Laura Azzarito | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Laura Azzarito

Challenging stereotypes about sport, physical activity and fitness

Challenging stereotypes about sport, physical activity and fitness

This past September Laura Azzarito, Associate Professor of Physical Education, joined TC’s faculty in the Biobehavioral Sciences Department, arriving from Loughborough University, U.K. The native Italian studies the way gender and sex, race and ethnicity, and social and class discourses in school affect young people’s sense of body image and how young people’s views of the body impact their participation in physical activity. In the spring semester of 2012, Azzarito is teaching a seminar course on research problems and methodologies in curriculum and teaching in physical education.

Q. Your research is directed at socio-cultural influences on young people’s embodiment in physical activity.

A. Yes. I’m interested in understanding how the ways we think about sport and physical activity in society inform young people’s views of their bodies and (dis)engagement.  And among other things, I’m committed to understanding how education can address young people’s issues of embodiment.  I’m trying to develop and implement curricula in physical education that move beyond traditional physical education, which is very constraining – of just kicking the ball, for example – to curricula that can promote meaningful engagements in physical activity for all young people.

Q. What are some of the obstacles to promoting physical activity?

A. There are many. We are living in a society where physical education is increasingly becoming a contested terrain – socio-cultural, economic and political forces enter the gym in powerful ways. We are struggling with the so-called obesity epidemic and sedentary lifestyles among young people. But at the same time, what we need to recognize is that public concern about the obesity epidemic is also creating a lot of anxiety among young people in terms of issues of body size, shape, muscularity. This is where my research focuses. This anxiety may really impact, in a negative way, young people’s engagement in physical activity. Let’s say I’m a young person who has a little bit larger body size, and in P.E., the teacher measures my B.M.I [body mass index]. I’m active, but my B.M.I. is high compared to my peers. These teaching approaches in PE may negatively impact my self-concept, and over time I may actually stop doing physical activity, because I don’t feel good about my body. So, yes, we do have obesity epidemic issues that we need to be concerned about. But we also need to be concerned that this over-emphasis on issues of size and shape may be very detrimental for young people’s views of their bodies.

We also have the media. Young people learn all kinds of messages from the media in terms of gender, race, size, shape and muscularity.  We know that the media creates narratives about ideal bodies, bodies that are impossible to achieve. Who is the sporting body, who is the slim body, who are the healthy, fit bodies? Women’s bodies are usually represented as very thin, while men’s bodies are usually represented as very athletic, strong and muscular. That can create another source of preoccupation for girls and boys, if they don’t feel like their bodies reflect those kinds of ideals. I’m interested in creating an educational space that welcomes and encourages young people to share their concerns, to think about these messages in a critical way, to think about themselves in relation to these messages. Ultimately, I’m thinking about how physical education can promote “body talk” – how to create an educational space where young people become active agents in challenging and negotiating these taken for granted assumptions about the body.  I’m hoping physical education can empower young people to learn how to challenge media narratives, and at the same time, engage in physical activity practices that allow them to become who they want to be. 

Q. What are the connections between physical activity and gender, race, social class, and sexuality?

A.  Well, for example, there are particular sports that, historically and socially, have been constructed as masculine, and other sports that are socially constructed as feminine. When girls, for instance, perform or engage in particular sports that are viewed as masculine, like American football, they in some way become butch, lesbian, or like men. They occupy spaces that are traditionally occupied by men. The same goes for boys who don’t like to play football, who are not aggressive, who don’t display a particular behavior that is viewed as masculine, as being aggressive, as being forceful, as being very muscular or big. They become like sissies, like girls. This is what creates homophobia in sports. Homophobia is an ongoing issue in sports and in physical education, and it is a problem especially for young people who do not perform normative gender behaviors in sport. Homophobia is very difficult to eradicate from sport and PE settings. In terms of race and physical activity, we can also think about how this plays out in certain sport. For example, the overrepresentation of African Americans in say, basketball, track and field, or football is often explained through stereotypes of black physical superiority and intellectual inferiority. As a result, young black people are often channeled into these sports rather than academics, and at the same time, white young people are steered way from pursuing these sports. This is also a social class issue. Research shows that some black young people, particularly boys, embody “hoop dreams,” the false idea that they can become successful in society through sport rather than through academics.

