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Sport, Education and Society
ISSN: (Print) (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cses20
Making the familiar strange: a narrative about
Spanish children’s experiences of physical
(in)activity to reconsider the ability of physical
education to produce healthy citizens
Gustavo González-Calvo, Alfonso García-Monge, Göran Gerdin & Richard
To cite this article: Gustavo González-Calvo, Alfonso García-Monge, Göran Gerdin & Richard
Pringle (2021): Making the familiar strange: a narrative about Spanish children’s experiences of
physical (in)activity to reconsider the ability of physical education to produce healthy citizens, Sport,
Education and Society, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2021.2014803
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13573322.2021.2014803
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa
UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis
Published online: 20 Dec 2021.
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Making the familiar strange: a narrative about Spanish children’s
experiences of physical (in)activity to reconsider the ability of
physical education to produce healthy citizens
, Alfonso García-Monge
, Göran Gerdin
Departamento de Didáctica de la Expresión Musical, Plástica y Corporal, Universidad de Valladolid, Palencia, Spain;
Department of Sport Science, Linnaeus University, Vaxjo, Sweden;
Department of Sport, Health and Physical
Education, Monash University, Clayton, Australia
There is now a wealth of research on obesity both from biomedical and
socially critical perspectives. However, less research has focused on the
lived experiences of young children and particularly those who are
perceived as ‘sedentary’. This paper critically examines the issue of
obesity as related to children’s experiences of physical (in)activity, via a
focus on the circulation of socio-cultural and economic discourses in
the context of Spain. We report on data obtained from interviews with
13 children identiﬁed as ‘sedentary’. Data were analysed using thematic
content analysis and based on the analysis a collective story was
constructed to represent and give voice to the children’s experiences.
The collective story sketches a day in the life of ‘Diego’to indirectly
reveal the limitations associated with assuming that sport and school
physical education (PE) are pragmatic ‘answers’to the presumed issue
of childhood obesity. In our analysis we draw on Foucauldian notions of
bio-power and governmentality to highlight how neoliberal and
capitalist logics shape and constrain children’s experiences and
opportunities. By presenting a narrative that delves into the various
domains of these children’s lives, their families, friends, peers and
lifestyles, we argue there is still a need to reformulate and rethink how
we understand childhood wellbeing and the role of PE. We conclude by
suggesting that the conﬂation of PE with sport and health can subtly
undermine some children’s views of self.
Received 22 January 2021
Accepted 29 November 2021
Obesity ‘crisis’; physical
education; childhood; health;
We live immersed in a neoliberal era and society. Most of our information, classiﬁcations and percep-
tions of life are marked with the seal of commodity and mass consumption; things get produced
quickly and with limited consideration of social responsibilities. This neoliberal system does not
escape the educational sphere, which is increasingly impregnated with neoliberal dyes that guide,
condition and determine its aim and purpose (Evans, 2014; Varea et al., 2019). Indeed, school Physical
Education (PE) is no stranger to neoliberal ways of thinking and operating.
As a compulsory school subject in most countries in the world, PE curricula often have a holistic
aim aspiring to both personal and social well-being. With speciﬁc aims of helping children to develop
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
CONTACT Göran Gerdin firstname.lastname@example.org Department of Sport Science, Linnaeus University, Vaxjo, Sweden
SPORT, EDUCATION AND SOCIETY
an understanding of themselves, accepting their own body realities and those of others, providing
them with resources that help them enjoy their bodies throughout their lives, and with knowledge
and ability to become ‘critical consumers and knowledgeable managers of their own physically
active lifestyles’(Laker, 2003). However, PE practices and debates have often centred around the
so-called ‘obesity discourse’(Tinning et al., 2016) which has led, in recent decades, to a focus on
ﬁghting the ‘growing epidemic of sofa children’(British Heart Foundation, 2000) and viewing PE tea-
chers as ‘obesity warriors’(Burrows, 2016).
