Career File: Gareth Treharne

This is the first in our new series of Career Files: informal interviews with leading or under recognised critical health psychologists and early career researchers. This month’s Career File is with our very own society chair, Dr Gareth Treharne.

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Tell me who you are and what you do?

I work as a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago in Dunedin. Otago is a region of in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the University is the oldest in the country, having been founded in 1869. I moved here exactly 10 years ago fresh out of a BSc, PhD and research fellowship in psychology at the University of Birmingham, UK. My family hails from Wales and I grew up in England very aware that my generation had lost the language that my parents spoke as their first language. The issue of language loss has become even more meaningful to me since living in Aotearoa/New Zealand where Te Reo Māori became recognised as an official language in 1987. I’m now a citizen of Aotearoa/New Zealand as well as maintaining my British citizenship (and accent). Paying attention to official languages is just one of the things needed if we are to work in ways that decolonise rather than recolonise in health psychology and every aspect of academia.

During the past decade my research interests have expanded from a very specific focus on the health psychology of arthritis to now cover wider aspects of chronic illness and well-being among marginalised groups. Over the same period my comfort being an out gay cisgender academic has also increased. There are still occasional uncomfortable moments but I’ve come to realise the importance of role models for students with marginalised sexualities or genders, so any moments of discomfort are worth it. I consider myself a critical health psychologist and queer scholar-activist. To ‘queer’ means to question what gets taken for granted so that’s in keeping with the idea that to be a critical academic means to question who benefits from research and from the status quo of things that are taken for granted. I really value the flexibility of working in academia and our ability to speak up in our role as ‘critic and conscience of society’. I spend most of my days with my head buried in research in some way, whether it be planning or giving a lecture, working with one of the postgraduate students I supervise, or doing something on one of my research projects.

Name some researchers/authors who have inspired you?

I’ve recently got hold of a copy of the abstract booklet of the first conference of what became the International Society of Critical Health Psychology (ISCHP). The conference was called “Reconstructing Health Psychology: An International Conference on Critical and Qualitative Approaches to Health Psychology” and was held in July 1999 in St John’s University, Newfoundland, Canada. We’ll be digitising the booklet for posterity and posting it on the website with the aim of having a full history of ISCHP conferences. So many health psychology academics who inspire me were at that conference, including Antonia Lyons (who was one of my PhD supervisors), Wendy Stainton Rogers (who was ISCHP’s Chair for 6 years at the same time as I was Secretary for 2009-2015), Carla Willig, Sue Wilkinson, Kerry Chamberlain, Michael Murray, and David Marks (who also did a stint at the University of Otago and is the editor of the Journal of Health Psychology, which is one of the most frequent homes of critical health psychology research). It’s amazing to see how many of the talks from that first conference were transformed into what are now classic articles in critical health psychology. I’m also inspired by Judith Butler, who commented that she never re-reads any of her previous writing in an interview she did with Sara Ahmed that was published in the journal Sexualities in 2016. I really like the idea of constantly moving forwards – something that’s really important within critical research to avoid the kind of stagnation that can come from settling on new norms. At the same time I see a lot of value in returning to the original texts of inspirational scholars and reflecting on our own research. Carolyn Ellis’s 2009 book “Revision: Autoethnographic Reflections on Life and Work” provides a fascinating tour of some of her autoethnographic research by revisiting projects, places, and people. Ellis’s work also goes to show the relevance of putting the researcher at the centre of academic writing rather than writing from the perspective of a god-like outsider. I’m currently reading David Lodge’s 1995 novel “Therapy” about a sitcom writer antihero whose life unravels after he starts psychotherapy and becomes obsessed with a somewhat obscure continental philosopher. I’m also reading Janet Mock’s second autobiography, “Surpassing Certainty”, about her pathway to becoming a trans journalist-activist (like a scholar-activist but with far more reach).

What are you currently working on?

I had some great advice from Liz Peel a few years back – an academic should always have a ‘passion project’ to work on. My current passion project relates to trans healthcare. I’m working with some amazing trans people in Dunedin and academic collaborators to develop community input in teaching trainee health professionals what they will need to know about providing care for trans people. What we’ve come to realise is that this generation of trainee health professionals is hungry to learn more about how to apply inclusivity in their practice and they will be an important cohort of trans allies in taking that professional knowledge into the healthcare system. I’m also working on understanding the discrimination faced by people with marginalised sexualities or genders in many contexts including university life. This work is happening through a few research project as well as hands-on involvement with a local charitable trust in Dunedin and processes of recognising inclusive workplaces. I’m also involved in campus-based projects tackling sexual violence, something else that I’m passionate about addressing and which really benefits from detailed research drawing on critical health psychology perspectives. My research on arthritis is also going strong and I’m involved in some exciting projects about understanding experiences of fatigue, engagement in exercise, and shared decision-making about stopping medical treatments once arthritis is under control.

