Tag Archives: ethnicity

If you miss the ball, you look like a total muppet! Boys investing in their bodies in PE

This post summarises my published paper Hill, J. (2015) If you miss the ball, you look like a total muppet! Boys investing in their bodies in physical education and sport, Sport, Education and Society 20(6), 762-779. It can be read in full at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13573322.2013.820695#.VHCLsPmsWSo

The title of this paper refers to a comment made by one of the boys who participated in this study of Year 9 (13-14 year olds) students in a secondary school (11-16 years old) in the UK. This boy, who has the pseudonym Harshul, was explaining why he likes to practice golf and tennis at home, away from school. He told me that the pressure to be competent in physical education, to be good at sports, was high, and he felt like he needed to practice lots in order to be good, or at least to not look like a “muppet” if he swung the club or racket and missed the ball. That is, to avoid looking uncoordinated and unskilled.

Harshul and other classmates suggested that there were pressures to demonstrate a supposedly natural ability or display a muscular and fit body. They showed, in a series of participant-created photographs, how they took part in out of school activities that would help to develop the right body that would provide status in PE.

The association between traditional or typical ways of doing PE and boys or masculinity can obscure the concerns some boys encounter in sports-based settings. Perhaps it is because sport is associated with masculinity that the pressures for boys to be competent are so large. Sports are supposed to provide status for boys, as well as popularity “off the pitch”. If we look at how gender intersects with ethnicity, body size and shape, we might note some of the reasons why boys can have less than positive experiences in PE. White, muscular, fit and competent bodies are most often high status as sporting bodies.

Although the boys in this study claimed to enjoy PE and sport, and were active in and out of school, their stories suggest that they encountered normative discourses about masculine sporting bodies that required them to put effort into reshaping their bodies to fit.

Connections have been drawn between masculinity, muscularity and physical or social status in sport. Not only are sporting bodies often related to masculinity but also to whiteness, leading to the devaluing of Asian boys’ bodies and sporting experiences. This paper draws on three British Asian teenage boys’ visual and verbal narratives to enquire how they negotiate these connections in their physical education and recreational sport experiences. Bourdieu’s notion of capital is used to make sense of boys’ ways of investing in their bodies to manage their status in school. Drawing from focus-group interviews which used participant-driven photography and photo elicitation techniques, the research indicates how three boys invested in their bodies by doing particular types of physical activity that would enable them to develop muscularity, fitness and/or motor competence, to attain or retain physical and social capital in school. Along the way, they add pertinent comments on the intersections of masculinity and ethnicity in constructing and performing a sporting body.


Conference abstract: Girls’ meanings of their physically active bodies at the intersections of gender, race and age

This is the abstract from a conference presentation (presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, September 2014). The work is from my PhD research.

Joanne Hill

The physical education (PE) experiences of girls of a South Asian heritage, in the UK, have recently been of some focus in working for inclusive or gender-sensitive PE programmes (e.g. Azzarito and Hill, 2013; Stride, 2013). They are often constructed as inactive, their gendered and racialised bodies rendered invisible against a white feminine norm. The voices of those young people who might be othered are increasingly valuable in working towards relevant and enjoyable learning experiences. This project in part attempts to offer further contextualised research on how girls construct themselves as active as they make sense of their physical selves as they intersect with gender, ethnicity and age.
The focus of this enquiry was to co-produce visual and verbal accounts of girls’ physical activity and embodied selves as they make meaning of physical activity in and out of school.
This research used a visual ethnographic framework. Students aged 13-14 in one school with an ethnically diverse population in the UK were provided with a digital camera and invited to create a two-week long photo set of the physical activities they engage in, where and with whom. Group interviews followed, during which the participant-photographers explained their photos’ meanings to each other and to the researcher (Harper, 2002). This paper concentrates on four girls’ visual narratives.
Theoretically, the paper recalls that we position ourselves in relation to the multiple narratives that are available to us, such that we have multiple embodied selves across different spaces (Cox and Thompson, 2000; Garrett, 2004).
The girls variously constructed themselves as active or able amongst different activities, physical cultures and peers. Notable themes included negotiating gender relations and normalised (South Asian) girlhood; remaining active during transitions from girlhood to young womanhood; reclaiming team games as a choice in PE; and a desire for “free” or unconstrained activity in public spaces. These girls, representing an othered group, used their visual narratives to show themselves as active agents in creating meaning for PE and physical activity. By seeing and listening to these girls’ narratives, teachers and researchers can contribute to positive engagement in PE programmes that take into account their choices and identities.