Many studies have drawn on biomedical explanations to provide ‘solutions’that oﬀer ways of
resolving this childhood obesity problem (e.g. Boles et al., 2014; Evans & Rich, 2011; Folkvord
et al., 2016). Others have adopted a salutogenic perspective of health which has inspired studies
of health promotion initiatives in schools and young peopleśengagement in community sport
(McCuaig & Quennerstedt, 2018) and pedagogical approaches that move beyond a deﬁcit perspec-
tive of youth, school PE and its teachers (Light & Harvey, 2017; Thorburn & Horrell, 2014). A wealth of
research has also critiqued the very existence of this obesity ‘crisis’and have pointed at the neolib-
eral and corporate interests it serves (e.g. Burrows, 2017; Burrows & Wright, 2007; Gard & Wright,
2005; Powell & Gard, 2015; Pringle & Powell, 2016; Pringle & Pringle, 2012; Wright, 2009). Powell
and Gard (2015), for instance, demonstrate how marketing campaigns by major corporations pos-
ition children as responsible for their own health and conﬂate (ill)health with body weight/shape.
They further argue that these corporations (re)shape the very ideas of health and notions of what
constitutes a ‘healthy life’.
Processes of governmentality (Foucault, 1991) instil in people the sense that they are responsible
for their own health and that it is a moral virtue to look after their health. This individualising and self-
disciplining process allegedly contributes to the greater good of the broader population (Foucault,
1991). In a similar way, the ‘obesity epidemic’discourse functions as a form of bio-power with an
underpinning but utopian desire to produce fat free bodies, productive citizens and reductions in
health care costs. This discourse has not only inﬂuenced PE practices (i.e. the prevalence of ﬁtness
testing and focus on accumulating physical activity), but also how identities and bodies are con-
structed as either healthy or obesity-prone (Gard & Wright, 2005; Gerdin & Larsson, 2018; Gerdin
& Pringle, 2017). As critical scholars working across the ﬁelds of sport, coaching, health and PE,
we remain committed to problematising how discourses of obesity both shape practices and iden-
tities across these ﬁelds. We are in particular interested in elucidating and providing a further chal-
lenge to the ongoing production of social inequities in and through sport, coaching, health and PE in
which obesity discourses play a signiﬁcant role.
The aim of this paper is to explore Spanish children’s knowledge and experiences of schooling, PE
and physical (in)activity in relation to understanding how their bodies and subjectivities are gov-
erned via the working of neoliberalism. We accordingly aim to identify and analyse the socio-cultural
and economic discourses that surround these children’s daily lives in Spain. The paper is guided by
the following research questions: (i) What experiences of physical (in)activity do Spanish children have?
and (ii) What socio-cultural and economic discourses have shaped these children’s experiences?
Childhood obesity, socio-cultural and economic discourses in school PE
In recent times, health, education and physical activity are areas where large corporations (banks,
food companies, pharmaceuticals, advertising companies, among others) have realised that they
have proﬁts to gain or lose and the related importance of targeting schools and youth (Fernán-
dez-Balboa, 2017). This situation produces forces of change from within the educational profession
and from outside (Johns, 2005; Tinning, 2017). As in many other Western countries, in Spain, edu-
cational processes have been shaped by medical discourses –often seen as the most important
and prestigious of them all –and by political discourses. This has meant that many political
parties regardless of their underpinning ideology promote the importance of increasing school PE
hours as a strategy to attract voters. This issue is a space in which the social, economic, political,
2G. GONZÁLEZ-CALVO ET AL.
personal and professional come together and come into conﬂict (Greener et al., 2010; Rayner et al.,
2010; Wells, 2012), allowing us to reﬂect on our society and the role of PE in it.
But, despite all the enormous eﬀorts that are being made in most Western countries to avoid
what some consider as the greatest health problem of the twenty-ﬁrst century (Folkvord et al.,
2016), the concerns about obesity, if not the rates of obesity, have not improved: which suggests
that attempts to use PE as a tool to ﬁght obesity has not been successful. Popkin and Hawkes
(2016) argue that this is because the underpinning reasons go beyond individual behaviour (e.g.
economic interests, commercial agreements, production subsidies, urban designs) and PE can, there-
fore, only play a very limited role (Caballero et al., 2003).
