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“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

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journal contribution
posted on 11.11.2019, 15:29 by Gareth WiltshireGareth Wiltshire, Jessica Lee, John Evans
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. While some interventionist programmes in schools have reported positive outcomes, they have also been criticised for stigmatising fatness, contributing to a culture of surveillance and fuelling body image anxieties. Despite ongoing work to ameliorate these critical issues by addressing physical activity promotion discourses, curricula and teaching practices many of the same challenges persist. In seeking alternative explanations (and solutions) this paper shifts attention to exploring the role of pupils and their peers. Purpose: While the critical literature on health and physical education has been illuminating, few studies explore the role of pupils and their peers. 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 rigour with what is often a challenging age group for research. Data were interpreted and theorised using the concept of physical capital. 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 pupils’ 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 address the criticisms raised about some 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 relationships and their understanding of health may help teachers and health promoters decide how to manage the spaces where PESS takes place.



  • Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences

Published in

Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy






548 - 561


Taylor & Francis (Routledge)


AM (Accepted Manuscript)

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© Association for Physical Education

Publisher statement

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy on 6 March 2017, available online:

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Mr Gareth Wiltshire. Deposit date: 11 November 2019

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