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“Mirror, Mirror on the wall who is the slimmest of them all?”

Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored the idea of valuing the physical activity life. It suggests that the opportunity to be self-active is not an individual thing but a community thing. Valuing the physically active life is a frame of mind that rests in the community, not just in the individual and is one that requires investment in policy and provision well beyond what exists at present. The blog and paper argued that physical activity opportunities should be considered as being as much of a right as clean running water.

This week’s blog explores suggests that through ‘our’ actions and inactions, and our voice and ‘non-voice’ we have been compliant in western societies pursuit of being slim as a measure of a healthy good looking citizen. The blog explores hidden and demonstrable roles that physical educators have played in enforcing and reinforcing the mandates of the ‘Cult of Slenderness”. In other words, in doing nothing we are guilty of collusion, but the blog also asks if we have support the idea of slenderness through the idea of physical education.


Paper 22:

Tinning, R. (1985/2012). Physical Education and the Cult of Slenderness. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education. (pp. 387-395) London: Routledge.


My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice

Tinning suggested, nearly thirty years ago, that physical educators (and in this he includes teachers, teacher educators, researchers, fitness consultants, coaches, and administrators) have done little to fight against the growth in society of the ‘Cult of Slenderness”. Reading his argument - which is a persuasive now as it should have been then - I can see his point and wonder at my own acceptance of the idea that slim is good while fat is bad. That is not to say that we are not victims ourselves of the media enforced and society driven idea that we must ‘battle the bulge’ and ‘fight fat’. Yet, we are the ones who are supposed to know better.

The key arguments in this paper remain as true today as they did in the mid 80s and that worries me. This invariably leads me to wonder ‘exactly what have we been doing for the last ~30 years?’ It seems that we have ‘kept quiet and carried on’ as many people remain trapped in their preoccupation with their bodies and their concern with their own physiques. People are locked into a daily battle with the calorie and yet take little or no account of biological reinforcers around physique. Instead of understanding and accepting that some people have genetic differences that lead some of use to store sugar as fat, while others are better suited to being ‘athletic’, slenderness is the default position for everyone.

What concerns me (both professionally and personally) is the apparent lack of voice that physical educators have had in challenging the idea of slenderness. My daughter has already started suggesting that she is fat. She’s seven and runs around all over the place and yet somewhere in the psyche of the school playground, or the programmes she watches on TV, or our discussions around healthy eating and exercise she has got this idea in her head. But ‘who will challenge this?’ Can I rely on her teachers to do this or will their own predilection towards slenderness stop that? Who are the voices who are shouting out against these ideas? I guess the buck stops with me and emanates outwards but I do think that we need to work harder than ever to be the profession that begins to break down this cult. Others are equally guilty but now is not the time to look around for scapegoats. Instead, as physical educators, we need to find our voices (and soon) and make sure we shout out about the errors we have allowed to become truth. Furthermore we need to make physical education a place where everybody can challenge the social engineering that has occurred for decades around slenderness. How? One lesson at a time seems like a place to start.


The Paper

In exploring Tinning’s paper I will start in the middle. He introduced two women (but I would argue that these could also have been men - although not in equal proportion) as an example of the differences between slenderness and health. The first - described as slender, bright and attractive - engaged on daily exercise and had recently won Miss America. A paragon of health and beauty perhaps? And yet such was her battle with weight and calories that her conversations at home were conducted from a stationary bike. Any binge eating (the example used was a piece of coconut cake) was immediately treated with ‘overexercise’ and was worked off on the bike. The second woman was described as aggressive, athletic and successful and lived the fitness life with running, cycling and walking seen as key parts of her weekly exercise routine. That, and the fact that she suffered from bulimia and was sick three times a day. 

Both of these women, Tinning argued, could have been considered as paragons of the cult of slenderness and yet they exist on what he calls the ‘purge continuum’ - alongside those who take diuretics or weight lose pills. Who hasn’t purged and engaged in a bout of highly demanding exercise following a particularly calorific day - isn’t that why new year resolutions often focus on losing the Christmas bulge. Yet, for these women the purge was a daily occurrence and was as much a part of their ‘physique’ as good eating and appropriate daily exercise.

The drivers for this ‘obsession’ was society and its acceptance of slim. It is good to be seen to spending a lot of time trying to lose weight even if the aim is a shape that you were never meant to be. The stereotype of slenderness is seen in many places and there are a lot of beneficiaries -  drug companies, fitness club owners, clothing and equipment manufacturers, magazine owners who sell slenderness, government departments who can spend less on healthcare, and physical educators. The cult of slenderness has cemented the position of PE in the school curriculum - but it this because of its compliance with slenderness or because of its advocacy of education and understanding around healthy living?

I have argued here before that games (even though I love them) don’t allow children and the adults they become to “value the physically active life” and engage in “lifelong physical activity” so I don’t buy the argument that PE has educated against the cult of slenderness. Tinning suggests that physical educators recruit people who are similar to them, not just in terms of attitude and beliefs, but also in terms of body type. The mesomorphic PE teacher is selected in the image of the selectors and rewarded for maintaining the traditions of the subject. This has meant reinforcing feelings of inadequacy that some students feel about their abilities and the bodies.