On the other hand, as Wright (2009) explains, we should instead ask ourselves whether the
obesity crisis is a real or manufactured issue, and whether the great amount of resources - intellectual
and economic - that have been deployed to ﬁght against it can be justiﬁed, particularly when the
aspects that could put the economic dimensions of the phenomenon (i.e. marketing of processed
products, sweetened drinks and saturated fats) at risk are not dealt with and the solutions end up
opening new lines of trade (e.g. dietetic, aesthetic or ﬁtness industries). This also highlights how it
is diﬃcult to separate interests related to health and interests related to commerce in biomedical
discourse (Rayner et al., 2010). In the ﬁeld of physical activity and exercise, this trend is reﬂected
in the emergence of thousands of gymnasiums and sports clubs, the rise of dietetic and health
food products, new physical activity patterns and medical guidelines that regulate what PE in
schools should look like (e.g. Evans, 2003; Evans & Rich, 2011; Tremblay et al., 2011; Varea et al., 2019).
To date, little attention has been paid within the Spanish context to the structures within this
sociocultural context that support health, comparing it with the importance placed on determin-
ing risk factors, normally associated with diet and physical exercise in children and young people.
In an attempt to better understand the way in which we perceive and know the world, others and
ourselves (Bochner, 2014), our paper draws on a narrative methodology with the purpose of gen-
erating a dialogue between children, young people, families, teachers and those responsible for
educational policies and curricula. In this way, we intend to encourage critical thinking on
these issues and interrupt prevailing discourses on physical (in)activity and obesity, to make
the familiar strange (Pringle, 2009).
Research participants and procedure
The data informing this paper was part of a larger study on physical activity and lifestyle habits con-
ducted at a primary school in a medium-sized Spanish city. All of the participating school’s students
(n = 423; age 6–12) and their respective families (n = 274), four school teachers and ﬁve monitors of
extracurricular sports activities participated in the study. Informed consent was provided by the
parent(s) for their own and their children’s participation in the study. All names referred to in this
paper are pseudonyms to ensure the participants’anonymity.
In a ﬁrst phrase, for the initial assessment of physical activity and lifestyle habits, both students
and families completed a series of on-line questionnaires. The questionnaire consisted of 15
items, organised around the following themes: (a) physical activity habits; (b) habits and knowledge
about healthy and balanced diets; and (c) barriers to leading a more physically active and healthy
lifestyle. The data reported on this paper, was collected as part of a second phase, in which a
total of 13 students categorised as sedentary or at ‘risk’of sedentarism - children who exercise
only once or twice a week- (7 girls and 6 boys) in the third and fourth year of primary school in
Spain (age 8–9 years), as well as their parents, participated in semi-structured interviews. For this
phase, purposeful sampling was also used for the selection of the participants (Patton, 2002; Suri,
2011), selecting those whose work and family ﬂexibility would allow them to be available for in-
SPORT, EDUCATION AND SOCIETY 3
The parents were interviewed separately and were not present during the children’s interviews, in
order to contrast their information and allowing them to speak their minds (Sparkes & Smith, 2014).
All participants were asked the same questions, with respect to the following topics: (a) life habits
such as school and work schedules, leisure time activities; (b) how much physical activity and exer-
cise they do each week, both regulated (e.g. participation in sports clubs) and non-regulated (e.g.
outings to the park, to the mountains, walking); (c) food habits and what knowledge they have
about healthy and balanced diets; (c) what they consider to be the main obstacles to leading a
more physically active and healthy life.
All interviews were undertaken within schools, at times chosen by the participants. The interviews
lasted between 30 and 50 min and to enhance the study’s trustworthiness (Lincoln & Guba, 1986)
and facilitate data analysis, the interviews were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim. The tran-
scripts were sent to those taking part who, in the ﬁnal instance, decided if they wanted the content
of their interview to form a part of the research or not, and whether they wanted to provide further
clariﬁcation on something they had said. In this paper, we only report on the data obtained from
interviewing the children.
Data analysis and creative non-ﬁction
All the data collected was analyzed using thematic content analysis (Libarkin & Kurdziel, 2002) and
constant comparison (Denzin, 1989; Miles & Huberman, 1994). Thematic content analysis focuses on
searching for patterns in the text. Descriptive and pattern coding were used to analyze both within-
case and cross-case patterns. First, the interview transcripts were read several times to get a sense of
the meaning of the interviews as a whole (Sparkes & Smith, 2014). From the categories that emerged
after the thematic and content analysis of the semi-structured interviews, those that were con-
sidered most relevant to the research questions were chosen to construct the narrative presented
For instance, in questions about the daily activities and physical activity, the thematic and content
analysis led to the categories of ‘socio-economic’and ‘social class’factors which in turn resulted in
narrative themes of ‘school holiday activities’,‘dining at hamburger joint as a reward’,‘takeaway
dinners’and the ‘hiring of a personal trainer’. Questions about sport participation and school PE
led to categories of ‘sport facilities’and ‘obesity discourse in politics’that in the narrative involved
‘lack of access to sport facilities’and the ‘political proposal to add more hours to PE’. The criteria for
including data categories also followed Sparkes and Smith’s(2014) guidelines for judging the quality
and relevance of qualitative research by asking the following questions: Does this work make a sig-
niﬁcant contribution to our understanding of what school PE is and what it should be? Is there any-
thing to learn from our story; does it invite dialogue as a space for debate and negotiation? Does it
open up the possibility of other less utilitarian and more pedagogical approaches to school PE?
