Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education

This post summarises my published work Hill, J. (2015) Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education, Gender and Education 27(6), 666-684. You can find the paper at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09540253.2015.1078875.

While all of the research and writing I did from my PhD studies tried to challenge the accepted, to complexify what we think we know about young people and their physical activity experiences, one of my favourite things about what my participants told me has made its way into this paper. Here, I talk about girls who are physically active – although they might not think of themselves as active. Girls being physically active is a challenge to the accepted for two reasons: the field talks so much about girls being inactive and disengaged in PE; and what counts as sport and physical activity, as a physically active body, and especially as a feminine appropriate physically active body are narrowly constructed so that girls who don’t ‘fit’ cannot see themselves in the images of ideal fit bodies. Ideal bodies can marginalise and other some girls.

For the girls in this paper, the ideal was not enough to put them off being active (unlike some of their peers who I talked about in other paper). However, they couldn’t entirely get away from discourses of gender that regulated them and a system of penalties and rewards for reinforcing or deviating from gender norms.

For instance, one girl Lucy was highly active in a range of team and individual sports. But she was beginning to moderate the types of activities she did to concentrate on ones that would help her attain a slender body, rather than continuing to develop the muscular body she had. She did this because she claimed that boys at school called her fat. She was punished for gender inappropriate activity and physicality.

Other girls enthusiastically took part in physical activity as long as the environment was right and they were surrounded by similar people, that is, girly-girls. Ayesha liked single sex PE where she could be with ‘just girls’ who ‘understood each other’. She also claimed that they didn’t have to act like tomboys in this setting. While she felt included, the question remains about how excluded tomboys might have felt in a setting that still reproduced gender regulation. Neither single sex or mixed classes intrinsically have the answer.

Girls here were othered by discourses of fatness, whiteness and femininity and I discuss ways of listening to girls’ voices on the struggle to challenge gender norms, call for equality and avoid surveiling/regulating other girls’ bodies. Girls and boys can be supported to identify and make sense of gender boundaries, acceptable gendered and racialised performances, and create discussion out of instances of diversity or regulation.

Abstract

Within physical education and sport, girls must navigate discourses of valued athletic and gendered bodies that marginalise or ‘other’ non-normative performances through systems of surveillance and punishment. The purpose of this paper is to share girls’ perspectives on how these discourses affected their gender performances and activity engagement. Students aged 13–14 in one ethnically diverse UK secondary school were invited to create a photo diary of the physical activities they engaged in. Photo-elicitation interviews in small groups followed. The girls positioned themselves as physically active but had to carefully manage their activity choices and gender performances in a single-sex physical education environment that regulated deviation from the fit, slender, girly-girl. Although the girls demonstrate the difficulty of resisting, they indicate moments of positioning themselves against norms that suggest the possibilities of shifting gendering processes. The paper points out the importance of listening to ‘other’ girls’ narratives in building positive physical education engagements.

Blogging my research: first interviews on PE teacher education and social justice

We are 10 interviews in on the UK element of the project on social justice and socio-cultural issues in PETE. My first thoughts on some commonalities in what has been discussed.

I usually start the interviews by asking, what actually is social justice, how do you define it? For some participants this is tricky to answer. It’s a term we all had heard, but don’t necessarily use. I wonder if social justice is a recent concept, as one that attempts to encompass more than equality and diversity, to consider fairness, activism, progressive policies, doing more to reach and make things better for all types of marginalised communities and individuals. As my last post on this project noted, there is something about caring and dealing with contemporary events such as the Orlando massacre. To bear in mind for analysis, is how the participants defined social justice.

Two key points raised about the impact of teaching social justice or teaching in a socially just way were the issue of occupational socialisation for teachers (once they are in schools) and activism. As PETE, how do we help pre-service teachers to prepare for maintaining their values in the job? And can teaching social justice be considered a form of activism for educators who do not or cannot engage in social activism “out there” – going to marches, donating money, being politically engaged (although of course the meaning of activism and what counts as proper activism or just back seat activism is unclear). For instance, do we have a duty to educate about and for a socially just world?

A big thank you to the participants so far and those scheduled in for July!

Listening to ‘during the break’ discussion at conferences

Is what we value about conferences not the scheduled speakers, but the dialogue during question time and in the coffee breaks?

As audience at academic conferences, we sit down to listen to speakers present, we have an opportunity to ask questions, and we have breaks during which we might discuss the presentations. Conferences might audio-visually record speakers for an archive or to share their ideas, and individual audience members might make notes on the presentations for our own use, might discuss what interesting or controversial topics we heard. However, usually nothing of the ‘during the break’ elements of a conference is recorded and the very nature of a conference – the opportunity for dialogue – is not retained as part of the record of the conference.