Instead of the changelessness of PE, Tinning argues that “physical education in schools is an opportunity for social engineering with respect to challenging the negative aspects of the pursuit of slenderness”. This means exposing the folly of the media, changing our own behaviours and tolerances of different body types, and changing our ‘non-voice’ into actions that make change possible even if this means biting the hand that feeds us.


What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate? Use the comment box below to ask question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.?

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is this your responsibility or just something else to be put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be.

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? Please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.

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On Thursday 06 June at 22:31 Anne McKay said
With nearly 13 year old twin girls - this article has deep meaning for me personally. Like you Ash one of my daughters has been telling me she is fat for a good 4 years and some of it triggered from school experiences - from Physical Education, to health education and school sport. Thankfully one of the places she does get what I consider sensible messages is in her Home Economics class. What is interesting about that is that she has a male home economics teacher which leads me to ask whether or not females themselves carry a "hidden agenda" when it comes to matters of the body. What is also interesting is that you have yet to receive other blog posts about this topic. What is it about the body that makes us look away? At the risk of showing or admitting to my age - I remember this article from Richard when I had started my Masters with him (and never quite finished due to the birth of my girls) and was very affected by it. I was still teaching in a school then and this article provided a catalyst for some deep reflection and discussion with other Physical Education teachers. It lead to us giving year 11 (15 year olds) students the option of a girls only class that then co constructed their own year programme that included a focus on healthy lifestyles. One of the units included looking at the many influences there were on young females in terms of what they were supposed to look like and how they were supposed to behave. I do believe the pressure on both males and females to "look good" (read slim) is increasing. The influences from TV programmes, the teen magazines, media coverage of womans sport, music videos and fashion advertising all contribute to expectations on how young woman should be. Young people today get a constant barrage of mixed messages about what it means to be healthy so it does not surprise me that they get confused. I have heard many comment that schools have no hope of addressing such issues against the power of the media. My answer to that is if schools dont - who will and just because it seems hard doesn't mean we shouldn't try. It seems too easy for our young people to buy into the government and media hype around obesity. That is not to say we should not be aware of and recognise the challenges current lifestyles have on our future health - however the way that we address these issues can cause more harm than good. I heard of an intermediate school (Ages 10 - 13) who were weighing and measuring their students and placing the results on noticeboards, my own daughter wants to go for a run - not to enjoy the feeling of movement or to enjoy the environment, or to get fit for her sport - but to "lose weight" and a group on young people recently suggested that we should have more people playing sport so they dont get fat. My hope is that young people engage in physical activity for a whole range of reason, the joy of movement, the social opportunities, challenge for themselves and teams, a sense of fulfillment - not so they will lose weight - or they can"justify" eating an icecream. There is certainly some evidence to suggest that students who do not present as "slim or athletic" do face more challenges in a physical education setting. Craig Linehams chapter on the Voice of our non participants in It takes 2 feet, suggests that physical education is a space where bodies are on show and that those who have bodies that dont "fit" are more open to comment about their physical ability. In terms of the idea of a physical education teacher and how they should look and act - I do wonder if we do recruit a sense of sameness or students that have mostly had "good experiences" with physical activity. I do agree with Richard that we can use our classes to get students engaged in the learning around the body - however the idea of doing this holistically I think is important, not separating out the "fitness unit" from one looking at social pressure on our young people to a nutrition unit - Time for some critical thinking and critical action
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On Sunday 09 June at 23:30 Amanda Stanec said
Thanks for posting this blog, I know from my work teaching physical education teachers, that often times they feel that by even talking about calories in and calories out they fear they could "trigger" disordered eating behaviors in students. I think teacher education programs need to rethink how we prepare pre-service teachers for the field. Hypersexualization of females in the media is everywhere. I think children and youth should learn about healthy behaviors from parents and teachers. I also encourage a Health Promoting School approach where school cafeterias serve healthy food, students grow food to learn how to do so, and how to cook it, etc. is imperative. Comprehensive health and physical education curriculum should be developed in a holistic manner and consider physical literacy, health literacy (including nutrition), etc. Food rewards should be replaced everywhere with additional physical activity. Students should not learn that calories in and calories out is healthy practice and the most important message - they should learn about super foods, a balanced plate and other areas that impact our food choices (relationships, hobbies, spirituality, etc.). The "diet" industry is getting so rich, and individuals are just getting more and more obese. There is a huge disconnect. As with everything, schools have a crucial role but can't do everything - nor should they be expected to. I agree with my colleague's post above wholeheartedly when she suggests that these topics should not be a "one and done" and should continuously be talked about. The research that supports those who may carry some extra weight but who are physically active at moderate to vigorous intensities several days a week receive more health benefits than those who are very thing - yet sedentary. Health promotion needs to be the focus on these discussions and lessons (in my humble opinion) and not "slenderness" and beauty queens. Thanks again for another thought provoking blog, Ash! Keep 'em coming! :)

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