your article to Louise Mansfield ( by 1st September 2017. Any questions about the special issue can be directed to this email address as well.

Draft manuscripts will be required by 1st December 2017 for the review process. Submissions should be between 3,000 and 6,000 words (10-15 pages, size 12 font, double spaced), including all notes and references.

Reproductions of visual images will require permission from the artists/ copyright holders of the image(s). All authors will need to sign a form that transfers copyright of their article to the publisher, Taylor & Francis/ Routledge.

Fat Studies is the first academic journal in the field of scholarship that critically examines theory, research, practices, and programs related to body weight and appearance. Content includes original research and overviews exploring the intersection of gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, age, ability, and socioeconomic status. Articles critically examine representations of fat in health and medical sciences, the Health at Every Size model, the pharmaceutical industry, psychology, sociology, cultural studies, legal issues, literature, pedagogy, art, theater, popular culture, media studies, and activism.

Fat Studies is an interdisciplinary, international field of scholarship that critically examines societal attitudes and practices about body weight and appearance. Fat Studies advocates equality for all people regardless of body size. It explores the way fat people are oppressed, the reasons why, who benefits from that oppression and how to liberate fat people from oppression. Fat Studies seeks to challenge and remove the negative associations that society has about fat and the fat body. It regards weight, like height, as a human characteristic that varies widely across any population. Fat Studies is similar to academic disciplines that focus on race, ethnicity, gender, or age.



New Project “The Digital Health Generation? The impact of ‘healthy lifestyle’ technologies on young people’s learning, identities and health practices” – funded by The Wellcome Trust

Research Team:
Dr Emma Rich (PI) – University of Bath
Professor Andy Miah – University of Salford
Professor Deborah Lupton – University of Canberra
I’m very excited to announce that in February 2017 we will begin a new research project funded by the the Wellcome Trust on digital health technologies and young people.
We will be setting up a project website in the coming months, but in the meantime here is a summary of the research.

Funded by The Wellcome Trust, this research project will examine young people’s (13-18 years) engagement with digital health technologies. Mobile and wearable health technologies are revolutionising healthcare, profoundly changing Government policies and the ways that health knowledge is being created, accessed and used around the world. Digital health technologies provide mechanisms of self-surveillance for individuals to measure, monitor and regulate their bodies. Yet, little is known about individuals’ experiences of these technologies, their actual impact on health practices, and the ethical risks or harms they present. The research will address major and pressing gaps in health knowledge, by providing unique insights into young people’s experiences of digital health technologies promoting ‘healthy lifestyles’. This project will develop an innovative theoretically-informed and methodologically novel research approach, bringing together perspectives from the fields of critical digital health, pedagogy and ethics and utilising innovative qualitative methods of data collection to identify related inequalities and opportunities.

The project aims to:

1) explore how young people’s access to and engagement with digital health technologies is shaped by socio-cultural context (geographical, familial, spatial, religious, socoeconomic, cultural) and background (age, gender, digital experience) and identify related disparities.

2) broaden and deepen our understanding of the transformative potential of digital health on young people’s lives and the complex configurations that operate around their digital health encounters.

3) Informed by theoretical frameworks of pedagogy, document the processes of learning through which young people discover, select, adopt, share, employ, resist or reject the information and assumptions about health and bodies that are offered by digital technologies.


Ethnography, Qualitative Interview, Digital Ecology, Online Survey


New Research project Re-presenting para-sport bodies: Disability & the cultural legacy of the Paralympics

I’ve just started research with a number of colleagues as part of an exciting new project funded by the AHRC and led by Professor Michael Silk at Bournemouth University in collaboration with Bournemouth University, Loughborough University, Nottingham Trent University, The University of Western Ontario, University of Bath.

“With research on the commercial mediation of para-sport bodies being described as being in its infancy, there are urgent calls for more joined-up evidence based research that can address the cultural legacy of Paralympic sport (the implications of media constructions of disability), people with disabilities and the role they play in cultural life. This project will provide this data-and thus insights and policy recommendations by completing the first funded academic study on the impact of para-sport representations on public attitudes towards para-sport bodies.”





