Modern day superheroes in PE lessons: empowerment or oppression

Just under three years ago I started a new role as a physical education specialist teacher. Like in my previous role as a classroom teacher, including working in various leadership positions, I attend regular professional learning conferences and meetings to upskill my knowledge and skills in effective practices and pedagogy. In my first year of teaching PE, I attended a two day conference and was bitterly disappointed by one of the messages delivered by a keynote speaker. This was the statement that opened the presentation, “Kids are fatter, lazier and slower today.” My frustration of those words nearly had me leave the lecture theatre because these words dig deep into moralisation, ignorance and stigma. This wasn’t the only eye opening experience that got me thinking about how health messages are delivered.

Gamification in Physical Education

Physical education involves game-based learning. Gamification has a positive impact on learning and promotes higher-order thinking skills that require students to apply understanding on a deeper level though problem solving, applying new skills and knowledge or reflecting and evaluating. As a means to increase and maintain student engagement in physical education programs, there has been a trend to use superhero themed resources, action figures and toys in lessons. I have resisted incorporating these into my lessons mainly because of the distorted body image and unrealistic health messages that can be subliminally acquired. 

Body image preferences start young

Body image is formed as young as preschool with children expressing an awareness of body satisfaction influenced by parents, the media and peers. Cultural messages of beauty and appearance ideals are freely observed and internalised by children. Their dogmatic thinking and their limited ability to categorise see them focusing on two extremes, black or white. For example, they may describe people and things as big or small, good or bad, nice or mean. Current research shows that both genders aged 3-6 show a preference to thinner bodies with females showing a greater admiration for thin. Young children are tuned into the world around them and don’t always equate appearance on weight and shape but clothes and hair demonstrating a preference to dress and groom a certain way and commenting on their own or other bodies. This isn’t necessarily body dissatisfaction but children imitating what they see and hear. While this indicates children’s pure observations, we need to consider carefully how focusing on body appearance can overshadow functionality and capability of the body.

Our culture is designed to systematically oppress

Cultural ideology saturates society with body images that are associated with identity and self-worth and during the magical time of childhood this can infiltrate in a subliminal way. It’s believed we’re exposed to an average of 4,000 advertisements a day. The push for children to be ‘entertained’ has exposed them to cross-promotion marketing techniques that see parents being faltered into purchasing merchandise, products and services. This commercialisation also penetrates education.

Superheroes portray a masculinity with female characters taking on equal kinds of roles as their male counterparts. Over the last 25 years superhero figurines have become more muscular, up to 70% bigger than the original characters. The messages these toys portray, are that people with bigger muscled bodies and lower body fat are treated with more respect. They aren’t comparable to real life bodies and inadvertently imply a sense of worth based on looks over character and capabilities. 

There is a disturbing high prevalence of body dissatisfaction in children and body image is ranked in the top three concerns for young people. In more extreme circumstances, body image disturbance can result in an eating disorder. Above all health conditions like cancer or type 2 diabetes, children are more likely to develop an eating disorder. While eating disorders are complex and causation ranges from genetic, psychological and sociocultural factors we can all arm ourselves (and students in our care) with protective systems.

An inquiring mind can activate empowerment

My questions here, are we normalising unattainable body types and causing harm to the students in our care? Have we considered the stereotypes and the stigma that exists in body image by using these characters?  What evidence-based research is there available to support our practices? How well do we really know our students? 

I am personally dubious of using these characters explicitly in my lessons due to the contrived messages that they send. I critically analyse and review resources and their evidence and I’m highly aware that my role as a physical educator can support body image interventions. As an educator that predominantly focuses on the physicality of the body, I can build children’s vocabulary to focus on how the body functions and its capabilities alongside body respect and acceptance. Engagement in physical activity, especially organised sport improves mental and emotional wellbeing and children’s self-concept. Body diversity exists across sports but this isn’t always acknowledged, as the mainstream views single out leaner and thinner stereotypes. The physical education program can promote body acceptance and diversity providing teachers are trained about the sensitive and broader messages of body-esteem that can lead to body disturbance. Harmful messages can be counteracted by being media literate and considering how we design practices that see the values of positive body image, body respect and diversity aligned across the curriculum.

The education sector has the ability to be a champion of children’s mental wellbeing rather than unwittingly contributing to the harm. We are all collectively responsible to call out and action when we get it wrong. Proactive coordination of programs and resources with evidence-based approaches that safeguard children are paramount.

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