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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.


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.


Visual methods with young people: encouraging creativity or bad photography?

I have just seen my final paper from my PhD project be accepted for publication, which offers me a chance to reflect back on the five publications that project prompted (all linked to at the end of this piece). It was a visual ethnography with secondary school students over one academic year, with students creating photo diaries of their engagement in physical activity (and also what they do when they are not active). The creative and participatory elements of this methodology gave me plenty to write about in these publications and I noted the additional insight into young people’s worlds that a photography project can provide – especially their lives outside of school or otherwise beyond the ethnographic site where we cannot physically go. I was also keen to share the participants’ photos as much as possible by reproducing representative pictures alongside the interview data we generated in talking about the photos and the participants’ experiences of physical activity. It felt important to share because this was something that the participants put time into making – and perhaps in some way it would work to deprivilege words in academic publication.

Participatory methods are often active or creative, and work to engage participants in the research process (Enright and O’Sullivan, 2012); they are a part of listening to and privileging student voice over doing research ‘on’ young people. For Gauntlett and Holzwarth (2006), visual creative methods are enabling, reflective, and a good starting point for examining identity and self.

What happens if participants engage with these methods but aren’t particularly … creative? What are we really looking for, something pretty or artistic or evocative?

There were indeed many wonderful photographs created by my participants, who wanted and were able to tell a story with or through their images. Examples include the boy I called Mitesh in Hill (2013 and 2015) who brought back more than 50 photos of his attempts in PE and out-of-school play to work on a body that would provide him with more status. It was really easy to decide to share some of these photos to add emotion to his verbal explanations. The visual was really powerful.

If this doesn’t happen, should we not bother reproducing the images in our publications?

In this project, of a total 539 photos created by the 25 participants, I received 78 photos of empty spaces, 75 photos of objects, and 112 self-portraits or snaps of friends. Many of them would not go in a photo album nor would they be chosen for an art exhibition. In short, they are not ‘great photography’.

Collectively, they contribute to telling stories about these young people’s engagement with and access to physical activity, its importance to them and how they try to fit it into their lives alongside school work, visiting family, relaxing with friends, worship and helping out at home. This side of the story showed that finding time for physical activity was difficult; it also showed that taking photos during physical activity is not always possible; and importantly the ‘storyless’ photos prompted some participants to explain that this was not all they did – they were able to talk about their other activities that the photos did not show. Photos in that sense provided elicitation, prompting further ‘feelings and memories’ as Douglas Harper has discussed (2002, p. 13).

I think the risk is that the ‘boring’ images that are not shared become the story not told, the hidden elements of the research project, and we might find ourselves at risk of not telling the whole story, simply because the data itself has little to ‘show’. This is obviously something that can happen with other forms of qualitative data, with mundane accounts or short answers possible in interviews. But I feel that there is still something to prove with creative methods, something that needs displaying to prove they are worthwhile forms of data generation, in the face of scepticism. I want to be proud of the project as a whole and that means reproducing elements of the data, not hiding it because my 13 year old participants had bad photography skills. In a journal publication where reproduction of four or five images might be possible, how do we make choices about what to show? If you claim to have used visual methods, but only reproduce the text or verbal data, that might render readers disappointed or confused as to what the visual data were for. In order not to privilege verbal accounts over visual, even if they are contradictory or less … instantly valuable? … the visual should, in my view, be shared.

Perhaps ultimately, this reflection contributes to calls for accessible datasets – provided we have ethically prepared for this – to let viewers see for themselves. Leonard and McKnight (2014, p. 2) highlight that the ‘seemingly mundane’ image is open to interpretation and might be seen differently by different viewers (citing Pink, 2007).

All data reproduction, whether from qualitative or quantitative projects, is a manipulation of the whole that will always involve some level of subjective decision making on what and how to present snippets of data in publication. In analysing and sharing data, researchers distill, shorten, concentrate, categorise – however you would like to call it – meaning that even the bad photography should be chosen if it contributes to emphasising the story or the decisions you’ve made for that publication.


Enright, E., & O’Sullivan, M. (2012). “Producing different knowledge and producing knowledge differently”: rethinking physical education research and practice through participatory visual methods. Sport, Education and Society, 17(1), 35–55.

Gauntlett, D., & Holzwarth, P. (2006). Creative and visual methods for exploring identities. Visual Studies, 21(1), 82–91.

Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Anthropology, 17(1), 13–26.

Leonard, M., & McKnight, M. (2014). Look and tell: using photo-elicitation methods with teenagers. Children’s Geographies, 1–14. doi:10.1080/14733285.2014.887812

Pink, S. (2007). Doing visual ethnography: Images, media and representation in research. 2nd ed. London: Sage.

The five publications from this project

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.

Hill, J. (2013). Rejecting the weak Asian body: boys visualising strong masculinities. In L. Azzarito & D. Kirk (Eds.). Physical Culture, Pedagogies and Visual Methods, 76-91. Abingdon: Routledge. http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415532778/

Hill, J. (2013). Using participatory and visual methods to address power and identity in research with young people. Graduate Journal of Social Sciences, 10(2), 132-151.

