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Obesity, Body Pedagogies and Young Women’s Engagement with Exercise

Write By: Valentin Rosca on


Its vocabulary and syntax (its ‘voice’) position young women (and young men) as active abstractions, ‘agents’ ultimately being in control of and responsible for their own destinies/futures. Such thinking rarely appreciates or acknowledges the socio-economic, material and regional influences that bear upon young women’s opportunities to either develop or achieve normatively sanctioned (usually ‘westernized’) forms of health and well-being. It is now well established, however, that political individualism has dominated (and adversely affected) health policy (Babones 2009) of recent years and influenced profoundly the way in which particular populations (e.g., factions of the working class, single women) and individuals are perceived and held responsible for their own (ill-) health (see Armstrong 1995; Crawford 1980). In this article, we examine how recent health discourses associated with obesity, when configured within a culture of individualism, bear upon young women’s understanding of, and relationships with, exercise. Like Rail (2009) and Warin et al. (2008), however, we “problematise the universality of health promotion messages” of this kind. We are particularly concerned with how exercise and physical activity practices associated with new health imperatives tend to homogenize young people’s diverse interests, needs and opportunities across ethnicity, class, age, culture and ability. Moral panics associated with obesity have further intensified the pressures on young people to regulate their behaviours (e.g., alter their eating habits, take more exercise and lose weight). ‘Facts’ around levels of exercise also fuel the obesity debate and are regularly used with impunity to rationalize weight loss programs. Yet, we know relatively little about how young women are reading and experiencing these discourses in relation to their own bodies, identities and experiences across myriad social settings. Therefore, by drawing upon feminist post-structural theory and analytical tools developed in recent studies on obesity and pedagogy, we examine how prevailing discourses of health, gender and the body are interpreted and how young women understand exercise as a bodily practice. 


From a post-structuralist perspective, an interpretive researcher focusing on experience assumes that it is possible to tap into a fitness field that allows women to turn themselves into autonomous subjects. In this ‘non-ideological’ field, subjects are presumably free from the control of ideological dominance and are empowered to take charge of their own bodies whereas the media is thoroughly permeated by oppressive ideological forces. In other words, women are able to find their ‘true’ selves in the gym. Even if critical feminist research acknowledges the ideological construction of the fit body, it assigns resistant agency through which women are able to act outside of ideological framing of exercise and find their ‘true’ embodied selves currently overpowered by various ideological constructions. Instead of searching for a ‘true self,’ Foucauldian scholars demonstrate how the power/discourse nexus subjectivities an exerciser into a limited feminine identity (e.g., Markula and Pringle 2006). Instead of the discovery of a ‘true’ self or authentic experience, identity construction itself needs to be challenged by adjusting the nexus. Therefore, there is no self, identity or embodied experience that takes place outside of discourse/power nexus. Because several authors use a Foucauldian perspective in this book, we will now briefly introduce Foucault’s main concepts: discourse, power relations and the formation of the self.


Obesity, Body Pedagogies and the Constitution of ‘Healthy’ Subjectivities

junk-foodIn our discussion we draw upon feminist post-structural theory and analytical tools developed in recent studies on obesity and pedagogy. Drawing on Foucault’s (1979) concept of bio-power, Wright and Harwood (2009) have developed the notion of bio pedagogies as a theoretical concept through which to examine the relationships between bio-power, obesity discourse and pedagogical practices. The discourses connected to this epidemic may shape specific body pedagogies—instructional forms through which an individual learns to understand his/her body—in both formal and popular sites of learning. Through such practices of instruction, new forms of normalizing practices emerge also in schools. Bio pedagogies are now recognized as part of the bio-political landscape of contemporary Western cultures oriented toward healthism and more specifically escalating concerns associated with obesity. In this article, we have sought to examine how these bio pedagogies are shaped from the body pedagogies of both popular culture and more formal contexts of schools. Increasingly, both individuals and populations are being ascribed responsibility for their health and its reductive constituent ‘weight,’ and are relentlessly monitored in their capacity to do so. The need for populations to protect themselves from the assumed risks associated with obesity reflects a broader shift toward ‘surveillance medicine’ (Armstrong 1995). Armstrong argues that in the current society, medical attention is now extended also to those considered ‘healthy’ through an increasing emphasis on illness prevention. The focus of medicine turns on the healthy population rather than the ill. According to him, this emphasis results in ‘healthy’ individuals constantly surveying for possible early symptoms for illness. Health problems become, then, constructed by continually problematizing anyone as healthy or ‘normal.’ The control of populations through medicalization is not an enforced action but one which normalizes particular health practices within everyday contexts. We have been interested in exploring how this process of normalization involves a pedagogical dimension through which young people ‘learn’ about acceptable health behaviours and body types.