Problematizing public engagement within public pedagogy research and practice

New journal article with Jennifer Sandlin and Jake Burdick, published in Discourse: Studies in the cultural politics of Education

“In this article, we explore issues related to how scholars attempt to enact public pedagogy (i.e. doing ‘public engagement’ work) and how they research public pedagogy (i.e. framing and researching artistic and activist ‘public engagement’ as public pedagogy). We focus specifically on three interrelated issues we believe should be addressed by scholars as they continue to theorize, enact, and analyze public pedagogies in the broader public sphere: (a) power dynamics embedded in individualized versus more collective enactments of public intellectualism; (b) conflicting and complicated conceptualizations of the relationship between the public pedagogue and the public, and how that relationship should be enacted; and (c) ethical issues surrounding the framing of public engagement and activist work under the umbrella of ‘pedagogy’”

Click here for the full article

Mobile, wearable and ingestible health technologies: towards a critical research agenda

A new paper I’ve co-authored with Andy Miah on digital health technologies, published in Health Sociology Review as part of a special issue edited by Deborah Lupton.

“In this article, we review critical research on mobile and wearable health technologies focused on the promotion of ‘healthy lifestyles’. We begin by discussing key governmental and policy interests which indicate a shift towards greater digital integration in health care. Subsequently, we review relevant research literature, which highlights concerns about inclusion, social justice, and ownership of mobile health data, which we argue, provoke a series of key sociological questions that are in need of additional investigation. We examine the expansion of what counts as health data, as a basis for advocating the need for greater research into this area. Finally, we consider how digital devices raise questions about the reconfiguration of relationships, behaviours, and concepts of individuality.”

Click here to link to the full article

Could artificial intelligence save the NHS?

Just published this article with Andy Miah (Salford) in The Conversation.

“The NHS recently announced plans to trial an artificially intelligent mobile health app to a million people in London. The aim is to help diagnose and treat patients by engaging them in a real time text message conversation which will complement the NHS 111 phone based service (which was criticised by the Care Quality Commission watchdog). The app’s designers, Babylon Healthcare Ltd, use algorithms to make initial diagnoses which are then followed up with human consultations. It has already received a glowing CQC evaluation.

The app is likely to provoke a mixed response, with enthusiastic technophiles up against those concerned that more technology means a less human healthcare service. Yet, with the NHS being described as suffering from a humanitarian crisis, and with a growing healthcare burden and limited resources, some smart solutions are needed. It is hard to deny that problems of limited funding are enduring features of this unique public service. Perhaps AI has the answer”

Click here to read more..



Why young women need to be given a louder voice in the obesity debate

An article I published in the conversation with Dr Jessica Francombe-Webb and Annaleise Depper (University of Bath) on the obesity policy.

Young women are at the centre of myriad public health concerns about their bodies. Fears about obesity, inactivity, unhappiness and social media have driven policy responses that target young women and their “problem” behaviours. But far too often these issues are seen as having competing agendas. In this complex environment, isn’t it time for more joined-up thinking and for the voices of young women to be more clearly heard?

Click here to read more …

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Obesity Policy and Behaviour change models of health: The impact on social class & Inequalities

Journal Article in Sociological Research Online

Physical Cultures of Stigmatisation: Health Policy & Social Class – Emma Rich, Laura De Pian and Jessica Francombe-Webb


In recent years, the increasing regulation of people’s health and bodies has been exacerbated by a contemporary ‘obesity discourse’ centred on eating less, exercising more and losing weight. This paper contributes to the growing body of work critically examining this discourse and highlights the way physical activity and health policy directed at ‘tackling’ the obesity ‘crisis’ in the UK articulates numerous powerful discourses that operate to legitimise and privilege certain ways of knowing and usher forth certain desirable forms of embodiment. This has given greater impetus to further define the role of physical activity, sport and physical education as instruments for addressing public health agendas. It is argued that these policies have particular implications for social class through their constitution of (un)healthy and (in)active ‘working class’ bodies. One of the most powerful forms of stigmatisation and discrimination circulating within contemporary health emerges when the social and cultural tensions of social class intersect with obesity discourse and its accompanying imperatives related to physical activity and diet. This raises some important questions about the future of sport and physical activity as it is shaped by the politics of broader health agendas and our position within this terrain as ‘critics’. Consequently, the latter part of the paper offers reflections on the nature and utility of our (and others’) social science critique in the politics of obesity and articulates the need for crossing disciplinary and sectoral borders.