After the analysis of the data, and in order to fully represent the complexity of the topic of our
investigation, we opted for a presentation of the results via creative nonﬁction (see Smith &
Sparkes, 2019; Sparkes & Smith, 2014). Creative nonﬁction represents data from research evidence
in a story form. The narrative representation is therefore based on systematically collected data.
Given this data was derived from interviews with 13 children, we opted to represent their ‘combined’
understandings and experiences via what Richardson (1997) calls a ‘collective story’. Richardson
(1997) promoted the notion of a collective story as a means of giving voice to groups of people
that have been silenced or whose storeys have been undervalued. In our case, the voice of children
had been marginalised in contrast to the voice of science in discussions concerning the ‘obesity epi-
demic’.We therefore wanted to give voice to children’s experiences and understandings of PE and
obesity concerns. Richardson’s sociological task was to examine the ‘private storeys of members of
these groups in relation to broader social forces, to discern the workings of power that act formid-
ably against them, and then to represent their storeys as a collective, uniﬁed, chronological narrative’
(Pringle, 2008, p. 221). The collective story was constructed around the categories identiﬁed in our
4G. GONZÁLEZ-CALVO ET AL.
analysis of data and represented as the description of a ‘typical’day in the life of a child growing up
Our intention with presenting this collective story (Richardson, 1997) is to represent and give voice to
children’s experiences as linked to the complex issues of physical (in)activity and (un)healthy life-
styles: voices and experiences in our view that are crucial in understanding and furthering actions
on the impact of obesity, socio-cultural and economic discourses on schooling and PE practices.
Today is Diego’sﬁrst day of school after the lengthy summer holidays. The truth is that, although he is
a bit blasé about school, he usually wants to come back. The summer break was too long and days
started to blur and boredom set in. On the best days of his break, Diego would go to the swimming
pool with his friends and, on exceptional days, to the shopping centre with his family, with a hamburger
Diego wakes up a little nervous, wanting to see his friends and know who his new teachers will be. As
always, time is against him and he has a few biscuits for breakfast before putting a tetra-brick of pre-
fabricated juice in his backpack for lunch. His family live near the school, about a ten-minute walk away,
and the school encourages pupils to walk or cycle to school. However, his parents work, so he always
gets dropped oﬀby car. After saying goodbye to his parents with a quick kiss, he runs to the line to
hug his classmates. Diego is happy to see them again. They start chatting about their holidays, what
they have done and the places they have visited if they were lucky enough to leave town. Some have
a lot more to tell than others. The school bell rings and they line up to go to class.
Once in class, and with excitement, they take out their new books and stationery. Diego knows that
he has to take good care of them, that they cost a lot of money and that they have to last the whole year.
Because they’ve been so expensive, he knows his parents will probably cut back on some spending in the
coming months. He momentarily thinks he can forget about getting Barcelona’s new football outﬁt! At
least he has his team’s sneakers that his uncle brought him from one of his trips. He knows that they are
a forgery but, after all, an almost perfect forgery. And if any of his team-mates decide to attack him by
accusing him of wearing a fake shoe, he will deny it as many times as necessary.
Between the language and mathematics classes, the tutor suggests stretching. She tells them about
some exercises that will be good for their back. Diego knows that physical exercise is meant to be good
for him, but he doesn’t have a back problem but he does the exercises anyhow as best he can.
Again, the bell rings, now to warn of yard time. Diego and his classmates leave quickly, ﬁnish their
snacks as soon as possible - juices, biscuits and buns; it seems that convenience food is common
amongst his friends - and raﬄe to see who gets to be the goalkeeper. He feels lucky that he is not
put in goal; he knows that the real stars, are others: those who score goals, not those who prevent
them from being scored.