While we observe that prevailing discourses of obesity shape policy and ‘produce’ individual subjects in particular ways, we also acknowledge the complex interplay between these discourses and active negotiations around the constitution of girls’ subjectivities. Following Foucault (1997) we recognize the body as a site on which various discourses are contested and negotiated. However, this is not to suggest that girls are passive recipients of discourses acting upon their bodies (Youdell 2006). We recognize that girls’ identities are not fixed, nor are they acted upon by discourses of gender and health which simply determine and shape their identities. We, thus, explore how girls, through the active negotiation of discourses, take up exercise to constitute themselves in particular ways. Although health messages may be announced through ‘universal’ (essentially white, middle class, westernized) ideals, certain opportunities and subjectivities may only be available to some girls depending on the particular contexts of their lives. We explore how obesity discourse and its associated practices of the body may provide certain ‘subject positions’ (Davies and Harré 1990) as ways of being and naming oneself or others. Our interest in this article is to examine how exercise as a bodily practice is defined through obesity discourse and featured in “the ways in which subjective gender is constituted and mobilised” (Zannettino 2008). In other words, we seek to examine how young women negotiate the relationships between dominant discourses on health, the body and gender, and how they actively constitute their subjectivities through these discourses in relation to exercise. 

Research Design


The article is based on data from a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC Reference RES-000-23-2003) entitled ‘The Impact of New Health Imperatives on Schools.’ The study has investigated how health imperatives and associated curriculum initiatives are operationalized within and across a range of schools located in Middle England with parallel studies pursued in Australia and New Zealand.  All were policy-saturated environments wherein policy on and commitments to health education sit alongside many other more pressing demands, for example, of literacy and numeracy. The methodology that brings together data sets from teachers, students and the policy context of each school, has enabled us to derive the regulative functions of ‘bio pedagogies’ present in both formal and popular pedagogic sites of learning about the health and body.

Given the diversity of the school contexts selected for the research, the young people occupy a broad range of socio-cultural categories across class, gender, ethnicity and culture. Whilst quantitative data is said to “obliterate individuality and richness” (Greene and Hill 2005), statistics obtained through the pupil questionnaire were used as a backdrop to the qualitative, descriptive data obtained through interviews that registered students’ perceptions of health, their bodies, and school health policies and practices. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a total of 90 pupils, in pairs where possible, although due to time and space constraints some interviews were conducted in groups of three or four. The interviews were based around four themes: health, school, the body and obesity. Each of these was written on a coloured card placed face-down in front the participants. The young people took one in turns to reveal the topic to be discussed which was intended not only to redress the power imbalance (Greene and Hill 2005) present in adult-child interviewing but also give the participants a sense of control during the interviews but actively engage them in the process. This was particularly useful for some of the younger participants who reported enjoying the interview process due to the familiar ‘game’ format.


Knowledge, Exercise and ‘Being Healthy’

