Queer Bodies

reviewed by Susan Talburt - January 25, 2013

coverTitle: Queer Bodies
Author(s): Heather Sykes
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433111624, Pages: 157, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

Heather Sykes’ Queer bodies:  Sexualities, genders, and fatness in physical education seeks to contextualize, challenge, and change ableist, masculinist practices of physical education that marginalize non-normatively embodied young people.  The book combines historical context, theoretical frameworks, and interview-based data to portray the narrow range of acceptable bodies and behaviors that are intelligible in physical education and how those rendered unintelligible live out their marginalization. While the book examines “how students form embodied subjectivities within particular constellations of ableism, heterosexism, racism and body discrimination during physical education within Canadian schools” (p. 1), the larger goal is to open the field of physical education to more capacious understandings of the politics of the body and possibilities for curriculum reform.  “Thus,” says Sykes, “the analytic focus turns from the individual distress experienced by countless students during physical education to the institutionalized discourses that define and confine what counts as a normal body, a queer body and ultimately an unintelligible body” (p. 4).  This focus includes not just the social, but what Sykes calls the psychic processes of physical education as it fantasizes an athletic, healthy child who develops appropriately as a rational kinesthetic learner.  This fantasy creates, as it depends on, boundaries between normal and queer bodies.

The book draws together strands of trans, fat, and disabilities studies with queer, feminist, psychoanalytic, and postcolonial theories in order to examine the imbrication of binary sex/gender categories with racialization and fatness.  Sykes places this theorizing in dialogue with 39 interviews she and The qBody Project research team conducted with participants who self-identified as “sexual or gender minority; having a physical disability; [or] having an undervalued body size/shape (p. 13).  Conducted with adults, the retrospective accounts of physical education illuminate shifting meanings in participants’ experiences and subjectivities over time. Chapters take up particular analytic focuses, but do not falsely isolate topics, such that racialization, sexuality, gendering, and body size circulate throughout the text.  Chapter Two, “Sexualities:  See(m)ing Normal,” focuses on self-identified sexual minority participants’ experiences of “surveillance and spectacle” (p. 22) in physical education, historicizing the visual economy of heteronormativity through nineteenth- and twentieth- century sexological and eugenic discourses of appropriate masculinity for the nation. Chapter Three, “Genders:  Beyond Boys and Girls,” focuses on the ways trans- and intersex-identified participants lived out physical education’s regulation of coherent, binary gendered subject positions, arguing that “gender is never just gender; rather, gender is continually being produced by the ways physical education organizes and categorizes movement, curriculum and architecture” (p. 15). Co-authored with Deborah McPhail, Chapter Four, “Fatness:  Unbearable Lessons,” focuses on “fat” and “overweight” participants’ recollections of the visual economy of bodies in physical education, highlighting their resistances to fat phobia.  Chapter Five, “Teachers:  Love and Loathing,” offers a welcome critique of “role model” discourses, as it points to the unpredictable nature of students’ conscious and unconscious processes of identification with teachers as integral to embodied learning.

The last two chapters, “Phantasy, Imaginary and Anxiety” and “Curriculum Reform and Body Ethics,” extend the prior chapters to offer theorizations and practical suggestions for change in the field.  Sykes argues that physical education’s fantasy of the healthy, athletic child depends on unconscious psychic work to “idealize bodies—of whiteness, productivity, mobility, health, masculinity, athleticism” (p. 17) that is supported by seemingly innocent neoliberal discourses of “‘fun,’ ‘healthy living,’ ‘participation,’ ‘obesity’ and ‘gender equity’” (p. 17).  Yet the perpetual presence of “queer bodies” threatens physical education’s fantasies of normality. Her hope is for physical education to develop an ethical openness to queer bodies and an ethics of the visual in order to reimagine the homophobia, transphobia, and fat fobia that structure the field.  


One of the book’s strengths lies in its continual linking of fat, trans, and queer bodies and its refusal to segregate them from processes of racialization or binary regimes of sexuality and gender.  Yet a more thorough history could have demonstrated the durability of these shifting linkages. For example, the book does little to place physical education in a larger context in which adult supervision of young people’s leisure—often through sport and physical activity, as in the scouting and playground movements—has been central to related goals of combatting threats to the social order (degeneracy and delinquency) and supporting nationalist projects of cultivating appropriate masculine dispositions for war or economic productivity (see Lesko, 2012; Savage, 2007). Sykes points out that “masculinist, nationalist phantasies about the purpose of physical education linger, well disguised, in the contemporary professional discourses about ‘having fun,’ ‘taking part,’ ‘losing weight,’ and ‘motor skill development’” (p. 93). And her discussion includes dominant ideas of queer bodies as “unproductive,” such as framing the fat body as “out of control” or manifesting “excess femininity” (p. 49).  However, a careful genealogy of shifting imaginaries of “unproductive bodies” could have foregrounded imaginaries of autonomous, rational subjects through physical education’s historic nationalism to contemporary neoliberalism’s regime of self-governance, which shifts productive responsibility from overtly national projects to the economic individual. Sykes critiques individualizing neoliberal ideas of good choices about health and fitness and rational learning: “the physical educated student is increasingly being compelled to become a healthy citizen and self-controlled subject” (p. 107; emphasis mine). Is this compulsion increasing, or is it a shifting manifestation of early twentieth century boyologists’ struggle against delinquency to uphold the social order and national productivity?

Development of neoliberalism’s appropriation of the normative masculine subject’s rationalism and self-control suggests a complex theorization of agency.  Although Sykes’ psychoanalytic focus eschews liberal humanist notions of individual agency as changing power relations, the book’s tendency to “celebrate the agency of participants” (p. 58) is in danger of recirculating notions of a sovereign subject of agency that underlie physical education’s idea of the “normal child” who can make good choices. As Berlant (2007) argues of the pathologization of subjects through the “globesity epidemic,” rather than reinscribe “the agency of the medicalized subject who can be lectured at, shamed, and exhorted to diet, to put the family on a diet, to eat at home, and to exercise” (p. 776), it may be more useful to imagine agency as non-productive suspension, or “small vacations from the will itself” (p. 779). In other words, we may wish to interrupt ideas of the intentional sovereign subject called to “be productive” or “to resist” oppressions.

The book’s movement among history, theory, discourses, and lived experiences of physical education, whether accounts of the primal scene of the locker room or aggressions in playing dodgeball, demonstrates the collective yet highly individual, and thus malleable, meanings physical education can take on.  Even as I wish for more depth in places, the book achieves its goals of challenging common sense and provoking thought about the education of bodies.


Berlant, L.  (2007).  Slow death (Sovereignty, obesity, lateral agency).  Critical Inquiry 33: 754-780.

Lesko, N.  (2012).  Act your age! A cultural construction of adolescence.  New York and London:  Routledge.

Savage, J. (2007). Teenage:  The creation of youth culture.  New York:  Viking.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 25, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17005, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:36:02 AM

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