A public pedagogy approach to Fat Pedagogy

I’m delighted to have a chapter out soon ‘A public pedagogy approach to fat pedagogy’ in the exciting new book edited by Erin Cameron and Constance Russell ‘The Fat Pedagogy Reader: challenging weight-based oppression through critical education’

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In the chapter I argue that the emerging academic field of ‘public pedagogy’ has a great deal to offer fat pedagogy; both in terms of its potential to problematize and belie some of the taken for granted beliefs about fatness, but to also generate more critical and potentially more empowering and humanistic forms of knowledge and understandings about fat. I begin by exploring how the construct of ‘public pedagogy’ (Sandlin, O’Malley & Burdick, 2011) challenges the idea that pedagogical phenomena resides only in formal educational spaces. Public pedagogy recognises that the spaces in which meanings are made, including those about fatness, weight and the body, are contested and contingent. In this vein, a case is made for harnessing public pedagogical approaches for disrupting and troubling weight-based oppression.

I ask, is there anything distinctive about public pedagogy that might help to challenge, trouble or disrupt weight-based oppression? Throughout, I take up some of the challenges laid down by Burdick, Sandlin & O’Malley (2014) in their problematisation of public pedagogy, to make clearer ‘its meaning, context or location’. The chapter therefore considers the particular conditions of a range of ‘publics’ and ‘sites’ that might help to expand collective knowledge capable of articulating alternative ways of thinking about fat. These include, for example, arts, social media, community health, public intellectuals, figures and sites of activism.


Citizen Science Talk


Cit Sci poster

I will be speaking at the University of Bath public engagement event on ‘Citizen Science’ on Wednesday 8th October.

How are we negotiating our health through mobile health apps? New article….

In recent years there has been a rapid growth in mobile health apps that relate to physical activity and lifestyle. Such apps, which allow users to track their exercise behaviour, body weight, and food consumption, represent a significant proportion of the health app market. How are we negotiating our health through these apps? What are we learning about our bodies and health through these new technologies? Rapid transformations in digital platforms have provided mechanisms of surveillance of our bodies and ways to track, monitor and modify our bodies, through the reduction of often complex issues to ‘simple data’ such as Body Mass Index. The promotion of healthy behaviours through mobile apps has intensified processes of surveillance and regulation of people’s everyday lives, raising a number of questions about their applications. Addressing some of these questions, Andy Miah (@andymiah) and I have just had an article published on critical digital health ‘Understanding Digital Health as Public Pedagogy: A Critical Framework’. This paper is part of a special issue of ‘Societies‘ (an international peer-reviewed, open access journal of sociology) guest edited by Deborah Lupton (@DALupton) –  ‘Beyond Techno-Utopia: Critical Approaches to Digital Health Technologies’.
The abstract of the article is posted below and you can read the full open access article here.

Understanding Digital Health as Public Pedagogy: A Critical Framework
Emma Rich, University of Bath (@emmarich45,
Andy Miah, University of West of Scotland (@andymiah,
Abstract: This paper argues on behalf of a public pedagogy approach to developing a critical understanding of digital health technologies. It begins by appraising the hitherto polarised articulations of digital innovation as either techno-utopian or techno-dystopian, examining these expectations of technology and considering the tensions between them. It subsequently outlines how a public pedagogy approach can help mediate between these views, offering a more contextualised, socio-political perspective of mHealth. This approach teases out the nuances of digital health by engaging with the complexities of embodied learning. Furthermore, it urges caution against viewing these pedagogical forces as one of transference, or simple governance. To this end, we therefore contextualise our critique of digital health, within an attempt to reconstitute an understanding of public pedagogies of technology.
Keywords: public pedagogy; mobile health; mHealth; digital health; body; prosthetics; technology; learning

Body culture art at the Fringe Arts Bath Festival

In September 2011 research I have undertaken with colleagues from the University of Bath (Laura De Pian) and Loughborough University (John Evans and Rachel Allwood) exploring young people’s relationships with their bodies within cultures of increased surveillance and body perfection was  the subject of an interdiscilinary art exhibition curated by Kerrie O’Connell. Amidst growing concerns about the rise in disordered eating and body dissatisfaction, the exhibition included  various art forms to explore the impact of an increased focus on weighing, measuring and the surveillance on young people’s bodies. A selection of some of this work is now being shown as part of the ‘Research Matters’  exhibition curated by the public engagement unit, University of Bath as part of  the Fringe Arts Bath Festival. The images are being exhibited on the 2nd floor of the Officer’s club on stall street.