Q. How does participation in a certain physical activity or sport empower people?

A.  Young people are empowered when we offer them a wide range of physical activity where they can explore themselves in a safe place and find something that they are interested in and want to pursue for the rest of their life. They are also empowered when we enable them to think  about gender issues, or homophobia, or race in relation to their bodies and physical activity – because if they don’t think about who they are, and if we keep teaching just skills-based physical education, then it’s all simply about whether they perform skills or fail. We have 40 years of research that says that the traditional, or the multi-activity sport-based curriculum, has failed to engage young people in physical education. PE curricula are empowering for young people when they engage them in learning about the ways knowledge in physical activity, sport and fitness is constructed in society, and how this knowledge is relevant to their daily lives and to who they are. 

Q. How has obesity played out as a racial and class issue?

A. There is a now substantial amount of data that says ethnic minority young people and young people from low-socio economic backgrounds are more likely to be and become obese and inactive. But we also know that as a result of poverty, many young people might not have opportunities or space for physical activity in their community or access to good food. They are not the ones who are able to buy organic food, to buy healthy food. There are some young kids who after school need to be worried about working, making money, rather than doing physical activity. They don’t really have the choices, opportunities, or access to any sport clubs, which are very expensive. 

Q. Writers like Dianne Ravitch have suggested there is a trend toward privatizing public education. Is that true, and is it part of why physical activity has become prohibitively expensive for some kids? 

A. There is very much a trend toward privatizing physical education. It’s a product of globalization. Fitness and health corporations say, “We’ll give you all this equipment if you have all the kids play our games or use our products.” They may also take over physical education if we are not careful. They are really impacting physical education in a negative way. Privatization reclaims traditionally low status school PE as a corporate vehicle for simply managing young people’s body weight. Privatization produces top-down health and fitness curricula, which do not promote authentic learning but rather simply aim to discipline, regulate and control young people’s bodies. Teachers and researchers need to take a critical stand against this.

Q. How has the field of physical education changed in ways that relate to your work?

A. There’s been a shift from a behavioristic approach to teaching physical education the way it was taught 10 years ago – 20 years ago – to thinking about physical education from a more constructivist perspective.

Q.  I hear the word “constructivist” and I think, John Dewey.

A. Yes, that’s right. This is what Dewey always said, that learning occurs through experience and a reflection about the experience. Reflection is crucial for young people to become critical agents. What does this mean in physical education?  For students in my classes, what I’m hoping to do is to engage them in critically thinking about current problems school physical education is facing today. My goal is for students themselves to become critical agents for social change. So we read literature that covers critical theories, including issues of social justice in education and school physical education. The idea is to think about ways to analyze physical education curriculum in a real school context and try to identify problematic issues that they see, based on the literature they read.

Q. And you also teach them to look critically at media?

A. Yes, absolutely. It’s called critical media pedagogy. We look at the ways the media delivers particular messages about the body, and for many students, it’s eye-opening. They’ll say, “Oh, I remember when I was young, and my peers didn’t want me to be on the cheerleading team, because cheerleading is traditionally white.” Another student who was a boy was talking about his experience in wrestling and how much pressure he always felt to lose weight. Critical media pedagogy helps them connect the ways they saw and experienced their bodies in relation to messages consciously or unconsciously learned in society.

Q. You use photography in your research.

A. Yes. In a recent research project, I asked my student participants to create visual diaries to represent their own experiences in physical activity. It was very engaging for them to do a project that was creative, where they become empowered through photography. Photography enables young people to speak about their daily lives and identities. Another aim of this research was to employ a more “collaborative,” “power-leveling” methodology that decreased power differences between the researchers and the young people who participated. Young people’s photography was exhibited at museum, art-community centers, schools and academic conferences.
Q. Why did you come to Teachers College? Why did you think you could do this work here?

A. I think my work fits very well with the vision of Teachers College for a number of reasons.  First, Teachers College is traditionally viewed as a place that really puts emphasis on issues of social justice, and all my work aims to address issues of social justice. These are issues of gender, race, homophobia, sexuality and so on, among young people, in the context of physical activity. The second reason is, I think, the way Teachers College welcomes interdisciplinary research, and my work is interdisciplinary. It crosses arts education, physical culture, physical education, pedagogy in education. I think third is thinking about new ways that can actually allow us to create some educational physical education contexts that can be engaging and meaningful for young people in school. This is what I’m hoping to do. I feel so much of the work at Teachers College has been influenced by philosophers like John Dewey, and Maxine Greene.  Their work has been so inspirational for me in terms of thinking about holistic, meaningful and critical education for all young people. My ideas of physical education are very much informed by this. This is one of the reasons I came here. TC is an ideal fit for my research.

Published Tuesday, May. 15, 2012