In the last few years the notion of ‘back channel’ at conferences – sharing content and developing ongoing conversations online, beyond the speakers at the podium – has grown (McCarthy and boyd, 2005; McCarthy et al., 2004), with much of the impetus for this development arising from microblogging and social media sites such as Twitter (Ross et al., 2011). These enquiries have largely emerged in computer science and have aimed to understand the potential of social media to enhance conference experiences and increase speakers’ social networks.

However, this skims over the valuable face-to-face conversations happening during the gaps between presentations on the day: among audience members in the queue for coffee or lunch, and between audience and speakers during the question time following a presentation. Presentations are used to share thoughts and create dialogue. In these spaces, speakers’ presentations prompt insights, additions, reflection and debate among audience members.

I attempted to research the value that ‘during the break’ discussion at conferences can provide, but beyond the social media-based research cited above, it was surprisingly difficult to find writing on the importance of sustaining conversation or learning beyond listening to the speakers. Conferences as an opportunity for collaboration can have significant value in pushing one’s own academic research forward and opening up new avenues. There are academic conversations regarding future research, collaborations and suggestions of reading, but it might be the personal/political conversations that generate so much. The extension and development of speakers’ subject matter by audiences (in dialogue with the speakers) during the breaks is a vital part of conferences, not least for demonstrating the value of multiple voices in creating and shaping dialogue within and beyond academia.

 

McCarthy, J. F. and boyd, d.m. 2005. Digital backchannels in shared physical spaces: experiences at an academic conference. CHI ’05 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, April 02-07, 2005, Portland, OR, USA. (pp. 1641-1644).

McCarthy, J. F., McDonald, D. W., Soroczak, S., Nguyen, D. H., and Rashid, A. M. 2004. Augmenting the social space of an academic conference. Proceedings of the 2004 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work, November 06-10, 2004, Chicago, Illinois, USA (pp. 39-48).

Ross, C., Terras, M., Warwick, C., and Welsh, A. 2011. Enabled backchannel: Conference Twitter use by digital humanists. Journal of Documentation67(2), 214-237.

 

Social justice in teaching and the value of caring

There are many nice things about doing research with other people but one of the best things about being part of a group is the possibility of reflecting on your progress and sharing the responses you have to what participants tell you.

I was doing just this one evening last week, 16th June 2016, as a member of my research group had shared how her students had responded to her telling them about an incident or a turn in her own life and experiences.

We are researching the place of social justice and socio-cultural issues in Physical Education Teacher Education programmes. I am in my share of the data generation phase in universities mainly in the UK at the moment (it’s an international project covering the USA and NZ as well). I replied to my research group to appreciate the story that had been shared and to express what value there is in doing work on social justice: it can be hard but energising – vital maybe. I said that a recent interview participant of mine had said something on these lines recently: we teach social justice because we just have to … it is about fairness in all aspects of life, not just in sport or physical education but because those fields feed into and from all our social worlds. Because we care and want a better world.

We were reflecting at the time on the aftermath of the Orlando shooting in the USA so our thoughts were geared towards how we can respond to these events and the hate that caused them in our teaching and research about social justice. I had also seen the news that day that MP Jo Cox had been attacked and was in hospital.

It’s not just an abstract concept, social justice; we are dealing with real lives and events, not political correctness. The personal stories make all the difference.

After I sent the email, I looked at the news and learnt that Jo Cox had died as a result of her injuries. The email conversation then seemed to mean so much more to me.

There are not always opportunities to tell our students we care nor might we often demonstrate it (emotional labour being something that might be sidelined in neoliberal academic practice) but one of the elements of teaching social justice and socio-cultural issues must be being a socially just and caring teacher. Addressing the ‘isms’ in education (Dodds, 1993) gets more complex all the time: no longer just sexism, racism and ablism but homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia affect teaching and learning in physical education, and then I can’t forget teaching about privilege: class, racial and male privilege, also British citizenship privilege and English speaking privilege seem important now.

I support the things Jo Cox stood for and worked hard for, though I didn’t know of her before 16th June. I am also REMAIN for the EU referendum. I have read so many powerful arguments for remaining over the last few days and cannot articulate it as well, so in brief. We are better as a part of the EU for our environment, our universities, our rights and because being part of something larger – not turning away from others – is important. Being in the EU isn’t just about immigration and refugees, but a lot of the words being expended around the referendum have been about those topics. While anyone’s individual vote to leave might not be xenophobic, that is what the leave campaign has been built on. Leave proposes a Britain that is insular and right wing (also, they aren’t going to spend any saved money on the NHS). I vote remain to say that the type of country I want is one that welcomes, connects, cares and works with other people across difference because this is part of social justice work to me.

