"You don’t want to stand out as the bigger one”: exploring how PE and school sport participation is influenced by pupils and their peers

Gareth Wiltshire, Jessica Lee, John Evans

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Background: Population health concerns related to physical inactivity and obesity appear in policy documents, government campaigns and popular media across western societies. Children and young people have been targeted for physical activity promotion and schools have been positioned as sites for intervention. In particular, Physical Education and school sport (PESS) has been framed as a key part of the solution. However, not only have interventionist programmes in schools showed little success, but they have also been highly criticised for stigmatizing fatness, contributing to a culture of surveillance and fuelling body image anxieties. Despite on-going work to improve health promotion in light of these criticisms, physical inactivity and obesity remain high on the agenda and many of the same challenges persist. Indeed, while the critical literature on health and physical education has been illuminating, it largely investigates curricula, teaching practices and surveillance technologies and few studies explore the role of pupils and their peers.

Purpose: Further research is necessary to understand how school peers contribute to pupils’ engagement with PESS. This paper, therefore, draws on Bourdieu’s notion of physical capital and seeks to understand how pupils’ physical activity is influenced by lived-body experiences in school spaces.

The study: Data were produced from a 6-month bricolage-based study with pupils (N=29, aged 13-14) across four diverse school settings in England. Multiple qualitative methods were deployed to enhance methodological rigor with what is often a challenging age group for research. The interpretation of data was theorised using the well-established concept of physical capital (Bourdieu, 1986, 1977; Shilling, 2010, 1991) which had significant epistemological contributions to the findings.

Findings: Pupils themselves play a significant part in establishing the physical body as a symbol of power and status in school settings. Participants understood the health risks of being both underweight and obese, but they regarded obesity as being more problematic because of the immediate social risks of “standing out as the bigger one”. Following this rationale, participants sought to accumulate physical capital through engaging in exercise as a purposeful calorie burning activity intended to avoid the pity, abnormality and derision which is expected to be directed towards overweight pupils. Furthermore, during PESS in clear view of peers, distinctions between physical capital could be made by recognising differences in sporting skill. In this context, physical capital mediated engagement in PESS in various ways.

Conclusion: This study has revealed that peers play a significant part in constructing the lived-body experiences of young people. In order to challenge the problematic consequences of school-based health promotion interventions, it is crucial to attend to pupils’ relationships with peers as well as addressing policies, curricula and teaching practices. Being sensitive to peer relationship and their understanding of health may help teachers and health promoters decide how to manage the spaces where PESS takes place.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)548-561
Number of pages15
JournalPhysical Education and Sport Pedagogy
Issue number5
Early online date6 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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