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).

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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.”

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