Dodds, P. (1993). Removing the ugly ‘isms’ in your gym: Thoughts for teachers on equity. In Evans, J. (ed.) Equality, education and physical education, 28-39. London: Falmer Press

Conference abstract: Gendered physical activity representation in physical education textbooks and children’s colouring books

This is the abstract for a forthcoming presentation: Gendered physical activity representation in physical education textbooks and children’s colouring books to be presented at British Educational Research Association annual conference, September 2016. It is from the Colouring Books project.

Joanne Hill and Vladimir Martinez-Bello

Curricular materials, including textbooks and children’s picture or colouring books, are vehicles of ideas and values that may contain sexist messages. Colouring books are of especial interest as children are prompted to engage creatively, while textbooks for physical education communicate accepted ideas about physically active bodies to students of the subject. Colouring books often depict gender-stereotypical activities: women and girls in static positions, and boys and men in physical activities (Fitzpatrick & McPherson, 2010). In textbooks, male characters may predominate and be represented in a wider range of outdoor competitive sports, whereas girls are either invisible or presented in selected indoor sports (Tàboas-Pais and Rey-Cao, 2012; Ullah and Skelton, 2014).

This research analyses representations of female and male bodies in materials available in the UK: specifically, physical education textbooks and children’s colouring/doodling books (the latter were books created for girls and books created for boys).

The first phase of this research utilised quantitative content analysis to examine the similarities and differences of the characters in three UK colouring/doodling books for girls and three for boys across the categories of gender, age, space, and physical activity domains. There was a trend for more male characters to be represented in physical activity. Subsequent qualitative analysis asked, in pictures portraying physical activity, what messages are conveyed concerning masculine and feminine bodies, activities and relationships?

Over 200 images from six gendered colouring books and six physical education textbooks were collated and coded by two researchers, using discourse analysis, for the shape, clothing, and posture of bodies in physical activity; the types of activities they were engaged in; and positioning in the picture.

Qualitative analysis found that representations of physical activities were often gender-stereotyped, for instance boys were represented in bodybuilding with a muscular, macho physique while girls were represented in dancing or fitness, with slender bodies and submissive poses. Female characters were often depicted being helped by others or entertained, suggesting more passive roles; where female characters did display agency, representations often infantilised the characters. Male characters were more likely to have adventures, make discoveries and be leaders.

Not only greater visibility, but the form and context for gendered physically active bodies can be a marker of greater legitimacy in sport (Birrell and Theberge, 1994). This has implications for maintaining gender-sensitive physical education, suggesting a need for creating and using diverse images across all curricular materials.

Seeking participants for research: PE teacher educators and social justice teaching

Project aim

We are investigating how physical education teacher educators address and educate their students / pre-service teachers about sociocultural and social justice issues within physical education.

Participants

Teaching (and research) staff in physical education in higher education institutions. This includes those teaching on physical education teacher education programmes leading to QTS but also undergraduate and postgraduate physical education and sport programmes.

You do not have to be teaching a specific course/module on sociocultural and/or social justice issues to take part.

What you would need to do

The research involves an interview, sharing course documentation (module handbooks, reading lists, syllabi, assignment instructions) and a demographic questionnaire on your work and education history.

It should take about two hours of your time in total.

Interviews can be done in person (the researcher will visit you at your institution) or over Skype.

How to get in touch

If you would like to take part, please email Dr Joanne Hill at joanne.hill@beds.ac.uk

Body-positivity in dance: the importance of community

For World Ballet Day (1st October 2015), I talk about a recent research project carried out in London-based dance school Irreverent Dance, research that has been published as Hill, J., Sandford, R. and Enright, E. (2015). It has really amazed me what my body can now do’: boundary work and the construction of a body-positive dance community. Sport in Society. You can find the paper at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17430437.2015.1073946.

As a scholar of physical education and sport pedagogy, I am often on the look out for good examples of physical activity sites that offer something new for (future) teachers and coaches to learn from. It’s what can help guide developments in the ways physical education, sport and dance are taught. This led me to get in touch with Irreverent Dance, when it was coming up to a year old and offering mainly ballet classes. For me and my co-researchers, Irreverent Dance seemed to offer the sort of positive experiences and environments in physical activity that we were looking to learn from, in its challenging and alternative approaches to dance teaching and practice.

At the risk of starting on a negative point, traditional ballet teaching styles and spaces have often been considered a little exclusionary or marginalising of body sizes and shapes that don’t fit the expected in ballet. Amanda from Irreverent Dance writes here about her perspective on these aspects of ballet and why it is important to challenge them.