woman-exercisingObesity discourse not only names how one is to understand the ‘problem’ of obesity through bio pedagogies, but has come to limit and prescribe particular frameworks for health more broadly. In the data we report later, we reveal how girls routinely make reference to this framework and rehearse its storyline. Data from both the survey and interviews suggest that girls articulated understandings of health through references to weight, body size and shape and a broader presumption that achieving health was primarily achieved through eating well and exercising. A total of 83.7 percent of girls in the sample (survey data) listed exercise as one of, if not the most important things that someone can do to stay healthy. Similarly, in interviews, participants marked out exercise as a key way to stay healthy, rehearsing dominant western ideals of health: “Get more active and don’t just sit around and watch telly and stuff, get more active” (Roopa, Year 5). Data clearly suggested that the students were able to identify exercise as a necessary feature of being and staying healthy. The pervasiveness of this imperative is such that it was an association made by the majority of girls in our survey across all of the schools, regardless of socio-economic context, year group or ethnic make-up, although it is noteworthy that nearly all of 16-year-old girls (97.1 percent of girls aged 16) listed exercise as one if not the most important thing they can do to stay healthy. Eating the ‘right’ foods, predominantly vegetables and fruit, and exercising regularly were regarded as necessary practices which could make a significant difference to one’s health: “Exercise can make a difference” (Ingrid, Year 5). When asked what the participants would do to help the children in their school stay healthy if they were the head teacher, many of the participants listed bio pedagogical strategies to enhance young peoples physical activity and dietary regimes, often making reference to disciplined practices to achieve this: 

Amy (Year 6): I would do a morning exercising Interviewer: OK, for everybody?

Amy: Yeah

Marie (Year 6): Yeah so like in assembly we’d make them do star jumps or something.

Amy: Yeah or in the morning on the playground, just so you get them going.

Marie: Or when we’re on the apparatus you’ve got to like jump onto each obstacle. Yeah, don’t talk just like star jumps and everything.


This ability to describe health imperatives was unsurprising given that it often aligned with the policies and bio pedagogical practices utilized in their schools. Typically, teachers described the health challenges in school as being concerned with instilling knowledge about exercise and ill-health, as evidenced by Jane’s comments: "I think they need to have plenty of fitness, they need lots of exercise, lots of energy and a good basic diet . . . We should be sending the message out that if you eat too much and you don’t exercise you’ll get fat, if you eat a sensible diet and you exercise enough that’s good for you and that’s the end of the message." Knowledge about the role of exercise is thus perceived to be crucial in the campaign for getting children healthy. Many children are exposed to, understand, and reiterate the widely promulgated messages associated with anti-obesity campaigns as they are recontextualized into body pedagogies: Yeah, irrespective of size, doesn’t matter. If my colleague sitting next to me is twice the size of me and I think oh I’m thin I don’t have to do anything that’s not going to help me is it? At the end of the day I’m just going to sit in a chair and I might not get fatter because my metabolism might not be like that but I’m not healthy am I? I’m not as healthy as I am if I exercise. This tendency for young people to conceive of health as eating the right foods and exercising regularly has been observed in other studies of international cohorts of young people (e.g., Beausoleil 2008; Burrows 2008; Rail 2009). It is clear that when asked about health young women were able to rehearse particular storylines about the value of exercise. Although obesity discourse provided a dominant way to understand exercise, the students’ experiences were mediated by exposure to other discourses. As Hauge suggests: “girls learn which practices are acknowledged and expected, and do practices on and with their bodies in ways which position them within and according to a multiplicity of discourses which address categories such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and age” (2009). Data revealed that while the participants engaged in physical activity for ‘health’ purposes, they also took up exercise as practice through which to address negative body image. In the remainder of this article we examine in greater detail how they subsequently take up exercise as a ‘bodily practice’ (Hauge 2009) in the process of constituting particular subjectivities. 


Dividing Practices of Health: “I Don’t Want To Be Obesed”