With thanks to Kerrie O’Connell, Alexandra Unger, Marina Tsartsara, Stelios Manganis, Kamina Walton for their permission to exhibit their work as part of the Research Matters theme.

Interview – The Men Who Made Us Thin BBC

Emma Rich on The Men Who Made Us Thin BBC THE MEN WHO MADE US THIN


This is a four part documentary series includes an interview with myself and a number of other critical weight scholars/activists.

Click here to watch clips from the series

“Jacques Peretti investigates the connections between obesity and weight loss, confronting some of the men making a fortune from our desire to become thin” (BBC)

Talk at the Institute of Education on public pedagogy research in the digital age

On 25th March I will be giving a talk at the Institute of Education , University of London, as part of their sociology of education seminar series:

The possibilities and challenges of Public Pedagogy research in the digital age

 Over the last decade, there has been a groundswell of scholarship drawing on the theoretical construct of ‘public pedagogy’. In this presentation, I will critically discuss some of the possibilities and challenges of this vision of education drawing on some of my past and ongoing research related to digitality and physical cultures (citizen journalism, mobile health surveillance, web 2.0).   This framing has provided exciting possibilities for critical explorations of the educative force of a range of cultural sites in young people’s lives.  Evidence is also emerging of the transformative potential of public pedagogies in challenging oppressive discourses of the body through alternative pedagogies. Yet public pedagogy scholarship is flourishing at a conjuncture when the assumed distinction between public and private spaces has been complicated by this emerging digitality.  Whilst the construct of public pedagogy has drawn attention to the persuasive pedagogical influence of new digital technologies, I will argue that the challenges of doing research on or through digital environments reveal some of the limitations of current conceptualisations of public pedagogy.  Finally, in considering future directions of the field, the intention is to raise a series of questions that I and other public pedagogy scholars have been grappling with in terms of the ‘mythologizing and totalising’ (Savage, 2010) aspects of public pedagogy.

How thinking about health shapes the way young women think about their ‘futures’

Changing times, future bodies? The significance of health in young women’s imagined futures

Just had this article published in Pedagogy, Culture and Society with John Evans.

“In the UK, as in many other western and westernised societies, something of a crisis has been constructed around the relationships between childhood inactivity, young people’s diets and rising obesity levels. This is promoted through various sites of physical culture. This discourse cultivates the idea that reduced activity and poor diets are leading to increased rates of obesity, resulting in an imminent decline in health and increased mortality rates. Fuelled by a moral panic, 2 these concerns have recast attention towards the weight, size shape and lifestyles of young people, intensifying the pressures already on them to regulate their bodies and lifestyles, e.g. alter their eating habits, take more exercise and lose weight. This interest in obesity reflects a biopolitcal shift toward organising, shaping and regulating bodies in particular ways, through a simplistic focus on ‘weight’ (see Evans et al. 2008; Wright and Harwood 2009) rather than health. Moreover, such fears about the declining future health of current generations of young people are used as justification for intervening in people’s lives at an increasingly younger age and on an ever-greater scale. A growing body of work has begun to register the potentially damaging effects of this discourse on the lives of girls and young women (see Halse, Honey, and Boughtwood 2008; Evans et al. 2008). Current imaginings of the ‘future girl’ (Harris 2004) converge with these ‘new health imperatives’ (Rich and Evans 2009) to form part of ‘the ways in which subjective gender is constituted and mobilised’ (Zannettino 2008, 466). In considering the ‘changing position of women and girls’ in this paper, I consider what kinds of new burdens, expectations and insecurities are brought about by a renewed focus on the body and the accompanying imperative towards self-care (see Armstrong 1995; Crawford 1980).