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. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13573322.2013.820695#.U15a1VVdWiw

Hill, J. Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education. Gender and Education 27 (6), 666-684. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09540253.2015.1078875#.V2RNQrsrLIU

Academic support groups on- and offline

The beginning of December saw the Faculty of Education and Sport (plus one or two neighbours from English) here at the University of Bedfordshire meet for a research support group, convened by Sarah Cousins from Education Studies. This is a once a term get together and offers a chance to share research successes and difficulties face to face with colleagues across the Faculty, who are in the same boat or who have been there and done that. As a group we were in a range of situations: post-PhD, approaching submission or viva, just beginning the PhD journey, or on a taught MA. After a slice of cake and a tea, conversation soon moved onto writing, especially maintaining a writing habit throughout the demands of teaching and admin roles. As I’ve written about before, this is a subject that I can discuss a lot! (Writing about writing being a worthwhile procrastination, perhaps.)

Having just seen the end of Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo), we talked about the value of group accountability for writing, and whether it can kick start a regular writing habit. We noted the success of PhD2Published’s site and the #acwrimo Twitter feed in encouraging writing through providing a focus for group accountability or even just self-accountability. AcWriMo prompts writing by celebrating even small progress that can be seen by recording daily word counts. A regular reminder to write a small amount or spend just an hour a day on research can be valuable and it soon adds up, plus it breaks down the blank page mountain from something insurmountable. Of course, it’s not always a blank page that’s the problem, but the tweaks and edits once a paper is under way.

The long term deadlines of a PhD can mean it is the thing to get pushed aside in the face of immediate teaching and admin needs. I don’t think the key to successful writing while on a busy schedule is a big secret or a complicated idea – often the advice is block out your writing and thinking time, and protect it. Set deadlines and hold yourself to account, or ask someone else to hold you to account (this is how AcWriMo works). I’ve shared my thoughts on a number of writing techniques elsewhere and this seems a good time to share them again. I’ve also collated below some sources of reading and inspiration on writing, research and the PhD and publishing processes that colleagues may be interested in.

Structuring a paper can be a sticking point for some, and Pat Thomson’s post on common and alternative structures is comprehensive.

PhD2Published have weekly hints and tips on writing, research and academia; this links to their writing category.

The Thesis Whisperer is a thorough look at PhD researching and writing life, with great support.

If you’re a Twitter user, the hash tag #getyourmanuscriptout is a source of support and celebration, helping academic writers to make that push to get the manuscript off your desk and into the reviewers’ or editors’ hands.

Finally, the Doctoral Writing SIG blog contains a wealth of advice on writing, including on structuring the narrative in a paper.

It’s also noted by a number of sources that “in real life” or offline support in the form of talking through your research, regular meet ups, and scheduled writing sessions is beneficial. It’s too easy to hide a paper or chapter away and not acknowledge it when you’re just dealing with it on your own. Kept in sight, accountable to others (or just telling people about your progress or sticking points), there’s more chance of chipping away or making a breakthrough. Explaining something in informal terms can illuminate a point of confusion, resulting in a breakthrough in thinking. It can work better with a critical friend who has no authority over you writing – not a supervisor or line manager if you’re worried about pleasing them and saying the right thing. Just make sure you have a notebook to hand to write down the breakthrough idea! Perhaps this is the next step for our faculty research support group?

Thanks for reading and let me know your advice for support groups in the comments!

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.

Using participatory and visual methods to address power and identity in research with young people

This post summarises my published paper Hill, J. (2013). Using participatory and visual methods to address power and identity in research with young people. Graduate Journal of Social Sciences, 10(2), 132-151. This work is open access and the full text can be read here

Calls have been made to engage more deeply in investigations of students’ embodied experiences of physical activity and sports, which might be achieved through listening to young people’s voices. At the same time, researchers have commonly used multiple methods, such as those employed within ethnography, and increasingly visual methods, in order to see as well as listen. This paper outlines visual ethnographic research that aimed to do this. It also establishes a case for addressing power differentials in social research with young people, arguing that participatory visual and ethnographic methods enable consideration of ‘difference’ between social researchers and their participants. When provided with digital cameras, young people make their own decisions about what to photograph and to share of their lives; by interviewing them afterwards, photographers’ meanings behind their photos can be elicited: participant photography alone would not achieve this. Finally, photo elicitation interviews can be a pedagogical site to discuss inclusion/exclusion, normalisation and marginalisation with young people. Participatory and visual methods may challenge traditional power relations, but they are not a panacea; instead, they provide an addition to methods toolboxes that can involve young people as experts in their own lives.