How did you get involved in ISCHP and how has the experiences been for you?

I’m a second generation ISCHP member as I wasn’t at the first conference, which was held during the summer vacation in the year between completing my bachelor’s degree and starting my PhD. Then the second conference was held 2 years later in Birmingham in 2001 and ISCHP was formally instigated. Several things stand out in my memory of attending that conference. I was about halfway through my PhD and worked as a volunteer on the registration desk and in exchange was able to sit in on some of the sessions. I remember meeting Wendy Stainton Rogers who was mother hen to all the student volunteers. I remember hearing Kerry Chamberlain give a talk about the place of food in critical health psychology and I was fascinated at how research might explore the social and psychological meanings of things like meals and ingredients and restaurants rather than pathologising diets and calories and weight. And I remember sitting in on several other talks that started me on the track of understanding the ethos of critical health psychology and what it can achieve. Then in 2003 I attended the third ISCHP conference in Auckland just before submitting my PhD. It was a long way to come for a conference and supervision meeting with Antonia (who had just moved back) but it was totally worth it and started me on a path of looking for a job in Aotearoa/New Zealand. I became more involved in the running of ISCHP in 2009 when I became Secretary and worked alongside two Chairs, Wendy Stainton Rogers and Chris Stephens, before becoming Chair this year. The moral of the story is that it’s amazing how fast you can go from being a student volunteer to ISCHP Chair (if  you consider 16 years to be fast), and I’m excited to see who will be Chair in 16 years from now in 2033! One of ISCHP’s core principles is supporting students and early career researchers and people always comment at how welcoming the conference is.

What makes you critical of mainstream psychology worldwide?

One of my main criticism of mainstream health psychology is the double standard of contextualisation. How many times have those who do qualitative research had an article rejected because the findings are unfairly critiqued for only being of local relevance? But how many times have you read a mainstream health psychology article and been given so little contextual information that you can’t get a good sense of the data, or even had to make a presumption about which country or countries the data come from based on the affiliations of the authors? The localised nature of mainstream health psychology research gets overlooked whilst often making conclusions that imply the findings have universal generalisability. This criticism of mainstream health psychology is symptomatic of a wider epistemological dogmatism – the dubious argument that only mainstream health psychology counts as ‘real’ health psychology research, which has led to an over-reliance on experimental methods in the form of the randomised control trial. The beauty of critical approaches to research is the ongoing interrogation of epistemology and methodology that helps ensure we keep asking which groups benefit from research and keeps us thinking about methodological pluralism and creativity rather than dismissing or valorising any particular method that might be more associated with mainstream or critical health psychology.

Would you recommend any books or papers for those interested in critical psychology, and critical approaches to health?

Antonia Lyons and Kerry Chamberlain’s introductory textbook from 2006 is still the only comprehensive textbook that take a critical approach to health psychology. A second edition of Carla Willig and Wendy Stainton Rogers’s Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology has recently been published and is treasure-trove of guidance about methodologies and subfields within psychology. And I’m really excited about a forthcoming handbook I’ve co-edited with three awesome colleagues from South Africa (Catriona Macleod, Phindi Mnyaka and Jacqui Marx). It’s called the Handbook of Ethics in Critical Research and each chapter is centred on a story from the field of research so it gives readers a really rich sense of how ethics unfold and how current regulatory systems shape critical health research in particular. It was a fascinating journey to work on this handbook and it will be a great resource for critical researchers.

the HAES files: Why I Don’t Care about Health

Cat Pausé in this blog post reflects upon her experiences and the conversations around health and fat stigma.

As a Fat Studies scholar and fat activist, the issue of health is forever looming around me. In the background; in the foreground; off in the wings; waiting to pounce. Much of my scholarship has focused on fat identity and how it is managed in social media; much of my activism has focused on securing equal rights protection for fat individuals. And yet, when speaking to the media about weight discrimination in the workplace, or submitting an academic manuscript to a humanities journal, it is almost a guarantee that a reviewer or reporter will ask questions about fatness and health. “What about their health?” they’ll query, as though it has any relevance on whether fat people should be paid the same as non-fat people for work of equal value. “But isn’t fat unhealthy”, they’ll ask, as though someone’s health status has any bearing on whether they deserve to have a Facebook or Tumblr account.

