Representing valued bodies in PE: a visual inquiry with British Asian girls

This post summarises my published paper Hill, J. and Azzarito, L. (2012) Representing valued bodies in PE: a visual inquiry with British Asian girls, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 17:3, 263-276. It can be read in full at

The paper tries to understand how British Asian girls make sense of constructions of bodies that have value (those that are considered norm or ideal) and how this affects their sense of self. What subject positions are available to girls as they negotiate or resist narratives of physical activity and girlhood?

In this paper, two girls’ visual and verbal narratives illustrated how they saw themselves as active but not sporty, which potentially restrained their engagement in PE and physical activity.

Physical cultures that young people engage in place value on certain bodies in terms of strength, muscularity and ability. These also intersect with gender, race, class and age so that some young people are seen as deviant, at risk and “other” if they do not or cannot embody these ideals. At the same time, pressures for a feminine appearance remain strong for girls. Minority ethnic girls position themselves among these discourses of ideal sporting bodies, femininity and whiteness – this draws from a feminist poststructuralist framework. Positioning theorises that we create subjectivities (or identities) as we come into contact with different discourses; we might take up a little bit of all the identities that are available to us as we try to consider who we might be. This enables researchers to see identity as a lot more complex than just girl; white; 13 years old, for instance.

I use this theory to help consider how to localise understandings of how bodies are valued in physical cultures and school contexts.

The data for this project were created in one school, with Year 9 pupils (age 13-14) who were mainly from a British Asian background. The methods included observations in PE classes, participant photography, and photo elicitation interviews in groups. Participants were asked to create photos of, firstly, what they did when they were active, with whom and where; and secondly, people they considered to be valued or have admired bodies. The paper just uses data from the girl participants, although boys were also participants (see my other published work Hill 2013, a, b).

Only three of the 14 girls in the research were active in sport outside of school. Many created photographs in school, suggesting the centrality of school to their physically active lives. Additionally, many girls did not include pictures of themselves, or only photographed themselves in inactive situations. There could be a number of reasons for this. In observations in the PE department, I noted that there were a number of posters on the walls that promoted sport engagement to students, either with motivational messages or adverts for clubs. None of the pictures on these posters included Asian women. I wondered, maybe the girls didn’t see anyone like them as sporty, and therefore struggled to see themselves as sporty. While the girls were able to talk about sportstars as people who have tried hard to get to where they are, they couldn’t talk about themselves in the same way – it wasn’t something they could do. For them, sport was a highly competitive, high ability activity, and mainly for boys. These girls did not avoid participating in PE, but could not visualise themselves as valued sporting bodies.

Given the narrow discourses available to girls regarding sporting and feminine bodies, among which they could position themselves, the girls had few subjectivities available to them to combine being physically active with being a British Asian girl.

Young people are able to verbalise and visualise what valued bodies mean to them. If they are given potential to create alternative narratives and subjectivities within educational settings they may have more space to articulate and experience active identities.


Background: Status or value in sport and physical education (PE) contexts is often associated with performances of highly proficient sporting bodies, which produce hierarchies of privileged and marginalised gendered and racialised positions. This may be communicated through text and images shared within school, physical cultures and media that young people consume. Understanding how students make sense of constructions of valued bodies in PE, and how this affects their sense of self, can assist in creating spaces for young people to experience alternative narratives.
Focus: The paper’s aims are to explore varying ways British Asian girls visualise and make sense of themselves as active or sporting bodies, and what this means for their (dis)engagement in physical activity.
Theoretical framework: This study draws on a feminist poststructuralist approach concerning the ways in which young people create multiple subject positions through negotiating or rejecting verbal and visual narratives about physical activity and girlhood.
Methods: The data draws from a one-year collaborative visual ethnography conducted with 25 students aged 13–14 in a predominantly British Asian urban secondary school in the UK. In this research, student-participants were included in the data production through being asked to create photographs over a two-week period that represented their views of valued bodies in physical activity contexts in and out of school. Focus group interviews used participant-driven photo elicitation techniques to talk through the images.
Findings: In this paper, two British Asian girls’ photos enabled them to talk about, analyse, and reflect on valued or sporting bodies that they saw in visual media. The girls illustrated their performances of constrained or empowered physicalities, within a physical culture that values, among girls, racialised performances of active but
feminised bodies. Many girls placed their physical activity significantly in school, and saw sporting bodies as male and elite. Where students do not associate people like themselves as sporting bodies, there may be implications for their continued involvement in physical activity. At the same time, girls were physically activity
outside of school despite not seeing themselves as sporty. Reflecting on the invisibility of minority ethnic women in sports media, this research suggests that greater representation may enable young minority women to see themselves and people like them as valued bodies in sport and physical activity.


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