Learning from Chimamanda Adichie’s “The danger of a single story”

Today I watched Adichie’s TED video on The Danger of a Single Story. She outlined her own introduction to reading and writing stories, which were based in white children’s experiences in Britain and the USA: that is who stories were about. Stories were not about Nigerian children and her own experience was not reflected back at her. Later she explains how when she visited the USA, people there knew a single story of Africa: a pitiable place of starving people. They were confused that she spoke English as a first language and listened to Mariah Carey.

I used to hear a phrase quite a lot: “write about what you know”. This phrase suggests that we should write about ourselves or people like us because those stories will flow the best or be the most authentic. From what Adichie says, this appears to be a privilege not afforded to people of colour: she was told that her stories of middle class Nigerians are not authentically African. Elsewhere, I’ve read today that children of colour might believe that they can only write stories about white people.

The segment from Adichie’s talk that struck me most was this:

“That is how to create a single story: show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” What stories are told, and how that story becomes the definitive version, depends on power and who has it.

Places and people who have power have multiple stories told about them. This is also a problem in research and writing on physical education, in many cases. We tell and hear single stories of what and who PE is for; who is marginalised; who needs help. The ways of being that are celebrated in sport and PE (those that are newsworthy, receive high grades, normalised) are this single story. People who are “othered” are diminished, their multiple stories hidden so that a singular narrative is heard instead. Within PE, those “othered” groups have consistently been girls, ethnic minority children, fat children and disabled children (also addresses as mutually exclusive groups so that intersections are not examined).

Those who have power in education are those defining the single “authentic” story and recreating education (including PE) in a way that reflects their own way of being, for that is the normalised and expected version of what it means to engage in education (and PE, physical activity and sport). We hear this in the research on who shapes education, PE and sport policy; on who becomes PE teachers; and on how those marginalised or “othered” groups struggle in this situation – they are at risk, the pitiable groups … it’s not working for them.

Bonnie Pang has called telling and hearing multiple stories “listening to the resources of the other” – we might ask “what’s right?” or “what works?” rather than “what’s wrong?” or “how are they marginalised?” to move to strengths-based change in PE.

Adichie says, “the single story robs people of dignity. It emphasises how we are different, not how we are similar.”

Heterogeneity is vital in representing the people about whom we research or for whom we act, but we must be clear that difference (diversity) among us all can also be a mark of similarity: those who have power and hear their own, multiple, experiences reflected back at them are no different to those whose multiple stories are not heard or prioritised.

So for me, Adichie’s talk is 19 minutes of necessary reminder not just for multiple stories, but also for intersectionality. It encapsulates why and how we need to tell and hear about a number of experiences, not least in order for all those stories to shape where we go in the future.

“You get praised more when you’re good at sport”: Young people negotiating embodied subjectivities through (dis)engagement in physical education

This is the abstract from my PhD, awarded October 2012.