This paper has reported on data from a range of school sites in the UK and points towards the importance of understandings of health in relation to how young women imagine their ‘futures’. Such data reveal the close relationship between ‘subjectivity and pathways’ (McLeod and Yates 2006) in the construction of possibilities and opportunities for particular forms of embodiment and citizenship. Pedagogies of health coalesce strongly with visions of girlhood which draw upon risk society and future achievement as central to the new kinds of subjectivity. Whilst these may be offered as ‘new choices’ for all, our data suggest that these visions of the future are received and read by young women within life contexts which are mediated by school culture, public pedagogies, gender, class, ethnicity, etc. For all the girls and young women in this research, understandings of health play a significant role not only in shaping their understanding of their bodies, health or medical status, but also the narrative they construct in relation to their ‘future lives’. However, classed-based differences are clearly revealed in these imagined futures. For the middle-class girls in the independent schools described above, these instructional charges of investment in the body to demonstrate the successfully healthy future girl may suggest particular gains in physical capital, health benefits and social mobility. However, for many such ‘charges’ are embodied through intense forms of surveillance, scrutiny and individualism, reinscribing traditional gender inequalities through ostensible ‘new choice’. Conversely, for the working-class young women in Fielding Community College, school-based pedagogies relating poor future health with working-class location significantly shape their imagined trajectories and position them as the ‘at-risk’ (failed or failing) girls described by Harris (2004). These mediations allude to the ‘the delusionary character of self-determining, individualistic and autonomous ideas of subjectivity’ (Gonick 2004, 204) which are so central to the contemporary visions of girlhood which position young women as benefiting from new forms of citizenship and choice.”

Read more

Social Learning 2.0: A New Teaching Ethos for Universities

Dr Emma Rich, University of Bath @emmarich45

Professor Andy Miah, University of the West of Scotland @andymiah

Around the end of 2011, a few geeks in Sweden set up the Swedish Twitter University, which brought lectures in a series of tweets to a class of, at least, around 500 followers. It may have been the first time that Twitter was used to deliver higher education and with the recent debates about massive open online courses (MOOCs), it seems apt that we reflect on what Twitter might do to transform the classroom and open up a new space for public education?

This week, we put together an experiment that tested these limits, creating a seminar that took place entirely within Twitter, using a bespoke hashtag to bring together all of the content. Running a seminar in Twitter might sound like a relatively simple exercise: ensure students have devices through which to tweet (mostly their own, but if not then a computer or loaner, or share), then position your Visiting Professor – aka Andy Miah – in front of his computer and let rip.

There was a bit of prep time involved too. Emma was in the classroom, doing some pre-reading and preparation with the students, who were all in the same place. They need not have been, but this introduces an interesting debate: is there something to gain by being ‘Alone Together’ as Sherry Turkle would say. While mobile devices can allow us to remove the physical classroom all together, there value may be analogous to going to the cinema or watching television. Both involve watching a movie, but there’s some additional value in the physical, shared experience. In this case, not by design, but more by last minute planning, the students were all together. They also watched a livestream of all tweets, introducing an additional dimension to the experience – literally a silver screen of collective content. The session was pitched as a Q&A based on something Andy had written and over 40 minutes around 110 tweets flew through cyberspace.

Did it work? Was there much gained by this experience? Did the students get anything more – or less – than they would have, if they had just had Andy in the room giving them a talk? This is a difficult question to answer, but it was certainly different and, you could argue that universities need to prepare their students for communication in the ultra fast lane of social media.

This Twitter seminar gave students the rare opportunity to ask questions and post comments to Andy through tweets and receive individual replies. You can read the discussion via storify, here The method encouraged reciprocity, instinctive thinking and recognised a shift in how education takes place in the 21st century, from a reliance on formal education to a recognition of spaces like social media as important sites for learning. This unique social media event gave the students an opportunity to experience public pedagogy first hand, in addition to developing their own sense of working within the public domain, a crucial skill in a world of 24-hour connectivity.

Spontaneity and immediacy are of course seen as some of the celebrated strengths of social media like twitter. Consider its role for example in alerting the public of information or news about significant events such as natural disasters before it even breaks in the mainstream. Responding in the twitter debate, within seconds, students were receiving replies from Andy and thinking on their feet.  But conveying a message in 140 characters is challenging, particularly if one wants to avoid over simplification in complex, critical debate. Do we prepare students well for this? Quick thinking and summarising you views carries potential risk which for many means a fear of ‘tweeting’ and putting critical views in the public domain.

Just this week, the BBC published an article on Twitter users: A guide to the law, which suggests that ordinary social media users need to have a grasp of media law. Through the defamation bill and other laws, it may be clearer to us what we can and can’t say on platforms like twitter.  Perhaps clearer social media law will offer both staff and students clarity and confidence in engaging with social media in the classroom. However, this law doesn’t of course address issues of reciprocity, etiquette, or how we make ‘cold’ connections in the networked world.

