Sociopolitical appropriation of the human body 

in Physical Education and Sport: from A to Q


*Professor Adjunto na Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS),

Faculdade de Educação Física e Ciências do Desporto (FEFID)

Pesquisador Coordenador do Grupo de Pesquisa e

Estudos Sociológicos em Educação Física e Esporte (GPES), FEFID/PUCRS;

Professor Adjunto na Instituição Educacional São Judas Tadeu, Curso de Educação Física

**Professora Adjunto na Universidade Federal de Pelotas (UFPel),

Escola Superior de Educação Física (ESEF)

Professora Pesquisadora no Grupo de Pesquisa e Estudos Sociológicos em

Educação Física e Esporte (GPES), FEFID/PUCRS.

Prof. Dr. Marcelo Olivera Cavalli

Profa. Dra. Adriana Schuler Cavalli







          The objective of this critical paper is to debate on ways and methods the body is perceived, conceived and appropriated within various social spheres. The guidelines for the analysis observe, more specifically, the procedures within two areas of knowledge directly concerned to the body. The way the body is approached and used has strict implications on the way society establishes itself. An ecological relationship is institutionalized between society and the political appropriation of the body: society influences the body as well as the body influences society. Social function and social formation of both structures should be scrutinized. Physical education and sport should be responsible for conducting a critical approach to their own manipulation and to that performed on the body.

          Keywords: Body. Physical Education. Sport. Critical. Society.

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    A point that has to be emphatically stressed in the discussion on physical education (PE) is the role of the 'physical body', that is, the human body constituted by its material components of flesh, blood, bones and tissues. It should be mentioned before proceeding that the analysis conducted here takes a dualistic approach to the human being as the social discourse did not yet absorb and acknowledge the concept of man as an integrated unity.

    The objective of this analysis is to clarify some points around the ways and methods through which the human body, specifically, has been used. The dualistic approach is still emphasized in the practice of PE, sport and social common sense. It is also emphasized by many social structures that have interests other than the social and educational ones.

    The body must be analyzed based on concepts through which it has been conceived, as a means to establish patterns and to organize the social formation of modern society. It is further assumed that the body has been suffering conceptual differentiations through time and through a great number of functions attributed to it. Some of these ideological appropriations and conceptual differentiations of the body are presented as follows.

  1. Based on socially institutionalized social patterns, the body has been ranked according to its physical type. As such, the hegemonic image of the 'ideal' body type has been ruling society’s aesthetic standards as it affects sociological and psychological behavior.

  2. The body has been used, in part, in the social stratification of society. It can be used as a parameter to verify one's professional activity.

  3. Based on Foucault's thinking, the body has also been used as a form to exert discipline and punishment over the individual and to set examples for society.

  4. The body is once more observed, evaluated and cause another possibility of discrimination. It is the situation in which physically disabled people find themselves. The comparison to other bodies and movement possibilities and accuracy take them to suffer social and physical discrimination. The body is once again considered as a parameter to rank people.

  5. The body is exhibited at beauty contests and other exhibitions as examples of the best socially institutionalized patterns of physical beauty. The body is evaluated and ranked based on its external appearance. Not considered are all the indispensable requisites of a healthy, socially and psychologically well-balanced person. In the case of women's beauty contests, it is another demonstration of female subjugation rather than their empowerment.

  6. In every society, the body is commercialized and 'sold' through various social practices and media devices "as a vehicle of pleasure and an instrument of desire" (LOY et al., 1993). (1) Due to sexual liberation, the widespread nature of AIDS and the development of the sex industry, the body assumed an important role in disseminating illegal practices. (2) Sexuality associated with the widespread hegemonic image of the body created moral values and behavioral patterns in which the body started to be perceived as a sexual object.

  7. The commercialized body image exploited in the media and targeting the consuming public does not reflect reality. The body image does not have any relation to the advertised product. The body becomes a vehicle of propaganda for the advertising industry. The "best" bodies make a living on their image and "lesser" bodies work out to acquire a physical resemblance to the 'ideal model'.

  8. Another idea of the body associated with commercialism and physical image is the need to keep the body within certain social patterns of health, youth, beauty and fitness. Consequently, parallel effects were initiated inside the consuming society, supported by a powerful market-oriented ideology. These originated new social patterns and placed a new emphasis in the industrial market of cosmetics, clothes and sport gear. They were diffused and based on the discourses of Sport, leisure, health and exercise.

