"I'd rather be anorexic than obese": physical capital and the social context of physical education

Year: 2013

Author: Wiltshire, Gareth, Lee, Jessica, Evans, John

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

A number of authors in Physical Education and Sports Pedagogy have highlighted concerns about obesity discourse and body image anxiety in light of current well publicised health initiatives (Cale & Harris, 2009; Evans et al., 2008; Gard & Wright, 2005; Kirk, 2006; Tinning & Glasby, 2002). This paper presents qualitative data from a study with UK school pupils aged 13-14 aimed at understanding the social context of physical activity and health. Using the concept of physical capital (Bourdieu, 1978, 1986; Shilling, 1991) we re-articulate the significance of health discourses as part of a social process which helps position the physical body as a symbol of power and status. Health imperatives, we suggest, have had limited success in motivating young people to be physically active. Interview data highlights that promoting physical activity through an emphasis on long term disease risk was of little relevance to the participants in this study. Instead, the symbolic value assigned to physical bodies was more dependent upon aesthetic qualities. While pupils often cited ‘health' as a motivation to be physically active, we contend that their understanding of ‘health' could be better described as version of cosmetic fitness. In this way, participants sought to accumulate physical capital by avoiding the pity, disgust and abnormality reserved for overweight pupils. This was often achieved through engaging in exercise as a calorie burning activity while using ‘health' as a code-word for attractiveness. Implications for health promotion are discussed.