The purpose of this study was to engage with a group of students from a diverse school environment about how they construct value or status in their own and others’ bodies in physical education (PE) and sport. This study was premised on the notion that young people’s constructions of bodies that have value affect both their sense of self and their (dis)engagement with physical activity in and out of school. Sport, physical activity and education are not value-free in their purpose or practices, and constitute arenas in which young people learn about what those values are and how they apply to their own bodies. Learning more about how young people make embodied decisions to engage in physical activity can aid in understanding how best to create inclusive, positive experiences within PE and youth sport. The feminist / poststructuralist theoretical framework that this research draws upon focuses attention on the constructions of embodied subjectivities through an individual’s subject positions amongst multiple discourses. These discourses are (re)produced but shift as individuals take up and negotiate positions through the multiple narratives available to them. By linking these notions to that of physical capital, this study explores how individuals’ practices affect how they might be seen as valued. This study pays particular attention to gendered and racialised constructions of bodies in PE and sport, as literature identifies concerns about equity in participation and representation. Data were generated over one school year with a cohort of students in Year 9 of an ethnically diverse secondary school in the East Midlands, UK. Fourteen boys and eleven girls volunteered to take part in a collaborative visual ethnographic project consisting of a fortnight’s photo diary and the sharing of participant-produced images in group interviews. Taped group interviews, participants’ photographs, field notes from observations of the participants’ PE lessons and researcher’s photographs of the school notice boards were collated and analysed using a combination of thematic, discourse and content analyses. Findings indicated that the participants constructed as valued bodies those that are “good at PE”: meaning competency, strength and a desire and ability to win. Alongside this, students also valued fit, “not fat” bodies, and the display of effort or trying one’s best. These constructions were often tied to their potential to perform convincingly. The students took up positions in relation to these notions of status, sometimes investing in practices that would develop their bodies in these ways. Participants’ fluid subjectivities as they negotiated different activities, physical cultures, and assumptions about gendered and racialised bodies affected their choices not just whether to engage but in what ways they would engage in physical activity.

Boys visualising strong masculinities

This post summarises my book chapter Hill, J. (2013) Rejecting the weak Asian body: Boys visualising strong masculinities, in Pedagogies, physical culture and visual methods, edited by L. Azzarito and D. Kirk, Routledge.

This chapter explored how Asian boys negotiated dominant and local constructions of masculinities in relation to their own embodied experiences in PE.

PE is a key site where boys learn what a masculine body is and how it relates to ability and status in sporting bodies. The continuing predominance of multi activity sports technique based curricula in PE can be seen as centralising proficient sporting performance. Ability and status tends also to be awarded to particular body shapes and to strength or muscularity. There can be big consequences for boys who do not perform or embody these ideals, which can affect their learning and engagement in PE.

However, the work of Connell has shown that masculinity is not a singular set of characteristics. Boys give different meanings to masculinities on different places; it is a fluid concept. The masculinities that gain dominant status in any space might look different or be related to different body shapes. Not only has sporting status been associates with masculinity, but with whiteness, or at other times blackness, so that Asian and “other” bodies are marginalised. Asian boys might be considered frail and uninterested in PE unless it’s cricket. Among boys’ localised physical cultures, however, they may be able to find ways to construct valued masculinities that relate to their own experiences. As researchers, teacher educators and teachers, can we support alternative and diverse meanings for boys’ positive engagement in PE? How do Asian boys make sense of their own bodies among dominant valuing of strength, muscularity and whiteness?

This chapter uses visual and verbal narratives from four Asian boys, one black boy and one white-Asian boy to explore this. Creating photos in and out of school, the boys pictured valued masculinities as strong muscular bodies, more often than technical competence in sport. The pressure to be muscular or big was felt by some, who related this body shape to ability to scored in football, or to become team captain. The boys who achieved these were, at this school, black or Asian.

Some noted that it was hard for Asian boys to be successful in sports because of institutional racism among, for instance, scouts. They found spaces in which to be successful, spaces that were defined by Asian communities. Boxing was a notable example.

Although the boys said that developing a strong body was important, some were aware that bodies showing signs of fighting were difficult, at the intersections of race and class. It can be hard especially for Asian or black boys to gain employment if they are read as fighters.

There reminded pressure for these boys to embody valued masculinities, but they were able to relate valued masculinities to Asian and black bodies and sport engagement. This may have been because they were in a school with a predominant Asian population. Discourses about boys’ bodies might be recognised by most boys but deployed in different ways. Asian boys’ opportunities to be involved in sport are still mediated by their positions at the margins in broader social contexts. The boundaries of respectable or ideal masculinity intersect with race and class. Strength was still the marker of valued masculinity, but the boys made sense of it in relation to themselves. They resisted notions that Asian boys’ bodies are weak.

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 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17408989.2012.690381#.VHCOOfmsWSo

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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