In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children and the Body

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Infant Body
  • The Sexualized Body
  • The Moving Body
  • The Obese Body
  • The Disabled Body

Childhood Studies Children and the Body
Helene Brembeck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0125


There are many seemingly natural links between children and the body: children’s bodies grow and develop motor skills; children take in and learn about the world through their senses, and through practicing new skills and capacities; children’s bodies are active, they move around and engage in play and other activities with friends and family; and children’s bodies are small and fragile and need to be supervised and protected from risks and harm. This means that there are a number of possible entrances into this research field. Only a few will be presented in this article. In order to present an appetizing collecting of themes with some originality, the selection covers traditional themes, new angles on traditional themes, well-trod paths in childhood studies, hot topics, and upcoming themes. Included are texts by obvious and well-known authors as well as some that are less expected and lesser known, and there is a specific focus children’s perspectives. The Sexualized Body is an old interest, both as a societal phenomenon and a recurrent theme in research about present as well as historical childhoods, as is the interest in the Moving Body. This latter section presents studies of physical education, of children’s movement in sports and play, along with the newer interest in studying children’s physical activity and spatial mobility using techniques like motor sensors, GPS, and mobile phones. Another area that has attracted a considerable interest in recent years is the Disabled Body, partly due to the rapprochement with disability studies. No one interested in children and the body can have missed the relatively new debate about children and obesity and the “obesity epidemic.” The section about the Obese Body presents some perspectives on childhood obesity that might be useful for childhood researchers. Another fairly new but growing research area is the Infant Body and, in particular, it’s interconnectedness and “skinship” to other bodies. The rise of this area is inspired by post-structuralist research about sociocultural perspectives on the body, often from a feminist viewpoint. This is true also for the other themes discussed here: they have emerged in close proximity with theoretical development in other fields of research, such as studies of health and illness, the body, motherhood, mobility, gender, and sexuality. Theoretical inspiration stretches from the classics of Foucault and Merleau Ponty to Elisabeth Grosz, Bruno Latour, and Gilles Deleuze, to mention a few. The first part of this article introduces the discussion within childhood research, and childhood studies specifically, about ways of bridging the social, “constructed” body with the “natural,” biological, and material body.

General Overviews

Higonnet 1998 explores the contested terrain of children’s bodies and sexuality and the disputed border between an image of an altogether asexual and “innocent” child dating from 18th-century Romanticism and a “knowing child” aware of body and sexuality in consumer culture. Another essential text is the edited collection The Body, Childhood and Society (Prout 2000). In the introductory chapter, Prout argues that social constructionist accounts tend to exclude the possibility of childhood bodies as both material and representational entities. The book includes many important contributions, such as Allison James’s chapter about children’s negotiations of embodiment in the schoolyard, and Pia Christensen’s account of the manner in which matters of childhood’s essential vulnerability enter into all kinds of adult understandings. Inspired by the French post-structuralist thinker Gilles Deleuze, who has inspired much of recent childhood studies, Lee and Motzkau 2011 develops Prout’s understanding of childhood as a hybrid phenomenon, and proposes a framework of three “multiplicities” of childhood, each bridging the social-material divide: “life,” “resource,” and “voice” to study the “bio-politics of childhood,” the way states are concerned to shape children, also recognizing “voice” for children. Brembeck and Johansson 2010 is a more humble attempt at applying a Deleuzian-inspired analysis of children’s bodily movements in space, and their possibilities to “flee” adult designation about how childish bodies should be and behave. Other useful readings are the volumes by Kathrin Hörschelmann and Rachel Colls, speaking from a children’s geography standpoint. In each of the papers of Colls and Hörschelmann 2009, the special issue The Geographies of Children’s and Young People’s Bodies, “the body” is the empirical and theoretical medium through which particular spatialities of the bodies of children and young people are made sense of. The even more influential edited collection Contested Bodies of Childhood and Youth (Hörschelmann and Colls 2010), addresses a diverse range of contemporary concerns, including Grogan’s work on the “culture of slenderness” and girls’ lives, and Holt’s chapter about classroom situations of children with “mind-body-emotional” differences, where dominant notions of disability are rejected. For a broad view of the relationship between bodies, identities, and the ways changes in health status mediate our understanding of ourselves and of other people, James and Hockey 2007 is a good starting point. It presents a broad sociocultural agenda on embodiment, the body’s health and identity, and illness and a medicalized life course, focusing, among other things, on children’s bodies.

  • Brembeck, Helene, and Barbro Johansson. “Foodscapes and Children’s Bodies.” Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research 2.42 (2010): 797–818.

    A Deleizian-inspired analysis of children’s performances and bodily movements and “becomings” in foodscapes. Arguing that children, through the body, body movements, and body work, find ways to “flee” from the adult world’s attempt to capture them in predesignated identities and try new embodied identities, which the authors call “becoming-other.”

  • Colls, Rachel, and Kathrin Hörschelmann. “The Geographies of Children’s and Young People’s Bodies.” In Special Issue: The Geographies of Children’s and Young People’s Bodies. Children’s Geographies 7.1 (2009): 1–6.

    DOI: 10.1080/14733280802630882

    Introduction to a special issue emerging out of a children’s geography conference, showcasing the breadth of interdisciplinary work on the bodies of children and young people, and contesting dominant ways that children’s bodies have been positioned in contexts such as health and illness, education, consumption, and the use of public space.

  • Higonnet, Anne. Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998.

    Starting from recent debates about child pornography, this book traces the history of the Romantic paradigm of the 18th-century innocent child, seemingly without corporeality, and the vessel of adult desires, and the image of a knowing child aware of its body and sexuality in commercial culture.

  • Hörschelmann, Kathrin, and Rachel Colls, eds. Contested Bodies of Childhood and Youth. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

    A useful edited collection for those working at the intersection of childhood studies and social science studies/geographies of the body, divided into three parts: Imagining, Disciplining, and Performing Bodies. The editors are particularly concerned with the one-dimensional construction of young people’s bodies as risky and at risk.

  • James, Allison, and Jenny Hockey. Embodying Health Identities. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

    Provides in-depth knowledge of the sociology of health, exploring the relationship between health and identity, including children’s health, through a focus on embodiment. A good place to start any writing project on health and the body.

  • Lee, Nick, and Johanna Motzkau. “Navigating the Bio-politics of Childhood.” Childhood 18.1 (2011): 7–19.

    DOI: 10.1177/0907568210371526

    Discusses the key dualistic assumption in many strands of childhood studies that the social and biological are ontologically separate spheres, and instead develops an aid to the navigation of contemporary bio-politics that consists of a framework of three “multiplicities,” called “life,” resource,” and “voice,” bridging the social and the biological.

  • Prout, Alan, ed. The Body, Childhood and Society. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

    Essential reading for childhood studies students and scholars interested in the intersection of the social sphere and “the natural.” Brings together papers and research reports by sociologists and anthropologists who have investigated the possibility that social life has a material as well as a discursive component.

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