Back in line, sweating, two team-mates tell the rest that they are going to join a local football team.
They are good footballers and very excited: they’ll train, they explain, Monday and Wednesday, playing a
game on the weekend. Diego has asked his mother and father, on countless occasions, to sign him up for
a football team; he doesn’t know if he’s talented enough, but he would be very excited to train in a club.
He thinks all the exercise would be good for him and he dreams of being a good player. Yet his Mum and
Dad have explained that they are too busy, and that it is too costly, and that it is not possible for them to
take him to the training sessions and also the weekend game. Yet they do also promise that one day they
will take him to the football stadium to watch his favourite team play. He hopes this dream comes true
and he thinks about being able to tell his friends that he actually saw Barcelona play live at the stadium.
Classes are over, that annoying bell again! Just like last year, he will eat in the school cafeteria,
together with many of his classmates. But his best friend at school, Soﬁa, is no longer with his lunch
group; he remembers that last year, she had to stop going to the cafeteria because the doctors said
she had a health problem that the school meals could aggravate. He doesn’t know what the problem
SPORT, EDUCATION AND SOCIETY 5
is, yet he wonders, ‘so what we eat here is bad’? He then feels sad about Soﬁa who is perceived by the
others as overweight and he worries whether she is still made fun of.
Eating at school is more boring than eating at home; when he eats with his family, at least he has his
television and his tablet on hand to entertain. First there is bean stew. The caretaker, who dishes up the
food, invites him to try the stew, but after a spoonful he leaves it. He thinks he’ll eat something when he
gets home. Yet the chef has also put chicken nuggets back on the second serving, and he devours them
right away. The chef remembers that when the caterer in charge of the menu oﬀered chopped chicken,
half of the dishes remained untouched. She wants to make sure that the students eat well so they have
the energy for the afternoon classes, hence she picks food she knows the children will eat.
After lunch there is one more class before PE. Diego likes PE classes, but he’s not sure if he’s attracted
to the idea of ‘sweat more’. He feels a little bad as he can see some of the other students performing the
exercises with ease. He tries to avoid working too hard during the exercise drills as he wants to save his
energy in case they have a game. The teacher always tells the students that the exercise will make them
healthy and that it is good for the heart and will stop them from being fat. The teacher informs that
being fat will lead to heart attacks. Diego then looks around to see if his friend Sophia is doing the exer-
cises. Others look at Soﬁa also. She looks down as if concentrating on her movements. Diego feels bad as
he knows that his friend doesn’t have a good time in class. She is not the same as in previous years, she is
not the same as the one who enjoyed the subject so much. But he is pleased that she is doing PE as often
she forgets to bring her uniform and gets in trouble. As Diego’s friend is listening to the words of their
teacher, she keeps her eyes ﬁrmly looking down at the ﬂoor.
Diego is in luck as the teacher says they have time for a game of football. Most, but not all, of the
children celebrate and clap. The teacher randomly divides the class into two teams and then hands
out coloured bibs to diﬀerentiate the teams. He then tells them to quickly sort out their positions. The
boy –who said he was going to be joining a weekend football team –organises the positions. He
looks at Diego and tells him to go goalie. His teammates run into position but Diego is a bit disappointed
and walks slowly back to the goal. He was put in goal last week also. He wanted the opportunity to try
and score a goal, not save them. As he walks into position, with his head down, he thinks it is probably a
good thing that he isn’t joining a real football team.
When his father has ﬁnished working, he goes to pick Diego up at school and takes him home, where
he will spend the rest of the afternoon alone. Well, not alone. Fortunately, he has his television and video
games to keep him company. The ﬁrst thing he does when he gets home is to eat some cookies.
Diego’s mother arrives from the shop where she works shortly before dinner, her legs slightly swollen
after several hours of standing. The father arrives a little later after a day of delivering packages with his
car, with his lower back in pain. They greet each other and comment on their respective ailments. The
father recommends the mother to do a little exercise and she remembers that when she went to the
ﬁtness classes at the municipal sports centre she ended up with the most painful knees. They joke
about hiring a personal trainer like his boss has, someone to guide them on how to exercise according
to their needs. Diego wishes they had the money to hire a personal trainer! He then tells the father to do
some exercises that his tutor has taught him in class. The father smiles and caresses his head: ‘thanks
son, now I’m a little tired, but tomorrow I’ll try it’.