If the Twitter debate hadn’t been facilitated in a formal capacity, many of the students would not have felt it appropriate to contact a Professor (or other ‘esteemed’ twitter user) in the way they did during the debate. We do not know the future of these emerging technologies and so ‘demarcation and rules’ do not seem so fruitful here. Fluidity, flexibility and responsiveness seem like important skills for students to develop as part of their learning. Apart from anything else, it’s a great way to bring some additional life into lectures and encourage students to think about their online presence; something they inevitably will have, but which is usually separate from their learning.

Beyond school boundaries: new health imperatives, families and schools

By Emma Rich

Published in: Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education

Download the article here

This article draws upon research examining the impact of new health imperatives on schools in the United Kingdom. Specifically, it examines features of emerging surveillant relations, which not only speak to the changing nature of health-related practices in schools but have particular currency for broader understandings of theorisations of surveillance, and which complicate the view that schools are bounded or territorialised in enacting forms of governance. The article explores how the assemblages through which these biopedagogies are formed constitute emerging interdependent relations between schools and families. The article recognises the presence of amalgamated and extended pedagogies in schools; approaches within which deliberate attempts were made to ensure whether what students learn in schools was continued beyond the formal school contexts. Among the schools that took part in the research reported in this article, many of them recognised that families constituted a site of learning about health. To this end, there were deliberate attempts to inculcate particular health values and meanings within school and to extend these across other sites of learning such as within the family. The use of surveillant practices utilised to achieve this end is a specific focus of this article and speaks to the broader aspects of what Giroux and others have referred to as ‘public pedagogy’ which recognise public, popular and cultural spaces as pedagogical sites. The article concludes by suggesting that studies in biopedagogy would benefit not only from a more nuanced understanding of the surveillant forces of pedagogy, but also of the pedagogical flows and forces of what are seen as forms of surveillance.

PE is not a Panacea

From tackling obesity to producing sporting heroes: Physical Education is not a panacea:

On Thursday, Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, warned in a report on primary and secondary Physical Education (PE) that some PE lessons were failing to provide enough strenuous activity to improve pupils fitness and that not enough young people were playing competitive sport to a high level. Such claims hardly conceal the assumed purpose and nature of PE; to produce sporting elite and to respond to putative health crises, such as the obesity epidemic.   Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said “In particular, we found there often wasn’t enough physical, strenuous activity in PE lessons”. Alongside this, last week, the government published its draft school curriculum, Children’s Minister Edward Timpson said: “The new PE curriculum will put competitive sport at the heart of school life, ending the damaging ‘prizes for all’ culture. As well as helping us to unearth the next Jack Wilshere, Rebecca Adlington or Stuart Broad, this will build character, embed values of fairness and respect, and give all children the opportunities they need to be fit and healthy.”

Reading this, you might be surprised that I am not alone in challenging the ‘common-sense’ and misguided belief that Physical Education ought to be on the frontline in the ‘war on obesity’.  There exists a community of sociologists, social commentators, scientists and health professionals who highlight the uncertainties and complexities of obesity science and reveal the damaging effects of a simplistic weight-centric approach to health.  Of course, policies are inevitably complex and are (re)appropriated in schools with potentially positive and negative consequences. But, there are a number of built in assumptions about the drive to tackle obesity and increase fitness as a rational for PE that raise some serious questions.


The designation of obesity as a crisis of epidemic proportions plays no small role in propagating the view that PE ought to be at the front line in the war on obesity. This continues to drive public opinion about the nature and purpose of PE as if it ought to make a measurable impact on the body weight of populations of young people. The very nature of ‘crisis’ profoundly influences the way people understand a problem and perceive that doing something is better than doing nothing, even if we are yet to know the efficacy of that ‘something’.  This itself seems a rather fragile basis on which to either make a rational for PE or indeed to combat a putative health crisis. In part, this is because obesity science is full of uncertainties and rarely are these mentioned in the media nor the health policies associated with obesity. Whilst it is clear that there are potential health risks at the extreme ends of the weight continuum, for the vast majority of people who might be ‘overweight’ the evidence is rather less clear. The investment into a proliferation of anti-obesity policies and programmes on the basis of this science therefore seems dubious. Indeed,  Dr Michael Gard, in his book The End of The obesity Epidemic argues that predictions of a global health crisis have not yet materialised and that is impossible to establish an objective truth on which to develop policy. The complexities of weight and health are such that no simple solutions exist, yet these complexities disappear in political rhetoric.

