On the phrase “body image” and how we talk about bodies

In my teaching (and research) I try to develop with my students our understandings of the intersections between physical activity, education and our bodies, in working towards critical pedagogies within physical education. Evidently, as a subject based on the movement of bodies, physical education has interest in and is shaped by the meanings that bodies are given. My researching around embodiment and inequalities also brings me into contact with a set of feminist thoughts on gendered and racialised bodies (I try to always use plural to note that individuals embody different selves or have different bodies at different times, drawing from poststructuralist work). It is a concern for us what meanings individuals give to their own bodies.

A phrase that arises when I’m teaching these areas is body image, which within the context of studies on embodiment raises a few questions for me. These questions are about use of this phrase as a catch all statement for issues of the body.

Here, I am not questioning that body image is a real concept that has value within its own field, but raising that it can be used to explain what turn out to be a few different concepts.

Often, I hear “body image” used as an explanation for such issues in PE and sport as low participation and low enjoyment, particularly surrounding girls or fat people. “She might have poor body image”; “disengagement in PE is caused by body image” (not quotes from anyone!). Just recently I heard body image used to mean the images of ideal (feminine) bodies seen in media and other sources of dominant discourse. I think this needs to be thought about carefully.

Body image, and its near synonym self consciousness, for me are psychological terms hiding a number of social, physical and emotional factors surrounding the meanings we give to our own and others’ bodies both in movement and appearance. It suggests to me the individualising of responses to the ways bodies are reflected and shaped in media, education, politics, health and other fields. That is, we analyse young people’s dislike or disengagement as an individual issue originating within a single person. If only we could improve that person’s body image, they wouldn’t have to worry about what they look like and could engage in PE.

The notion of biopower, originating in Michel Foucault’s work, enables us insights into some of the ways in which bodies are regulated discursively (such as through healthism) or are disciplined to fit dominant acceptable notions of, for example, healthiness or femininity – not only are bodies social phenomena but what they can be and how they can look, and hence our feelings towards our own bodies (our embodied subjectivities), are manipulated to encourage individuals to work on their bodies. Foucault’s panopticon has also been used to demonstrate how this regulation happens through surveillance of ourselves and others. Over-emphasis on such notions as body image risks obscuring the reasons why our attention is focused on evaluating, monitoring and producing the right body in the first place. In this climate, no wonder some young people resist by refusing to participate in something that disciplines their bodies, especially when regulations for gendered bodies and physically active bodies can seem contradictory.

Physical education is a social field heavily politicised by the demands of broader health and education. Tendencies towards constructivist education theories show that we acknowledge that social interactions are vital for learning. Body image draws attention away from these broader social connections. I prefer to think about how we live within our social fields and are affected by multiple pressures on what our bodies should be, where they can go, and what they should look like. These issues of regulation and surveillance are not separate from engagement and enjoyment in PE and sport.

If body image means physical self-concept, then I would tend towards using that phrase instead: the idea a person has of what their body looks like. If we mean self-consciousness, then that too is also a more illustrative term. And if we mean the images of ideal bodies that are (re)produced in the media, then we must be careful not to flip it around and conflate this with the idea of internal and personal views of the body that the phrase body image suggests.

Nevertheless I understand that mine is just one reading of this word and I remain open to hearing explanations of body image from different perspectives.

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