While there are many valuable things to say about the teaching styles found in Irreverent Dance, this piece (and the research behind it) concentrates on how the teachers and dancers worked to create a community – in and out of the studio and also online – that supported everyone in that space developing a greater sense of their own body capabilities: that is, how body positivity was encouraged. This idea, body positivity, is highlighted by Irreverent Dance in its promotional material as a central goal. Body positivity is becoming a popular idea that might counter the marginalising of anyone outside the norm. As a goal in sport and physical activity it could be useful alongside well-being, pleasure and other social or personal outcomes. So how does it work in practice? What do teachers or coaches need to do?

We sat in on some Irreverent Dance ballet classes and a showcase, and interviewed dancers and teachers, to find out what body positivity meant to them and how it was developed. Three things stood out to us:

1. Celebrating bodily capability

There was a high level of celebration of what bodies can do. This sense of achievement was expressed both in relation to specific ballet technique and in terms of general physical ability. Irreverent Dancers were able to develop their dancing ability at a pace they were comfortable with, progressing gradually through ballet grades and repeating terms if they wished. Even if the moves were not reproduced in a textbook fashion, the developments that learners had made were much more important. The learners’ reflections suggest that their understandings of the body as ‘not capable’ of doing something might have arisen in previous dance or movement experiences. Learners were instead actively encouraged to think ‘I can’ in Irreverent Dance. As a result, many felt that they could now own the identity of dancer. The community of Irreverent Dance worked hard to create a ‘freeing’ space, with a commitment to inclusion, respect and not judging others. From the first class, learners were asked to treat others and, importantly, themselves, in a positive manner.

2. Committing to gender neutrality

Alongside body positivity, another vital element of Irreverent Dance that appeared to have been built into the environment of the school was gender neutrality. Boundaries of gender in sport and physical activity are usually quite deep seated – separate competitions and classes for men and women, and distinct deals of masculine and feminine appearance or comportment. Irreverent Dance notes that traditional ballet expectations that men and women wear different outfits, different colours, do different dances and take on distinct roles can be quite limiting and normalising. Elements of dance that have typically gendered boundaries were addressed: for example, men were invited to learn to dance en pointe if they wished. Dancers commented that their perception of what their bodies could do developed positively, when heteronormative and cisnormative boundaries (in dance movement and performance) were eliminated.

3. Challenging ballet norms

A central element in the learning and community of ID was deconstructing ballet’s gender boundaries; challenging dominant notions about what gendered ballet bodies look like, what they should do and what progress must be made. Some learners reflected on how they had been looking for a dance class that would suit their ‘uncoordinated’, ‘geeky back of the class loner’ or ‘fat’ bodies. Ballet norms in the sense of technical requirements, language, music and dress styles were recognized but with gender norms being challenged or even removed, this meant that learners who would previously have not had access to ballet could find a space that was safe and positive for them.

Committing to these positions in a dance school might take a lot of work, as dancer habits can be difficult to shake off and the broader culture of ballet still promotes traditional and restrictive movements, clothing, and so on. By working together to ensure a respectful community, learning about having a positive attitude to your own and others’ bodies, identity and physical capabilities has become an integral part of Irreverent Dance, not just learning about ballet itself. In a way, this means that dancers can just learn about ballet, without worrying about how they fit in (or don’t).

My thanks again to the members of Irreverent Dance who shared their experiences.

Theoretically, this paper uses Bourdieu’s ideas of habitus and field to explore how Irreverent Dance and Dancers crossed, transformed or shifted boundaries of physical capability, gender and dance. We developed a methodology based on appreciative inquiry, a strengths-based, as opposed to deficits-based, approach to creating change.

Abstract

Boundaries around normative embodiments in physical cultures can be exclusionary if one’s embodied identity does not ‘fit’. Normative boundaries are particularly marked in codified forms of dance such as ballet. Moves towards body positivity aim to challenge these normative boundaries by redefining what dancers’ bodies can look like and how they should move. This paper stems from an appreciative inquiry undertaken with one such project, a gender-neutral, LGBTQ friendly adult ballet school in the UK; a subcultural context that marks itself as distinct from broader cultures of dance. Interviews with learners are analysed through a Bourdieuian lens to explore the construction and maintenance of a body-positive subculture. Findings suggest that boundaries of ability were crossed, with celebration of all bodies’ capabilities, and boundaries of normative gender expression were transformed through a commitment to gender-neutrality and LGBTQ-friendly behaviours. However, boundaries around technical and aesthetic norms, while shifted or challenged, ultimately remained in place.

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