Through a different lens: Using photovoice to reframe understandings of sexuality and disability in South Africa

By Poul Rohleder, Xanthe Hunt and Leslie Swartz

Poul post March 2018 - upfront extra pic

When we interviewed Edward (not his real name), for a research project on disability and sexuality, we talked in his office at a large, maximum-security prison near a large city in South Africa. He spoke of a car accident that had left him paralysed and needing to use a wheelchair, and the impact that this incident five and a half years ago had on his life and sense of identity.

He told us: “I’ve struggled, because if you were born and you were active and now suddenly there’s a change, so you need to accept first that there is this change now.  And my movement is limited now and all those things,” he pauses, sucks air in between his teeth, and then adds, “The main thing with a spinal cord injury… you’re going to have a problem with your sexual life because now there’s nothing that is normal at all.”

His comment cuts to the core of an issue for many people with disabilities. What Edward alludes to is not just that “nothing is normal” in physical terms, but, more importantly, in terms of societal perceptions and expectations about sex and bodies. This has been a focus of study conducted by ourselves and a team of colleagues from the University of East London (UK), the Southern African Federation of the Disabled (SAFOD), SINTEF Technology and Society (Norway), and Stellenbosch University (South Africa). The study was concerned with exploring and challenging the misconceptions about disability, sex and sexuality for people with physical disabilities in South Africa.

Edward is one of our participants.

Many people do not consider issues of sexuality – sex, desire and attractiveness – with disability. Many may perceive disability as rendering one damaged, passive and ‘sick’ (not things many associate with sexuality), and we see sexuality as being most often something active, healthy and attractive (not things many associate with disability).

In general, research suggests that many non-disabled people tend to make assumptions about the sexuality of people with disabilities and hold many misconceptions: very often they see people with disabilities as non-sexual (for a review of the literature concerning physical disability and sexuality see Carew et al., 2016). Additionally, what research is conducted on the sexual and reproductive health of people with disabilities tends to be in richer countries of north America and western Europe with much less research conducted in low and middle-income countries (Carew et al., 2017). However, the majority of people with disabilities in the world live in low- and middle- income countries.

During the research interview with Edward, he tells us about the men he works with, ‘the guys’. Working at a prison, and living in the prison compound, the guys are his family and friends, his people and his pack. The camaraderie does not stop them from stripping Edward of his sexuality with their blunt assumptions. He said: “The guys I work with, when they saw my girlfriend had a baby, they asked, ‘Are you sure this is your baby?  Maybe someone made this baby for you?’”. They assumed he wouldn’t be able to have a girlfriend, let alone do what is required to make a baby.

Edward’s feeling that nothing is “normal” when it comes to his post-accident sexuality, and his friends’ assumption that he is no longer sexual, are not unusual experiences for people with physical disabilities. However, until recently, little was known, in South Africa at least, about the sexuality of people with disabilities: what sorts of attitudes do they encounter from non-disabled people when it comes to romance, and accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare? how do they experience themselves as sexual beings?

Both of these questions are important: Sexuality is a two-sided coin: part of our experience of it is “in here” – how we think and feel about ourselves as sexual beings, what we think about our gender and how we feel about sex. But another part of our sexuality is very much “out there” – what others’ behaviour tells us about our attractiveness, what their actions lead us to believe about what is ‘normal’ and what is sexual. Others’ attitudes create barriers for people with disabilities having sexual and reproductive health rights and access to care.

As part of our project, we wanted to find out about the attitudes of non-disabled people, towards the sexuality of people with physical disabilities. We conducted a survey measuring respondents’ attitudes towards dating, attractiveness, sexuality, sexual rights, and need for sexual and reproductive health care of people with physical disabilities. We advertised the survey widely through social media, major newspapers, student email lists, and through field researchers. We obtained 1990 respondents in total, of which 1865 reported being non-disabled.

In the survey, we asked respondents about their perception as to the need for sexual and reproductive health care for people with disabilities as well as the perceived needs for non-disabled people.

