On fat kids and physical education

At the end of May, I travelled to Queenstown, one of the loveliest towns in New Zealand, to attend the Critical Health Education Studies Conference.


It was a last minute decision; I hadn’t planned on attending. But Professor Richard Tinning (a distinguished Professor in the area of physical & health education), invited me to fill a vacancy on symposium he had organized on “Critical health education and the affect of physical education”. This invitation was an honour, and even though I knew I would have to self-fund the trip, I accepted. The symposium also included Darren Powell, lisahunter, and Michael Gard; all scholars I admire a great deal.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much relevant scholarship was shared across the three days. Standout presentations came from Melinda Webber on the role of stereotype threat and cultural identity in the success of Māori as Māori and Gareth Treharne on the need for healthcare providers to be trained to meet the needs of trans New Zealanders.

I was, as usual, one of the few fat people in attendance. And I was the fattest person who spoke across the three days. It made my topic, fat kids, ethics, and physical education, especially relevant. I realised, in that space, that I was talking on behalf of all fat kids for these physical and health educators. And this is common for Fat Studies scholars and fat activists; we are the few speaking from the position of being fat. Most research around fatness doesn’t centre fatness or fat people – this is also true for most conversations around the topic. This is why growing the field of Fat Studies is so important. And why so many of us use autoethnography in our work; it provides a method in which the researcher remembers and reflects on personal experiences through a framework of theory and literature.


My talk, Losing the love of movement: Fat kids and physical education, explored the violence done to fat kids in PE and the disservice we do as we teach them to associate exercise solely with the pursuit of weight loss. I considered my own experiences with movement; how much I enjoyed physical activity as a kid, until I began compulsory physical education classes. In those spaces, I lost my love of movement. Uniforms that didn’t fit, activities that haven’t been modified for my fat body, taunting from my peers, and the anti-fat bias of my teachers; the end result was a hostile environment that removed the joy associated with movement and exercise for me.

This was reinforced by the idea that physical movement was meant to produce weight loss, rather than being allowed to enjoy physical movement for enjoyment’s sake. If I wasn’t losing weight, then what was the point? I was doing it wrong. Or not enough. Or not in the right way. (This approach is counterproductive to supporting fat kids to engage in physical activity, but understandable given the obesity epidemic lens that frames how most everyone thinks about fatness, health, and activity).


These experiences in physical education taught me that exercise was for the purpose of weight loss, and so from then on I would engage in regular exercise only during the times of my life when I was at war with my body. And during these times, I became militant about my activity. During my last war on my body, I took no prisoners. I was exercising between 3-4hrs every day, and would berate myself harshly when I took a day off due to illness or travel. (It’s amazing to me that during this time I was also completing my qualifying exams and my PhD research).


While I’ve left warring with my body behind me, I’ve yet to repair my relationship with movement and exercise. On the few times I’ve tried over the years, like when I did my first (and ONLY) mini triathlon, I found myself moving into unhealthy habits and thoughts quickly. But even though I’ve yet to work this out for myself, I’m hopeful. Because I know lots of fat adults who engage in movement they enjoy. Like the members of Aquaporko (a fat synchronised swimming group in Melbourne) or fat Olympians like Sarah Robles and Raven Saunders.

I concluded the talk by imaging a different future for fat kids in physical education. Spaces where fat kids could learn new ways to move their fat bodies without shame, or ridicule, or chafing. Spaces where fat kids could use their size to their advantage when appropriate in sporting situations, and learn modifications for other activities when necessary. Spaces where fat kids weren’t left out, left behind, or left feeling less worthy, because of their fatness. I can imagine these spaces. Can you? How can we support physical educators to make these spaces a reality? How can we support fat kids to not dread spaces of physical education? How can we support fat kids to be fat kids?


(I’m revising my talk into a paper appropriate for inclusion in an upcoming special issue on critical health education for the Health Education Journal – submissions are due in October)