Questions around health are always present in my work on/for fatness. Because health is one of the few lenses through which we, as a society, are capable of viewing fatness.

I spent much of my doctorate degree waging yet another war against my body. Even though I had been fat my whole life, and had a sneaking suspicion that there wasn’t anything wrong with me, I still went to war with my body regularly. I had all the tools – the scales, the points, the counting, the gym membership, the calendar on which I would check each day where I achieved at least 30 minutes of exercise. At the same time I was waging this latest battle, I was researching how very fat women constructed, maintained, and revised their weight identity. All of the women in my work had similar stories to my own; lifelong fatness, lifelong dieting; lives spent chasing that elusive fantasy of being thin. One of the women I interviewed was different from the rest; she wasn’t ashamed, wasn’t afraid, and didn’t believe that her weight was holding her back from anything, including health. At the end of our interview, she casually suggested I read Paul Campos’ The Obesity Myth. It was my first exposure to work that was critical of obesity studies. And from there it began; like many scholars, I fell down this new rabbit hole and read everything I could.

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When I began, I was most drawn to understanding how tenable the links between weight and health really were. I spent a great deal of time reading empirical studies that disproved that weight was a reliable predictor of health, or that permanent weight loss was possible, even while concluding that weight loss should still be pursued by those who fell outside the desirable range. (This was before Health at Every Size; before scholars like Bacon, Aphramor, and Burgard, began revolutionising understandings of health and illuminating that keeping the definition of health as thin as it was ensured that many people of all sizes were excluded). This science, that never seemed to be at the fore of people’s minds when they casually dismissed fat politics, seemed to me to be the answer.

If I could just convince enough people that being fat isn’t automatically unhealthy, then things would change! They wouldn’t make assumptions about people based on their body sizes. They wouldn’t judge a fat person for eating at McDonalds while they themselves consumed the same food themselves. They would acknowledge that fat people deserved the same rights and dignity as non-fat people! I set to work doing just that: I facilitated workshops for healthcare providers, I wrote about the relationship between weight and health, I shared evidence through social media.

In 2012, I agreed to do a segment for 20/20 in New Zealand. By this time, my understanding of health as a social construct and a social contract had developed. When the interviewer asked me whether I was healthy, I first spoke to the varying definitions of health. Who’s health? Who gets to define health?  Who is excluded from these definitions? Then I moved into speaking specifically about my personal health. Was I metabolically healthy? Yes. Did I engage in health seeking behaviours? Yes. Did my BMI fall within what was believed to be healthy range? No. I then went on to speak on whether it should matter – did my worth of being a person with dignity and respect depend on my health status? Most of my response was edited down, and I cringed when the Me on TV began talking about my health behaviours. In my earlier work as a fat activist, I was willing to speak about my health, and the relationship between weight and health as demonstrated in the literature as I understood it. I kept thinking, one more time for the camera, and things will change. (I probably don’t have to tell you that they never have).

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I no longer participate in this form of respectability politics, a term coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham to explain the efforts made by black women to demonstrate they were good enough for white society to overlook their flaw of being black (and women). In fat activism, respectability politics is often expressed in the performance of the good fatty; the fat person who apologises for their body, who demonstrates their efforts to seek health despite their size, who performs their fatness in ways that are most tolerable for the fat hating world they live in.

As a scholar and an activist, I’ve come to recognise that any conversation about health and fatness will be centred on physical health, and the ways that fatness impedes the achievement of health. And while increasingly conversations will include acknowledgement of the role of environments on health acquisition (the dreaded obesogenic environment), rarely does the conversation include a consideration of the impact of fat stigma and hate on the health and well-being of fat people. And for me, that’s the only interest of health that lives on in my scholarship and activism.

I am incredibly fat; death fat, as we like to say in the Fatosphere. In this way, I may have learned earlier than others that engaging in respectability politics wasn’t going to get me anywhere. It doesn’t matter how much I exercise or am seen eating a salad, the world will perceive me as incredibly unhealthy and incredibly unworthy. It doesn’t matter what my health status is, everyone, including healthcare providers, will treat me like a ticking time bomb that will, one day, implode and double-stomachedly take down public health care systems.

Health is the latest form of respectability politics for fat people. And I want no part of it.

More details about the authors:

Cat Pausé (Institute of Education, Massey University, New Zealand)