obesity-coke-logoInterview data revealed how obesity discourse constructs certain ways of being and practices which have profound implications for the way girls conceive of their bodies and the meaning of exercise in their lives. Exercise featured significantly when the girls were constructing themselves as ‘healthy.’ In what follows, we unpack the relationships between gender, exercise and health to show how different dichotomies manifest in relation to the ideal body and the obese body in girls’ and teachers’ talk. Many girls contrasted the concept of ‘healthy’, which implied being active, with unhealthy which implied a lack of mobility and associated fatness: “You can’t like do any like exercise because you’re too like big to do it” (Salina, Year 10). Discourses associated with obesity across public pedagogy and official health promotion (Evans et al. 2008) have become so pervasive that they effectively construct certain subject positions. For many participants, the changes in body size—becoming ‘fat’ that was a process over which some felt they had very little control—was to represent not just a physical change, but an obvious change in one’s subjectivity: I probably wouldn’t like it because it would be a complete change cause everyone calls me kind of small and petite so it would be a big change and I’d probably get looked at in the streets if I was going into town or something. Thus, whilst bodies were constructed in different ways, some were more open to interrogation than others. Following the prevailing discourse of obesity, there was an assumption that those who were ‘overweight,’ were irresponsibly inactive and lazy: “A lot of people just can’t be bothered to do the exercise if they have obesity or whatever” (Kirsty, Year 6). Another observed “that it (obesity) has risen in the country and that lots more people are obese” (Sarah, Year 8). In these spaces, the young women actively refer to the fat child as ‘obese,’ a term circulating in popular peer culture. This locates fatness as a disease category, but also creates an abject position in which one becomes a ‘beastly’ body (through a play on words whereby obese also sounds like o-beast). However, constituting the ‘obese’ subjectivity provided no discursive space for the complexities of weight (i.e., that one might be overweight and healthy, or physically active). Girls as young as 10 were reading health in this way and were cognizant of the moral imperative and duty to be healthy and of the body as an indicator of one’s health (e.g., Crawford 1980; Markula 1997; Tinning 1985). In particular, it was supposed that one’s weight was a result of whether one exercised and ate well. Girls across all school types, ethnicity and age categories engaged in what Foucault refers to as ‘dividing practices’ (see Harwood and Rasmussen 2004; Atencio and Wright 2009).  


This process of othering was underpinned by very specific categories of embodiment, projected through future images of what their lives would be like if they were to become obese: “They get pushed around and no one wants to be friends with them and no-one wants to meet them” And everyone makes fun of you, you don’t usually get any friends. But there’s some people that are really skinny and they don’t have any friends. ’Cause people think they’re really ugly but sometimes if you’re fat you’re really pretty but people still don’t like you ’cause you’re fatter than somebody else. Being overweight was, thus, associated with being socially isolated, immobile, unable to move or engage in any form of physical activity or exercise. In this sense, exercise featured as means to not only achieve a physical body, but also a socially acceptable body: a body which protected the participants from the stigma of being overweight. These girls’ empowerment or alienation tended to depend on the nature of relationships between their own bodies and the ideal bodies presented through discourses. A ‘healthy’ looking body, thus, became an important form of social capital when these young women were actively constructing dominant subjectivities through displays of the ideal body. Those without such a body were positioned as ‘other’: 

Hannah (Year 11): I don’t feel under pressure personally but I know, you will know who I’m talking about, somebody who gets, two people actually who feel very under pressure.

Interviewer: Why do you think that is?

Hannah: Because they are overweight. Basically they are not the ideal weight but they’re doing something productive about it like they go to the gym on a Monday and Thursday I think and they get involved with loads of hockey and loads of sport,

but before they did loads of sport I think they just got to this point where they thought ‘we have to do something about this now,’ because I don’t think people from this school were saying it but especially people from School B, the pressure from the boys is a lot bigger than from the girls in this school.


fit-women-runningMany of these girls referred to undertaking exercise as a way to differentiate their bodies from others. Particular practices were associated with the category ‘healthy.’ Thus, body shaping emerges as a particularly important aspect in constituting these subjectivities. Interviews revealed that exercise was constructed as means through which to shape bodies in particular ways to avoid exclusionary practices: “Like show some people who are obese and then you can put them into a gym and then a few weeks later you can show them or however long it takes show them how slim they are” (Ingrid, Year 5). Given that a substantial body of literature points to the escalating pressures concerning body ideals placed on adolescent young women, it is perhaps unsurprising that these pressures were particularly acute for the girls in our study (Evans et al. 2008; Wright et al. 2006). As Hauge notes, the body becomes meaningful through intersections with categories such as child and adolescent, and carries “certain expectations regarding how to perform particular bodily practices” (2009). While some of our younger participants included ‘play’ in their descriptions of their physical activity patterns, older participants tended to talk about physical activity ‘instrumentally’ with reference to health and fitness activities, or organized sport, rather than broader conceptions of recreational or educational/enrichment activity. In other words, exercising to achieve ‘health’ was actually mediated by assumptions about the outcomes this would yield, most notably losing weight or shaping one’s size or appearance. Obesity discourse becomes so salient in the lives of these young women, because of the observable outcomes of ‘weight loss’ rather than broader concepts of health and well-being. 