They all sit down for the family dinner. It’s the only time they have to be together. They decide to heat
up frozen pizzas, it only takes twenty minutes in the oven and it’s one of their favourite dinners. As they
dine, they listen to the television news. Although they don’t usually pay much attention, they remain
silent when they hear the word ‘PE’.Apparently, diﬀerent political forces are considering increasing
the hours of this subject in schools. Pictures of overweight children eating hamburgers ﬁll the screen
as experts warn of the health dangers of inactivity.
Diego believes that teachers are responsible people and won’t do anything that could put children
at risk. He also believes - even though his parents often tell him not to pay attention to everything on
television - that what is shown on TV is what really happens. So, if the television reporters are saying
that children need to be more active and they should play more sport then it must be for a good
reason. A strange thought pops into Diego’s head and he blurts out a question, ‘if you aren’t very
6G. GONZÁLEZ-CALVO ET AL.
good at sport, does that mean you won’t be healthy? His mum looks puzzled but doesn’t answer.
Diego adds more information, ‘cos, you won’t get picked for the team or you’ll get stuck in goal?’
Yet no one answers and the conversation changes as the weather reporter tells them it is going to
be a hot and sticky night.
Diego brushes his teeth and, after kissing his parents goodnight, goes to bed. He spends a few
minutes ﬂipping through a book. ‘You have to read more’is something that adults always say to
him. But he thinks he has the right to say that reading is boring. He closes his eyes and dreams of
the day his parents will take him to watch his favourite football team play.
There is a prevailing assumption that obesity is a lifestyle disease (Burrows, 2017; Gard & Wright,
2005; Powell & Gard, 2015; Pringle & Powell, 2016), linked predominantly to sedentary behaviour,
poor nutrition and an ‘obesogenic’environment (Powell & Gard, 2015). Due to these reasons, corpor-
ate and public health interventions tend to focus on attitudinal and behavioural change in families
which often frames the obesity problem as one related to parental success or failure - knowing and
acting in ways that will halt the rise of childhood obesity (Burrows, 2017).
In this sense, we recognise that Diego’s‘slice of life’narrative presented above may not seem par-
ticularly striking, perhaps even mundane, yet we hope that readers from various countries can res-
onate with some of the daily realities of his story. Indeed, we hope that the mundaneness of the story
is a factor that might eventually trouble readers, as it is through making the familiar strange that we
can start to problematise what we take for granted. The aspect we wish to make strange is not the
realities of family life but that despite several decades of socially-critical research on issues of obesity
in PE (e.g. Gard & Pluim, 2014; Gard & Wright, 2005) some teachers of the PE profession –and some-
thing that is also reproduced in their pupils’understandings - still widely believe and propagate their
own health narrative, which assumes: ‘if we can encourage children into sport and exercise, we will
help produce a ‘thin’healthy adult population’. We stress that this a narrative that has not been lived
into fruition and there is little evidence to support its veracity. What is strange is not that children like
Diego will possibly remain sedentary for life, but that some physical educators have not realised the
failings of their own ‘health/obesity/activity/sport’narrative.
Moreover, as a collective story constructed from in-depth interviews from 13 students classiﬁed as
sedentary or at assumed risk of sedentarism, we hope to show the complex array of forces that shape
daily life and the respective health understandings from Diego: who, as a school pupil, is the target of
select health, activity and obesity messages. These ‘health’messages are often promoted within
school and PE contexts to pupils with the expectation that the pupil’s assumed unhealthy lifestyle
choices will then be ‘corrected’. Children are thus also increasingly becoming implicated in the gov-
ernance of healthy family lifestyles (Burrows, 2017). Although Diego is well aware of the various
health messages and he desires to do what is required to be healthy, the narrative illustrates an
array of socio-cultural and economic factors –outside of his control –that correspondingly shape
his daily lifestyle and developing sense of self. These factors include, as examples, his (in)ability in
sport, his parent’s limited disposable income, his very structured day, his lack of control over his
diet and transportation, the accessibility of digital technologies and the joys of consumer culture
and fast food. Diego accordingly understands the various reductive health messages that are propa-
gated within his school but is unable to live these into existence within his current sociocultural and
economic context. We also hoped that the collective story illustrates that Diego is beginning to
realise that his lifestyle and his family’s lifestyle does not follow the recommended health/activity
guidelines. Although this awareness is not a major source of tension as yet, evidence suggests
that this will become an insidious source of tension in later life, as ‘guilt’concerning one’s body
shape, diet and exercise levels aﬄict many adults (see Harman & Burrows, 2019).