What we found was not surprising, but it was worrying: the respondents tended to believe that disabled people had fewer sexual and reproductive rights, and had less need for sexual and reproductive health services, than non-disabled people (Hunt et al., 2017). The survey also contained story completion tasks, which revealed mostly negative, stereotyped views about dating people with physical disabilities, and about their sexuality (Hunt et al., 2018).

Taken together, both sets of information suggest that non-disabled South Africans tend to desexualise physically disabled people, seeing them as less sexual than non-disabled people, and feeling disinclined to view them romantically. The ‘out there’ side of the coin, it would seem, is unfavourable.

Finding out about the ‘in here’ side, on the other hand, is a little more complicated: what are the experiences of sexuality amongst people with physical disabilities in South Africa?

It is complicated because talking about sexuality (which includes gender, sexual orientation, sexual activity, reproduction and related activities and identities) is – often – a taboo. It is deeply private, but also highly political. Further, it is not a subject for which yes or no questions, or even scales can tell us enough. We found a fruitful method of inquiry was to use photovoice as a method to elicit personal stories and narratives in qualitative interviews with 13 participants with physical disabilities, one of whom is Edward.

Given the silences and awkwardness which may characterise interviewing people about their sexuality, this method was ideally suited to this study. It also allowed our participants to take a more active role in the project – rather than being passive subjects who ‘gave’ us information to make a story out of. We worked collaboratively on creating images as well as a documentary film that depicted some of their views and experiences. All participants happened to identify as heterosexual, and so the focus was on heterosexual sexual relationships.

As one of the participants, Edward, explains: “You see this ramp?  If you look at it, it must look like this.  You can see it was specially made as well, the ramp.  There was no ramp.  It was just the step”.

Poul post March 2018 - pic1

Like many of our photographer-participants, Edward chose to take photos which seem to have less to do with disability, and more to do with access. In fact, many of them seem to bear little resemblance to the kinds of images which many of us would be used to associating with sexuality. But, as the participants speak around the images, a picture of their relevance grows: the ramps, doors or inaccessible spaces represented in their photos are standing in for the sexual access and social acceptance which they desire.

A female participant, Mary, draws a no-entry sign, and says how this represents a feeling she has carried inside for most of her life when it comes to relationships. She explains: “I come from a conservative background, a conservative Christian background, so for me, as I was growing up, the whole thing of sexuality and even marrying was very closely tied to having children.  And everybody just took for granted, because I couldn’t have children, I wouldn’t marry”.

Poul post March 2018 - pic2

This sentiment is brought into sharp relief by the findings from the survey part of our study: that non-disabled people seem reticent to grant the kinds of access and acceptance which people with physical disabilities desire (and have the right to).

Our survey responses teach us something about the kinds of attitudes which people with physical disabilities might encounter in their daily lives: the survey gave us an impression of non-disabled respondents’ discomfort with the sexuality of disabled people. The photographs taken by the interview participants bring life to the impact of this discomfort.

But the photographs, and the photovoice project, also opened up a space for thinking about the sexuality of people with physical disabilities in South Africa. Together with some of the participants, we created a short documentary video revealing the experiences of 2 men and 2 women with physical disabilities in South Africa. The video and some of the photographs and personal stories of participants are all available on our project website: We hope that the website might be used as a resource for raising awareness and facilitating education about disability and sexuality at schools and other forums. Such work, as well as the sustained activism of disability organisations and individuals with disabilities, will be necessary if the goals outlined in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is to be realised, full inclusion, participation, and sexual citizenship for people with disabilities to be achieved.


