The fear of fat

Morgan Windram Geddes PHDMorgan Windram Geddes

Young girls in the UK face a double whammy when it comes to sustaining participation in sport and physical activity. The now long established findings on the negative impact of sexist discourses on girls’ participation in sport and physical activity are being substantiated by a new ‘ism’, sizeism and an intense fear of fat.

The more anxious our society—political, cultural and social—becomes about fat, the more we react with programmes to ‘combat’ obesity, with recent efforts, promoting physical activity as the cure to promoting weight loss and preventing future generations of fat people.  Governments have tried to make political changes by targeting food systems and companies which control food production and distribution, but these efforts have been thwarted often because the activities of such companies are deeply tied to and in effect support the political lives of those in power (Marion Nestle).  So government have now turned their efforts towards children and young people in the places where these individuals are, for lack of a better term, a captive audience in schools.  Through simplistic understandings of the caloric balance equation (maintaining a static weight by balancing the number of calories consumed with the number of calories expended through bodily movement or physical activity), physical education within the school becomes positioned as a possible solution to the obesity problem and the place whereby thin and therefore healthy bodies can be created.

But something is wrong with current efforts as the number of girls participating in physical activity continues to decline at the same time as the cases of young people with eating disorders are on the rise.  What does this mean for girls and the recent statistics on drop out levels of physical activity as they age?

Physical education, which is “valued and resourced because of the work it does in shaping” physical abilities and physical fitness (Wright & Burrows, 2006: 278) and physical educators are now increasingly located in a place of inescapable accountability for both creating and monitoring the health of young people. As the obesity epidemic is increasingly taken as truth (Evans, 2009), Kirk (2006: 127) argues that physical educators will find themselves increasingly implicated in and responsible for the “alleged decline in children’s fitness and their increasing fatness”. There is concern that such discourses could have a potentially damaging impact on children’s health and wellbeing (Kirk, 2006) by creating anxiety or perpetuating fat-stigma and prejudice (Solovay & Rothblum, 2009).  Three years of PhD study concluded that the increasing drop out of girls in PE and sport is, in part, actually further perpetuated by contemporary socio-political fears of fatness.  Thus, instead of having the intended effect of fearing girls into participating to improve their health, these government supported discourses are coming back to slap Parliament in the face as girls of ALL body sizes become increasingly turned off from doing physical activity.

In PE classes which are streamed for ‘ability’ these discourses have the impact of the ‘lowest’ ability class being referred to as ‘fat camp’ in accordance with pupils understandings that body size/weight is equated with fitness ability.

Pressure to embody ‘ability’ through success within narrowly and neatly defined fixed measurements (through fitness testing) leaves little space for girls who may be skilled and sporty in other physical arenas to achieve success through PE as they will be unable to achieve the measurements necessary to grant them a place in the highest ability fitness group. Girls in my study like Sarah, who does not want to run for 12 minutes or believes she is unable to, may be rather good at a sport like gymnastics but this cannot be measured through instruments with fixed parts.

In this way, Sarah is unable to test into the highest fitness class, thereby relegating her to a ‘lower’ level, despite her high achievements in other areas of fitness work. Furthermore, streaming practices may result in a further pressure to embody ‘ability’ through thinness; this may not be a direct intention of teachers but a result of pupils’ awareness of socio-political support for the fat fit argument.

Measuring and classing fitness ability through fixed measurements and narrow categories may negatively impact on participation in and experience of physical education for girls’ on all points on the body size spectrum. Within these understandings, the roots of PE for life, engagement, enjoyment and getting children active, as one of the teachers in my study explained, are lost.  The only way forward is for governments to stop their ‘fat-hunt’ and develop a new model of support for curricular education which teaches young people to be intrinsically motivated to participate, to feel their bodies, moving uninhibited through space!


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