Equally, Gard also argues that there is little empirical evidence on the efficacy of these policies and interventions in actually addressing obesity. Indeed many interventions have failed to reveal an impact on BMI.  This is partly because many anti-obesity programmes and interventions fail to engage with the complexities of body weight, weight loss and physical activity and the science lacks a clear solution. Yet, time and money continues to be invested in simple solutions such as ‘increasing vigorous activity’.  The suggestion that children should be doing more strenuous and vigorous activity ignores a particularly crucial point in addressing young people’s disengagement and disaffection with Physical Education; decades of research reveals that children do no like repetitive, strenuous activities, particularly those associated with health related ‘fitness’. Even if one supports the view that there is an obesity epidemic, this, surely, is not the way to encourage lifelong physical activity which is culturally relevant, enjoyable and sustained. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that physically active children will inevitably become physically active adults. This is hardly surprising when we consider the often narrow range of ‘competitive’ sports encouraged in PE proposals and the diverse range of culturally relevant lifestyle activities which might appeal to us as adults (how many of us continue to play hockey, netball, athletics once we’ve left school?). How quickly do we forget that school experiences are not isolated; we make decisions based on our broader economic, social contexts and physicality as we move across the lifespan.  Thus, the investment in changing children’s physical activity now, tells us something about the integral positioning children have come to hold within current socio-cultural and socio-economic discourses about the ‘future’ of neoliberal society where ‘weight’ and ‘lifestyle’ feature as part of the neoliberal constitution of personal responsibility.

The turn towards a health based focus and its accompanying modes of regulation and surveillance of young people’s bodies plays no small part in their disengagement with physical activity nor the increase in disaffection even primary age children are experiencing with their own bodies. More than ever, young people are engaging in disordered eating, displaying disaffected relationships with their bodies and engaging in harmful forms of body modification or physical practices. Research I’ve undertaken with Professor John Evans (Loughborough University) and Laura De Pian (University of Bath), with young people across a range of schools sites in the UK have revealed the damaging consequences of school policy based on fitness, health imperatives and weight loss to the well being and identities of young people. Fears about the declining future health of current generations of young people are used as justification for intervening in people’s lives at an increasingly younger age and on an ever greater scale, through lunch box inspections, moral commentary on young people’s bodies, Body Mass Indexing, weighing and fitness testing are some of the approached being used in schools. The scrutiny of young people’s bodies has not only become relentless but also converges with broader discourses of neo-liberalism. Rarely have so many people have been made to feel so bad about their bodies or their routine maintenance through eating, moving, exercising, and so forth, with so little concern or sensitivity as to the potentially damaging effects of this especially on the lives of girls and young women. This interest in obesity reflects a biopolitcal shift toward organizing, shaping and regulating bodies in particular ways, through a simplistic focus on “weight”, irrespective of ‘health’.

Moreover, the appropriation of PE as a place to regulate, address medical issues, change behaviours and shape bodies (towards thin, supposedly healthy forms) silences other ways of developing PE in more creative and engaging ways that are of cultural relevance to younger generations. These are important points for the policy debates, lest we revert to a form of PE which is reduced to the shaping and training of young people’s bodies towards idealised and often unobtainable ‘ideals’.  After all, we are talking here about physical education not wider physical activity or sport – is it really the purpose of education to fight obesity? Is this what physical education ought to be about? Is this a good investment of time and money? The very idea that schools are designated as an appropriate place to tackle the ‘obesity crisis’ says something about the way PE is storied into existence in the public domain.  The announcements this week reflect once again that PE, perhaps rather naively is far too often constituted as a panacea, and charged with combating all manner of social problems from obesity to youth disaffection to producing the next sporting elite in a way other subjects are not. How is the profession to respond to the performative tendencies of neoliberalism which shape the focus on PE? Equally, how is it to take a seemingly impossible task to retain a commitment to high quality PE, raise its often marginalised profile and at the same time promote democratic and inclusive principals (which is surely one of the key purposes of education). There are enormous pressures on teachers in what is a policy saturated environment – the danger here is that both the subject and teachers are vulnerable in its pursuit of the reduction of BMI or increase in vigorous activity (no doubt destined to fail). We must make space within which other ways of developing PE can be brought into fruition – those which move beyond the sort of terrors of the culture of performativity Stephen Ball alerts us to. Are there alternative voices to be heard in this debate that tell a different story of health, well-being and community?

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