Body politics in the PE class

Chintan Girish Modi

Physical education is that period on the school timetable which most students desperately look forward to because it allows them to get out of their minds and into their bodies. I have heard this line of reasoning so often, and it seems so convincing at face value, that I have rarely paused to examine it critically. Writing this article is an opportunity to change that.

Discussions about the mind-body split can be extremely beneficial in understanding why our current education system privileges intellectual engagement over embodied learning; more so, if we engage with knowledge that comes to us from philosophy, biology, theatre, medicine, neurology, somatics, psychology, religious studies, feminism, queer theory, and other disciplines. Who has that kind of time?

Perhaps it is a good idea to abandon this complex interdisciplinary exploration for a few moments, and focus instead on our commonsensical understanding of the body. Is it some kind of neutral thing that is objectively understood, bereft of history, and readily available for training? What happens when a student’s body is not able to do what it is asked to? Is there a hierarchy of bodies in the physical education class?

In ‘Religion and the Body: Rematerializing the Human Body in the Social Sciences of Religion’, an essay published in 1990, Meredith B. McGuire writes, “Our bodies are manifestations of our selves in our everyday worlds. At the same time, embodiment is our way of knowing those worlds and interacting with them. Through our bodies, we see, feel, hear, perceive, touch, smell, and we hold our everyday worlds. While each individual is uniquely embodied, the experience is also profoundly social. For example, our experience with our bodies is mediated by learned roles and other expectations; it is shaped by the immediate social context, as well as by historical antecedents of which the individual may not even be aware; and it is apprehended and communicated indirectly through language and other cultural symbols.”

I have a penchant for bridging the worlds of theory and practice, so let us anchor our thought project in the everyday world of the school environment. In what ways is the physical education curriculum responsive to the needs, experiences and challenges of the dalit body in an upper caste school, the intersex body in a school that has boys’ sports and girls’ sports, the menstruating body in a school that does not have a sexuality education programme, the body of a wheelchair user in a school that has no stated policy around disability? This could be a great starting place for a review of the physical education curriculum in your school.

Jake Pyne, in an article titled ‘The Governance of Gender Non-conforming Children: A Dangerous Enclosure’ published in 2014, writes, “It is instructive here to turn to the work of psychologist George Rekers who developed behavioural modification techniques for eliminating feminine behaviour in boys during the 1970’s. Videotaping from behind one-way laboratory mirrors, Rekers observed as boys chose between tables of feminine and masculine toys (dolls and weapons), recording under what conditions they chose items. Via audio recordings, he tabulated the gendered inflection and content in their speech. Complex figures and diagrams chart every offense: a girlish gait, a fey hand on a hip, a limp wrist, a favourite sister mentioned. Rekers used this data to refine techniques for obtaining reinforcement control over children’s behaviour. Beyond the absurdity of this conception of gender, beyond the inherent misogyny, heteronormativity and cisnormativity, the technique itself is of interest. These are not examples of a bigot acting in ignorance, but a meticulous observation and systematic cataloguing of a set of bodies.”

The description here sounds absolutely bizarre but it is worth comparing this with what happens on the ground right now in 2019. How are male-female and masculine-feminine binaries constructed and reinforced in your school, especially in terms of physical education? Do teachers swoop in to disapprove of, penalize or fix what they see as non-conforming behaviour? Think about how damaging this could be to students who are in the formative years of their life, just getting to know their bodies.

In a journal article titled ‘Bound by Norms and Out of Bounds: Experiences of PAGFB (Persons Assigned Gender Female at Birth) Within the Formal Education System: Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action (LABIA)’ published in 2012, co-authors Smriti Nevatia, Raj, Shalini Mahajan and Chayanika Shah quote a testimony from their 40-year old interviewee recalling life at seven years of age. “Outside of school, I wore pants, I dressed as a boy…There was an English teacher who seemed to have left all her other work and decided to dedicate her time to making me wear skirts….I would wear my skirt over my trousers, and when that teacher objected, I told her you have told me to wear a skirt and you have not said don’t wear pants, so I am wearing a skirt. It was a horrible time when she made me wear skirts. It took up a lot of my mind space.”

Think of the extent of the trauma this teacher caused. It makes me cringe even though I do not like to classify fellow educators as either heroes or villains. Our personal experiences do influence our views but we are also prisoners of conditioning. Many of our ideas around what bodies should be like, and what they should be able to do, come from cues that we have picked up from religion, family, and media. These beliefs have got solidified in our minds, and we now think of them as truths. Our assessments of the world are filtered through them.

Why do we like to click selfies from a specific angle that hides our curves? What kind of body do we define as attractive? Why do we prefer to wear colours that do not draw attention to the fat we have accumulated? How do we treat people who dress in ways that challenge our understanding of beautiful, dignified, sexy? Do we participate in body shaming? What is our instinctive reaction when we meet someone whose waistline seems different from our last meeting with them? These questions are not only for the physical education teacher but for each one of us.

The author has an M.Phil. in English Language Education, and several years of experience in facilitating workshops on peace and human rights education. He is currently a fellow with the Prajnya Trust, creating resources to sensitize teachers about gender and LGBTQ issues. He can be reached at

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