Body Politics in the Physical Education Class

(Here is an excerpt from an article titled ‘Body Politics in the PE Class’, which was published in the May-June 2019 issue of Teacher Plus.)

Is the body 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.

(Chintan Girish Modi is a fellow with the Prajnya Trust, creating online resources to sensitize school teachers about the needs and struggles of queer and trans students.)

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