  9. Media is not using the body only as a vehicle of propaganda, but also in the creation of the sporting postmodern body. The postmodern body faithfully mirrors the commodity-signs it desires. Consequently, as Faurschou (1987 apud LOY et al., 1993) has indicated, the profundity of commodity-signs which constitute the regime of hyper consumption become responsible for creating "bodies for aerobics, bodies for sports cars, bodies for vacations, bodies for Pepsi, for Coke, and of course bodies for fashion".

  10. The body is once again targeted through government's intervention in health care. Citizens' physical abilities and fitness are to be improved guided by notions such as: (1) fitness reduces health costs; (2) fitness is related to economic productivity; and (3) the body is a vehicle of pleasure and self-expression (COAKLEY, 1990; LOY et al., 1993).

  11. In medicine also the body was given isolated treatment. Since diseases were located and spread in the body, treatment was also located within that same body (COLQUHOUN, 1992). The development of studies in anatomy and physiology contributed to the institutionalization of this traditional approach of medicine. Technology also played a vital role in the diagnosis and cure of diseases. It created equipment and techniques to explore the body both internally and externally. Unfortunately, the characteristic of health and welfare systems is to treat people merely as bodies. Where people deserve a better quality of services, they are left to wait in lines, bodies without names, without families.

  12. Through the concept of "absent bodies", Loy et al. (1993) introduce an idea opposing that of medicine: the approach given by "psychology and anthropology as well as sociology, in particular, have a curiously 'disembodied' view of the human beings". Moreover, when referring more specifically to sociology of Sport, Loy et al. (1993) cite Theberge who asserts: "in a quest to establish the social significance of sport […] this field has had little to say about the body. It is ironic that in studying sport, where the body is essential to the experience, we have largely missed its meaning and importance".

  13. The body was and is targeted by both of the two main theoretical and practical discourses: (1) In PE, the body is used to perform old gymnastics wherein the body was used to achieve discipline, control and prepare for war; (2) In Sport, the body is used to achieve high performance levels and to serve various sociopolitical purposes. Although the hegemonic image of the body is completely diffused throughout society, it is more easily observed and represented in elite Sport cultures than in sport subcultures.

  14. Considering the relationship between PE and the body, it is essential to observe the use of the body to maintain and reinforce the sportive model of culture. The body assumes the position of a vehicle in which the sportive culture is spread through physical theories and practices. As a consequence, PE and the body are both ruled and based on Sport.

  15. In kinesiology and biomechanics, the body is considered as nothing more than a machine, where all the angles, articulations, muscles, energy consumption, movement and distances are rigorously measured and studied. These fields seem also to be unaware of and disconnected from social and environmental issues. They are closed inside themselves and the scientific knowledge they produce. In addition, the knowledge that these fields produce contributes to the reinforcement and advance of high performance Sport.

  16. In high performance Sport, the body is conceived and approached as a machine. Doping, electric muscle stimulation, hormonal control and other technological devices and techniques are used on the body. The athlete's body is just a tool to achieve political and ideological objectives/performances. Since the body – athlete – is not a machine, but a person, there must be other reasons for such kind of violence.

  17. The body is also present in the context of Sport and PE where gender identities are constructed and confirmed. Male dominance and the characterization of the body, such as masculinity, are usually associated with physical performance. This subsequently reflects and enforces a certain dominance of men over women; moreover, masculinity induces an image of heterosexuality. In terms of sexuality, the female body is more exposed and used to attract attention for commercial uses; however, a certain distinction between cultural backgrounds must be observed.

    However, how come one of the main subject matters of PE, the body, has been playing such an important sociopolitical function? Why is PE not aware of political, economic, cultural and social practices that are being performed on the body? Why are so few people researching and producing knowledge that would clarify and expand the field into more social and educational spheres?

    Differentiations should be made between the social function and the social formation of the body. Present social order is strongly based on and informed by the sportive order. Moral values and behavior as well as physical aesthetic and behavioral patterns were created and developed to cope with the social demand of the new 'physical body' model that is/was socially established.


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  • COAKLEY, J.J. (1990). Sport and politics: can they be kept separate? In: COAKLEY, J.J., ed. Sport in Society: Issues and Controversies. Fourth edition. USA: p. 302-321.

  • COLQUHOUN, D. (1992). Emancipatory health education and the potential and limitations of health based physical education. In: Williams, T.; Almond, L.; Sparkes, A., eds., Sport and physical activity: moving towards excellence. London: p. 390-400.

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revista digital · Año 14 · N° 131 | Buenos Aires, Abril de 2009  
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