Carew, M., Rohleder, P., Chiwaula, M., Braathen, S. H., Hunt, X., & Swartz, L. (2016). The myth of asexuality? Disability stigma as a barrier to sexual relationships in South Africa: Literature review. Literature review prepared for the Federation of Applied Disability Research. (

Carew, M., Braathen, S., Swartz, L., Hunt, X., & Rohleder, P. (2017). The sexual lives of people with disabilities within low- and middle-income countries: A scoping study of studies published in English. Global Health Action, 10:1, 1337342. Available as Open Access:

Hunt, X., Carew, M., Braathen, S.H., Swartz, L., Chiwaula, M., & Rohleder, P. (2017). The sexual and reproductive rights and benefit derived from sexual and reproductive health services of people with physical disabilities in South Africa: beliefs of non-disabled people. Reproductive Health Matters 25:50, 66-79. Available as Open Access:

Hunt, X., Swartz, L., Carew, M., Braathen, S., Chiwaula, M., & Rohleder, P. (2018). Dating persons with physical disabilities: the perceptions of South Africans without disabilities.  Culture, Health & Sexuality, 20(2), 141-155.


More details about the authors:

Poul Rohleder (University of East London, UK)

Xantha Hunt (Stellenbosch University)

Leslie Swartz (Stellenbosch University)

How do men’s magazine talk about penises?

As February begins we in the ISCHP website editing office, look to our next interesting article. The following was produced by Craig Owen and Christine Campbell following a pecha kucha presented at ISCHP’s 2017 conference. Dee and Neda.

In this blog post, Craig Owen and Christine Campbell showcase their recently published research which won the prize for best Pecha Kucha presentation at the 2017 ISCHP conference (1).

This is an adaptation of the paper presented and that can be readily viewed on You Tube.

Constructions of masculinity have shifted and changed but the central role of the penis has remained firm. Indeed, the very word ‘manhood’ is synonymous with both masculinity and the penis.

Twenty years ago most traditional men were comfortable not talking about the penis, but since then there has been an explosion of media representations of penises. In turn, research suggests men’s fears about their penises are constantly expanding. Where once size was the only salient factor, men are increasingly being directed to concern themselves with the aesthetics of their genitals: shape, proportions, and pubic hair topiary. Men’s magazines play a crucial role here, acting as cultural signposts, telling men how they should feel about their penises and their masculinity.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Health Psychology, we analysed the representations of penises in four of the most popular UK men’s magazines – GQ, Loaded, Attitude and Men’s Health. We found two prominent discourses across the four publications which we termed ‘laddish’ and ‘medicalised’. Laddish discourses built the penis up by celebrating and giggling at large and detailed phallic images and worshiping at the altar of well endowed ‘celebrity swordsmen’. Medicalised discourses seemed to offer a critique of laddish standards, promoting a more serious ‘scientific’ approach that challenged the ideal of a big penis. But this was not as radical as it first appeared. The aspirational goal of having a large penis was replaced by the ideal of a beautiful one. Both discourses increase fears by putting pressure on men to meet particular standards and by highlighting extreme examples of traumatised, mutilated and non-functioning penises.

Ultimate, then, men’s magazines continue to reproduce age-old fears that men’s masculinities are bound up with the achievements and failures of their penises, but present these fears in new, repackaged ways. For sexual health practitioners and health psychologists working closely with boys and men, an understanding of the dominant media representations that males are exposed to in these mainstream media publications will be valuable when structuring interventions, therapies and sex-education classes.


(1) The original pecha kucha that was presented at ISCHP’s conference in 2017 can be viewed at

How sport and exercise helps veterans heal – and how it can do it better

To open 2018 we have a critical piece exploring research, interventions and mainstream narratives within Western cultures surrounding sport, exercise and war veterans. UK-based Nick Caddick critiques and overviews the current state of knowledge and approach to treatment of veterans, and follows this up with some innovative suggestions on how to move things forward at an individual and societal level in order to facilitate veterans’ healing and wellbeing. Thanks for reading and happy new year. (Dee Lister and Neda Mahmoodi, your ISCHP Website and Blog Editors)

By Nick Caddick (

There’s a new story unfolding about how veterans are healing from the physical and psychological damage of war. Or rather, a new chapter in an older story. The birth of Paralympic sport over 60 years ago was stimulated by the need to rehabilitate wounded Servicemen. And the evidence suggests it had many rehabilitative benefits. Today, the use of sporting and other pursuits – surfing, sailing, fishing, skiing, archaeology, and the recent Invictus phenomenon, to name but a few – is expanding as a means of supporting veterans.

