Document Type


Date of Degree


Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Communication Studies

First Advisor

Bruce Gronbeck

Second Advisor

Meenakshi Gigi Durham


This project looks half a century in the past to begin making sense of how and why the obese child has become visible as a significant public problem in the United States. The central argument of this dissertation is that the development of physical education as a discipline and its articulation to the physical fitness panic of the 1950s functioned rhetorically by framing physical fitness as a category necessary for performing one's citizenship. Indeed, I argue that the articulation of the fit body to American citizenship is a crucial component in the emergence of the obese child as a public problem. By examining the interrelated themes of physical education, public problems, materialist rhetoric, ambiguity, and history, I demonstrate that rhetorical practices not only function as mechanisms for disciplining the practices of citizens, but also create opportunities for re-imagining the body and its value in society. In chapter two, I address these themes through an historicization of the disciplinary development of physical education as it changed over time. Chapter three explores the ways in which McCarthyism and increased instances of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s cultivated a politico-cultural environment that necessitated a method capable of managing the behavior of deviant individuals. This need for the management of deviance along with developments in physical education contributed to the emergence of the President's Council on Youth Fitness, an institution that drew national attention to the importance of physical fitness. Finally, chapter four examines the circulation of the ways in which physical fitness' status as a public problem was made possible by the ambiguous nature of the term fitness. In making visible the contingent nature of the fitness problem, its implications, and the means by which it operates, this study provides a starting point through which alternatives for current understandings of the body and its value can be conceived. The specific route through which such a re-conceptualization of the body could occur is found within moments where the persuasive force of language leaves room for (mis)interpretation, the liminal space created through rhetorical ambiguity.


the body, ambiguity, foucault, rhetoric, fitness


viii, 131 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 123-131).


Copyright 2006 Rafael Antonio Cervantes

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