More pointedly, the story reveals Diego’s desire to play football, a desire that can be seen as a
product of the socio-cultural discourses (Foucault, 1984; Gerdin, 2017) of growing up, as a boy, in
SPORT, EDUCATION AND SOCIETY 7
Spain. Although somewhat subtle, the story revealed that Diego believes that playing football is a
solution to some of the health ‘problems’that he is confronted with: he conﬂates sport with PE
and with healthy exercise. This is an important message in our research ﬁndings, as our interview
data revealed that children learn through PE that playing sport is healthy, yet many of them do
not participate in sport. Our interviewees suggested, indirectly, that they learn through PE that
they are not healthy as they do not play sport. We hope it is evident in our collective story that
Diego believes he would be ‘healthier’if he played football. Yet he is not particularly good at football
and his family’s busy lifestyle and low-income result in his inability to play. In this respect, we hope
that readers might begin to see how the conﬂation of PE with sport and health can subtly undermine
some children’s views of self. This is the mundane reality that is lived into existence for many children.
The biopolitical (Foucault, 1984) intent to govern Diego’s body, we speculate, will likely fail in the
long run unless signiﬁcant economic structural changes are implemented. Indeed, epidemiological
studies have long explained socioeconomic inequalities in health by making ‘reference to the obser-
vation that poor health and psychological characteristics cluster in low socioeconomic status (SES)
groups’(Lynch et al., 1997, p. 809). Despite the very clear and dated public health understanding
that ‘eﬀorts to reduce socioeconomic inequalities in health must recognise that economic policy
is public health policy’(Lynch et al., 1997, p. 809) health messages still attempt to target individuals,
such as Diego, with apparent minimal understanding of the complexity of factors that shape bur-
Our collective story, correspondingly, aims to reveal the futility of repeatedly targeting PE pupils
without reﬂecting on the complexity and constraints of their socio-cultural and economic context.
The risk of targeting school students as health problems is not simply that the intended governing
of bodies is not achieved but, (i), that the underpinning issues of neoliberalism and consumer culture
are left unchecked, (ii), the ‘targets’of repeat health messages can gain a sense of guilt given their
‘failed’body projects (see González-Calvo et al., 2019) and, (iii), the public contention that PE can
ﬁght the obesity epidemic but is met with ongoing failure could encourage an eventual disrespect
for the subject. It is against this backdrop of concern that we now draw from the implications of the
collective story to discuss more broadly issues surrounding schooling, PE, neoliberalism and the gov-
erning of bodies.
In recent years, Spain has seen an increase in public policies and expenditure on infrastructure;
aimed at promoting physical exercise and healthy lifestyles. Current policy for instance makes
clear its position on the ﬁeld of sport and physical exercise –‘sport equals health’(e.g. Gard &
Pluim, 2014; Kirk, 2020; McCuaig & Quennerstedt, 2018)–but the reality is that, for many families
today, a simple swimming pool voucher is still a luxury that they cannot aﬀord. Nor do many of
these families work-life balance allow them much time for leisure and family time; as a result,
many children and young people are not able to attend ﬁtness centres or other recreational facilities,
as their parents’work commitments and hours do not allow for this (Maroñas et al., 2018). It is easy to
see, as evidenced by the narrative above, how forms of family leisure time in Spanish cities are closely
associated with shopping centres (Escudero, 2008), where rewards and celebrations are often associ-
ated with ‘fast food’. In addition, although the oﬀer of physical activities for children and young
people has been growing in recent times –there are also more and more programmes for sports,
music, arts, and acting on oﬀer –but again they imply a certain economic and family time investment
that not everyone has. Haste and speed, wanting to do everything fast, are two constants in western
urban environments; families have to struggle with isolation, performance and self-realisation
through work (Han, 2015), trying to be as eﬃcient as possible and saving time - which inevitably
implies spending less time with/on the family. Indeed, these can be seen as the eﬀects of bio-
power and governmentality (Foucault, 1991) shaped by discourses of neoliberalism and capitalism.
