Experiences of masculinity in Health and Physical Education

Body image is a taboo topic among boys. Faced with images and impressions of masculinity every day, they are pushed to conform to unrealistic media expectations and idealized bodies. Yet, in contrast, they also feel pressured to remain aloof and appear disinterested in their own bodies. This contradiction can be particularly detrimental for young men, with boys increasingly experiencing unhealthy attempts at muscle building, dissatisfaction with their bodies, and disordered eating.

Health and Physical Education classes (HPE) should be spaces where students can address these issues and be physically active and healthy. But for many adolescent boys, these classes become uncomfortable and unsafe spaces from which they withdraw.  Boys who struggle to participate in HPE may do so because they are marginalized and bullied, often as a result of issues related to bodily confidence and body image. For these boys, exclusive locker room and gym spaces can be difficult to navigate.

In a national study, Dr. Michael Kehler worked with 77 adolescent boys to discuss their experiences of HPE classes, as well as ideas related to male body image. Students from across Canada highlighted how they come to understand their own and others’ bodies, masculinity, and the norms of sports and gyms – what it feels like to be “among the boys” but not “one of the boys.”

Behind locker room doors

The participants described HPE classes as a place where boys become physically and socially divided, favouring those who fit dominant, normative standards. Boys who are able to draw attention to their strength, prowess, and physicality in HPE were able to mark themselves as being “more than” their peers; those who did not present themselves in this hyper-masculine style felt alienated and noted that dominant boys treated them as if there was “something wrong with them.”

This was particularly the case in the locker room. As a largely unsupervised space, the boys felt vulnerable to the inspection and surveillance of their peers. Here boys would assess and evaluate themselves, developing or losing self-confidence depending on how others react to them. This made the locker room one of the most important spaces to think about their own masculinity, sexuality and body image.

Strategies of Safety (SOS)

Homophobia was commonly seen in locker rooms. Despite the physical and social comparisons being made, the boys felt unable to acknowledge that they were looking at each other for fear of being accused of being gay. Many of the boys developed a fear of being bullied or teased in the locker room, but were hesitant to report any issues.

Many developed strategies to protect themselves in order to simply get through HPE classes. The students felt it was left up to them to work it out amongst themselves – and that certain teachers treated the problem as simply ‘just the way boys are.’ These students would then regularly avoid the locker room by changing elsewhere or ahead of the others, skip class, or come unprepared to avoid participating. Other boys would often notice these behaviours, and the teasing would continue even if the boys were not present.

Silence doesn’t mean safety

The failure to discuss issues around body image and “being a man” remains a problem in many HPE classes. Teachers need to challenge the silence around male body image and masculinity, in order to create an inclusive and supportive space for all students.

By challenging assumptions about masculinity, physique, and muscularity, schools can better promote healthy life practices, such as nutrition and exercise. Teachers can engage students in mapping the locker room – both the physical space and the perceived norms – to encourage dialogues around safety, privacy, and (dis)comfort. Interrogating how body image issues are formed, and discussing the drive to obtain idealized bodies, can help support bodily confidence and acceptance in adolescent boys.


See more from Dr. Michael Kehler on his profile


Register for the second talk in the Masculinities Studies in Education Speaker Series with Dr. Andrea Waling of La Trobe University.


Connected Citations (Select)

Kehler, M. (2016). Behind locker-room doors: Knowing why some boys “stay away from each other” (pp. 155-168). In W. Lehmann (Ed.), The Sociology of Education in Canada: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives. Open University Press.

Kehler, M. (2016). Examining boys, bodies and PE locker room spaces: “I don’t’ ever set foot in that locker room” (pp. 202-220). In M. Messner & M. Musto (Eds.), Child’s Play: Sport in Kids’ Worlds. Rutgers University Press.

Kehler, M. (2014). When boys talk about their bodies: How boys learn “that person’s useless.” In S. Barnard Flory, A. Tischler, & S. Sanders (Eds.), Sociocultural Issues in Physical Education: Case Studies for Teachers. Rowman & Littlefield.

Kehler, M., & Atkinson, M. (2013). Examining the (Em)Bodied Boundaries of High School Locker Rooms. In R. Brooks, M. McCormack, & K. Bhopal (Eds.), Contemporary Debates in the Sociology of Education. Palgrave MacMillan.

Kehler, M., & Atkinson, M. (Eds.). (2010). Boys’ Bodies: Speaking the Unspoken. New York, NY: Peter Lang.