Avoiding ‘Other’ and Being a Healthy Young Woman

While many of our participants talk about the ‘health’ benefits of exercise, these were often connected to the reshaping of the body and with broader concerns about their appearance. Marie, who attended an independent school, recognizes the benefits of exercising in terms of ‘working her muscles’ but then makes reference to ‘working on her thighs’ to constitute a particular gendered subjectivity; Marie’s social class location mediates her understanding of health where she emphasizes responsibility in actively working on her body. This positions her within middle-class, neo-liberal discourse in which the individual is deemed responsible for solving health problems (Armstrong 1995; Crawford 1980) through working on oneself: Yeah, I try to work on it. When I’m sitting down I try and lift my legs up and down so I’m working them [. . .] I go on my mum’s foot pedals as well and she’s got a sit-up machine and I’ve got a Davina exercise DVD that I do with my mum. The association of working on oneself as a reflection of the good middleclass citizen affords subject positions through which some young women are able to recognize themselves and others. Marie invokes an unspoken subjectivity as the white middle-class neo-liberal girl: an active healthy young woman who takes the responsibility to actively work on their body. She exercises to shape her body toward the ideal healthy girl.  Through exercise, she is able to constitute an embodied subjectivity. Marie buys into the health benefits of exercise because it helps to reshape her body in specific, gendered ways (i.e., working on her thighs and other feminized practices). In this sense, a thin body complies with both gendered norms and becoming the hetero-feminine subject, but also with the official discourse of obesity. Health knowledge legitimates other readings of the body connected to the hetero-feminine subject. Majority of the girls in our survey (60.9 percent) reported that they ‘NEVER feel good about their bodies,’ and the 54.3 percent were ‘NEVER happy about their current weight and size.’ Research elsewhere reports similar findings where improved ‘appearance’ consistently emerges as the reason for young women to exercise (Strelan et al. 2003). When asked “Have you tried to lose weight?” 45 percent of boys responded ‘yes’ compared to 64.5 percent of girls. Thus, girls expressed a particularly strong desire to get thinner as compared to boys. Of those who had tried to lose weight, 44 percent had done so through exercise. Whilst the survey data revealed that girls were clearly able to see the value in exercise as a means to lose weight, very few alluded to potential dangers associated with over-exercising. While 50.4 percent of the participants listed patterns of exercise as one of, if not the main thing that stops people being healthy, 72 percent of those participants claimed ‘no exercise or sport’ was unhealthy whereas only 1.2 percent referred to over-exercising as unhealthy. Given these findings, a conflation between health and appearance is hardly surprising in Marie’s concerns about exercise. She recognized that exercise will make her ‘fitter,’ but also celebrated the weight loss achieved through dancing. This conflation thus limits her willingness to display alternative physicalities: So like me now I’m always worried about what I look like and I always have to be perfect . . . I’ve done it since I’ve been 9–10 really I’ve been wanting to make my hair look nice I’d like make myself look perfect if there was a boy I liked and I wanted to impress him I just want to make myself look perfect and I want to make myself look skinny and I want my hair to be right.


These narratives reveal the extent to which exercise featured in young people’s understandings of what it means to have a ‘healthy’ body size, not the social and emotional features of health and well-being. Exercise was taken up as a bodily practice through which one works instrumentally on the body to control weight: “I’m not always conscious about it but just like feel better in myself that I’m doing something, I’m not like lounging around. And dancing is proper hard work isn’t it, proper sweat” (Jordan, Year 10). Girls described exercise in particular ways, as vigorous activities involving sweating and getting out of breath in order to ‘work off weight.’ In doing so, they position themselves as morally good and feel better for being responsibly healthy. Exercise became less about the pleasure of movement than the means through which bodies can be shaped and trained toward achieving often ‘unachievable ideals’ (Markula 1995): “But if you ate a whole pizza you would have to run a whole marathon to burn it off so I’m not having pizza” (Lauren, Year 5). Indeed significant proportions of female students at all schools (i.e., 9.1 percent in the independent, co-education, primary school, to 48.8 percent in the independent, girls’ secondary school) indicated that they had, at some stage, been ‘bullied about their weight.’ The emotions associated with fatness prompted us to think about how “discursive processes work in and through desires, feelings, anxieties and defences” (Zannettino 2008). Schools were instrumental in promoting a classification into fat and thin. This was played out through the health imperatives which stressed the dangers of obesity and those at risk. For example, Marie reported that her teachers were not scared to stress the risks of obesity and invoke fear: My Mum’s not scared to say anything so in like PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) they’re not scared to tell me about it or anything (Marie, Year 6). 