Research with young people and children has developed over a number of years an argument for researching with, rather than on, younger participants (Thomson, 2008; Valentine, 1999). In qualitative research, the ways in which we carry out empirical research, the relationships that are developed between researchers and participants, the knowledge that is produced and the epistemological and theoretical foundations can be affected by how as powerful researchers we aim to observe and analyse. Where age, gender and ethnicity intersect in creating something of a “difference” between researcher and participants, these issues can need greater consideration. This paper presents some methodological background to the choices made concerning data production during a project in which a white, female, late-20s researcher with a feminist theoretical background investigated physical activity engagement by a diverse cohort of 13-14 year old students in an inner city secondary school in the Midlands, UK. By combining visual ethnography, interviews and collaborative photography, the project aimed to address concerns about student voice in research with young people on their school and sport experiences (O’Sullivan & MacPhail, 2010). The paper considers some possibilities and challenges of using this methodology within school-based studies. Reflections from this project are offered on the ways in which participants retained power over content and meaning of their photographic contributions, and researcher relationships in the field. Visual methods are argued to offer an additional tool in tackling traditional power relations and encouraging participant investment.

Ontology: a working definition

“You keep using this word. I’m still not sure what it means. Can you explain again?”

So said a postgrad student to me in class last week as we discussed ontology and its importance in writing research proposals. Admittedly, it can be a dense, philosophical term that seems more like something you have to talk about rather than something you want to. In my undergrad and postgrad classes on qualitative research methods (for social science, education and sport), the first definition we use for ontology is “the nature of the world” or “the nature of reality”. Not sure that’s helping much. Just to lay it on even more, ontology and epistemology (“the nature of knowledge”) are the first topic we cover in this unit (module) – chucked in at the deep end! But, I argue, if you don’t know how you are approaching your research or what your philosophy is, you cannot make any of the following steps, like those of research design, methods, participants and analysis. However, some weeks later, it’s clear that these dense terms need some support – we need to keep checking that they are understood.

So here’s the response I gave to my class.

Ontology is about the way we define the world or what is in the world. It is about the extent to which we think we can offer definitions or fix what things and ideas mean to us and to others. Ontology prompts us to ask what we think the world is: is it a fixed world that we see and experience objectively, or a subjective world where things might be different for different people? This gives us ways to come to definitions which we might use throughout our writing and so it helps to know exactly what we mean when talking about, say, “schools”, or “health” or “overweight”.

Let’s take schools. Can you define school?

Let’s say we define school as a building in which students are taught by teachers. We could add details, such as there are classrooms; those classrooms contain rows of benches and desks facing the board or screen at the front; the teacher-student relationship is such that the teacher has authority over the students. The students are children and they are taught by an adult teacher. The students are tested within a written examination system.

If this was our definition of school we would be making an ontological statement about what school is. We might be certain that this is a fixed, unchanging definition – all schools look like the one we just described, and if a place doesn’t look like this, then it isn’t a school. We would then go about our research into schools going by this definition only, and make conclusions that would fit this definition of school. Ontologically, we are thinking objectively. There is a certain reality, concerning what school is.

However, we might look at this definition of school and raise some questions. We might say, well, the word learning doesn’t appear once in that definition, but isn’t learning a crucial part of school? We might ask, what if the school is not always in a building, such as a forest school, can we call it a school then? What if the students are not children, or the place is built on equality and not teacher authority, or the desks are in small circles not facing the front, is it a school then?

If we acknowledge that there are a lot of different ideas that make up a lot of different places that are all called school, and that it is difficult or even impossible for us to create a definition of school that encompasses all of those places, or that different people have a different idea of what school is, then ontologically we are thinking subjectively. We cannot be sure what the reality of school is, what we will encounter if we visit a school. We might be cautious about creating a definition of school that is aimed at generalising to all schools, because we acknowledge we might miss some schools out.

So ontology might be thought of as a question of defining and fixing a “reality”.

How about another example: “healthy”. Can we define healthy? Is healthy a fixed and measurable notion? (The ontological question: what is it?) Can doctors examine someone and state whether they are healthy or not? (The epistemological question: how do we know?)

Ill health is often linked by some to overweight or obesity: if you are overweight, you are not healthy. A simple definition, an objective reality and easily measured: using BMI. Over 25 BMI, that means you’re overweight, and therefore not healthy.

Yet we know that BMI is frequently questioned as a measure of fat; and who says fatness and overweight are unhealthy anyway? Someone might be really active, never get ill, eat properly (a can-of-worms phrase in itself!), but be defined overweight by BMI, and therefore treated as unhealthy. We know that Healthy At Every Size and similar movements challenge the notion that fat is inherently unhealthy. What if healthy to one person means mental health as well as physical? Or well-being? Or “the pain is not there today”; or “the pain has disappeared”? All these offer different definitions of health or healthy such that I argue it is difficult for us to fix a definition of health that we can measure and by which we will form our conclusions. Is there a difference between states of “I feel healthy” “I live healthily” or “I AM healthy”? What if I say “I feel healthy” but a doctor tells me “you’re not healthy”? These are ontological questions fundamental to what we can define as reality: my reality and the doctor’s reality. We might go as far as to say that health is a totally subjective measure; at the least, as researchers and educators we need to be aware that there are multiple measures of health, that it’s not a fixed concept or state, and is measurable differently in different people.

As always I welcome comments on my thoughts!

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