Since neoliberalism insidiously imposes itself, often without a critical self-awareness, market forces
produce docile consumers and citizens (Evans, 2014).
We share with Bauman (2007) the belief that education in general, and PE in particular, should
not focus exclusively on technical knowledge, but on forming citizens who recover dialogue and
8G. GONZÁLEZ-CALVO ET AL.
their democratic rights, since a citizen who ignores the political and social circumstances in which
he or she lives will be unable to control their future and, therefore, his or her own path. The view
of PÉs contribution to health –only as a form of medicine that reduces cardiovascular diseases
and obesity - does not allow a concern for social justice issues (welfare, rights and dignity, among
others) (McCuaig et al., 2019). In this way, allowing ourselves to be carried away by a curriculum
dictated by biomedical discourse implies giving in to the passivity and comfort of absorbing
what medical science considers ‘good’and ‘appropriate’, without even reﬂecting on it. The
docile PE teacher as an ‘obesity warrior’(Burrows, 2016) can thus be seen as a product of
these governing processes based on the workings of bio-power and governmentality (Foucault,
Our paper further reﬂects how the conﬂation of physical exercise and body, the idea that
bodies have to be in motion, strongly contributes to the illusion that exercise and its bodies
are seemingly innocent and natural (Olive, 2018), somewhat separate from politics, culture and
economy. However, the current discourses around PE and the body are not exempt from mercan-
tilist ideologies and interests. For this reason, as educators, we must see to it that students com-
plete compulsory schooling not only with a profound critical understanding of their individual
health needs, but also of the way in which those needs have been constructed, manipulated
and perhaps obfuscated by the interests of the health/food/entertainment industries and the
workings of nationalism. But PE, reduced to the discourse of ‘ﬁghting obesity’, does not lead to
an interest in students’bodily knowledge, understanding, and competence, but rather to be con-
cerned only with body shape, height, and weight. As physical educators, we need to be able to
look beyond these narrow ideals. In this vein, we argue that PE practices should reaﬃrm its focus
on developing all students sense of bodily control, self-esteem and belief in their own physical
abilities, and promote the idea that being healthy is as much a state of mind as is certainly
not limited to being a certain body size.
In conclusion, we hope that the collective story presented in this paper provides a subtle but trou-
bling critique of biomedical and health science explanations of the ‘obesity problem’while highlight-
ing how socio-cultural and economic discourses, underpinned by neoliberalism and consumerism,
produce the socio-cultural backdrop that shapes the understandings and mundane lived realities
of ‘childhood obesity’. This paper has drawn attention to the complexity surrounding the socio-cul-
tural, political, educational and medical discourses that shape our understanding and children’s and
their families’experiences of physically (in)active and (un)healthy lifestyles. Rather than simply redu-
cing the issue of childhood obesity to a weight problem and its panacea of being more physical
active and eating ‘proper food’to lose weight, we aimed to give voice to the ones who are
usually voiceless and have less agency and power to make their rights be listened to: that is, the chil-
dren. We want to stress the need to learn to listen more carefully to their voices and complex storeys
of life, particularly in those aspects closely related to their education, welfare and quality of life. Their
voices and their familýs voices may be key in the rethinking of our understanding of the alleged
‘problem’of childhood obesity and sedentary lifestyles which can ultimately help inform the
future design of policies and interventions to promote more equitable physical activity and health
outcomes for all children and young people.
Finally, we hope that the collective story revealed how Diego’s conﬂation of PE/sport/health
within the conﬁnes of his structured day did not result in increased physical activity rates but insi-
diously produced an ‘unhealthy’notion of self. Indeed, we recognise that the conﬂation of PE
with sport and ‘good’health is an issue that deserves more critical attention: as this conﬂation
has ability to shape some students’narratives of self –those who perceive they have little ability
with sport –as unhealthy and, correspondingly, as morally questionable.
SPORT, EDUCATION AND SOCIETY 9
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author(s).
Gustavo González-Calvo http://orcid.org/0000-0002-4637-0168
Göran Gerdin http://orcid.org/0000-0003-2922-1993
Richard Pringle http://orcid.org/0000-0002-1487-8987
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