woman-stretchingFear of being obese also restricted possible ways these girls felt comfortable about their bodies. Girls across all school settings reported that when they did display alternative bodies, they were often called names like ‘fatty’: “You get called more names if you’re overweight” (Leonne, Year 9). Such naming reveals the often emotional consequences of trying to develop alternative ways of being: When I was younger I was quite fat (laugh) at primary school, about year 4 or 5 and some people used to call me names and I think children will grow up and other people will start taking the mick out of them and they’ll feel shy and they might want to change, they might starve themselves. The categorization into thin and fat bodies impacted the ways girls mediated their own categories of social class, race and gender. The girls in our study made reference to the variety of discourses through which fluid ways of learning about the body occurred in cultural, public and official sites of learning. In particular, they reported drawing on discursive resources made available to them within popular culture to make sense of the body. Although a thin body was admired, many girls were conscious of walking a very delicate tightrope between constructing an ideal body and a body that was too thin. Being a ‘healthy girl’ was mediated by their reading of wider popular and consumer culture such as teenage magazines through which they also learnt about acceptable bodies (see Davies 1993; Oliver and Lalik 2000; Walkerdine 1997). Despite an apparent adherence to orthodox notions of health there was evidence within participants’ narratives of a critical reading of thinness. Rather ironically, they were critical of those who are too thin, For example, Victoria Beckham (former pop star and wife of the soccer star David Beckham and who is often criticized in popular magazines for being too thin) was frequently constructed as ‘overstepping the boundary’ and representing all that was bad about being too focused on one’s body and losing too much weight.



The prevalence of obesity discourse within contexts of learning is occurring at a time when popular culture is becoming increasingly narrow in its expectations of a normative body. Girls in our study reported that they have to negotiate a complex and delicate series of discourses in constituting gendered bodies in this terrain. Our research data reveal how obesity discourses which shape popular and official pedagogies, exist alongside emerging shifts in popular culture and media toward the critique of ‘being too thin’ as non-feminine. In this sense, it revealed how young women attempt to constitute healthy subjectivities through obesity discourse, but at the same time have to accommodate tensions which surround the gendered body. Because young women have to resolve tensions between particular subjectivities, the data suggest a nuanced and complex relationship between health, weight and gender. On the one hand, they must meet the ideals and expectations of health imperatives which define health through weight management. Concomitantly, through discourses of sport, and contemporary shifts in femininity and thinness, they must avoid being ‘too thin.’ Our analysis indicates that although particular bodies were normalized within peer and institutional culture, they are often unachievable ‘ideals.’ The health discourses benefited those bodies that meet the ideals rather than ‘other’ alternative body types. Furthermore, these negotiations created particular ways through which exercise became a particular body practice. The girls’ engagement with exercise was significantly shaped by the cultural pressures toward instrumental relationship with exercise instead of experiencing the joy of movement. The limitations of dominant definitions of exercise and the ideal body are contrasted with how women actively create meanings of their exercise participation. As feminist researchers can also act as fitness instructors their attempts to negotiate the conflicting and partial understandings of health and fitness in their own exercise classes and their efforts to transcend the current discourses can form an aspect of feminist transformative agenda for social change. The chapters in this book effectively show the complex position that feminist researchers as well as the exercising women inevitably take up in contemporary fitness culture. The findings also foreshadow women’s attempts to step away from the limitations of the current discursive construction of fitness to define their own engagement in exercise and physical activity.

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