These activities have started to take hold as an approach to helping veterans deal with “PTSD”; the medicalised, disorder-focused label by which we denote what can be more simply understood as the psychological turmoil that sometimes follows encounters with deeply scarring and frightful situations. Healing for physical injuries – most notably in the case of war amputation – also increasingly follows a sports-based model of recovery.

A large network of military charities has been at the forefront of this ‘alternative’ approach to helping veterans. These charities have been well-funded – at least during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and have supplied the British public with no shortage of stories about veterans overcoming their disabilities through medal-winning competition, or battling the demons that haunt them.

One question to pose is why some veterans are turning to sport and exercise – and other ‘non-medical’ approaches – to help them deal with the traumas of war? And, similarly, what are they finding in such approaches that they do not get from the clinical therapies often favoured as the ‘gold standard’ treatments?

I recently reviewed a mounting body of evidence regarding the impact of sport and exercise-based approaches to helping veterans. This included benefits that were integral to the activities, such as the restorative psychological benefits of being active in nature, and those that were more incidental, such as the powerful dynamics of peer support and challenging mental health stigma through a ‘positive’ and ‘proactive’ method of dealing with issues. The benefits are real, wide-ranging, and call out to be acknowledged.

Contestation and control

Yet, in what Herman and Yarwood1 refer to as the “politicised terrain of post-transition welfare”, such findings are sometimes contested. Psychiatry, for example, tells a different story; that only the NICE-approved clinical therapies are fully supported by evidence and should be used to help veterans, particularly with regard to mental ill-health. This is a powerful story – with the weight of medical scientific discourse behind it – and it tends to push other voices to the margins. And being marginalised hurts the pockets of the smaller charities providing these ‘alternative’ approaches to supporting veterans.

So, we have arrived at a situation whereby it is in the interests of charities to shout loudest that ‘their’ approach works best or has the best outcomes. The clinical approaches do, of course, work for some, but even here the evidence is sometimes overstated. In the crowded space of the military third sector, with strong competition for control of resources and authority, overstatement of evidence is a problem which sometimes leads on to proselytizing and to over-dramatized stories of veterans’ heroic transformations. A more sober assessment of evidence, without the inflated patriotism, heroism, and ubiquitous ‘inspiration’ is certainly needed.

Doing things better

The evidence does suggest that sport, exercise and a range of other pursuits can be meaningfully beneficial to veterans in dealing with physical injury and psychological suffering. I wish to suggest three ways in which this can be done better.

A balanced assessment

Just like the clinical approaches, sports and other activities are no panacea for recovery in mental ill-health or for transformational physical rehabilitation. Each approach has its benefits and its limitations, and these need to be acknowledged. For instance, when someone is in the darkest depths of depression, it can take an enormous effort of the will simply to rouse the energy to face the day, let alone force oneself into a freezing wetsuit and go surfing. Yet, for the veterans with whom I worked at charity Surf Action, surfing was something that made life worth living in the aftermath of war. That’s a powerful story, and it calls out for our attention and respect. But we must also be mindful not to oversell the message. Further research is needed to broaden the evidence base for a range of activities; a case I set out in detail in my recent article.

Drop the populism

The messages surrounding veterans’ participation in sports events and other activities often promote uncritically a populist discourse of military heroism. The message, amplified by the media, is that of ‘our’ brave and heroic soldiers inspiring the nation by continuing a personal fight away from the battlefield. Similar to how the ‘support the troops’ discourse worked during Iraq and Afghanistan to obfuscate criticism of these wars, the populist message can be seen as one way of excusing governments of responsibility for veterans’ injuries and illnesses by focusing instead on their triumph and redemption. Moreover, the populist discourse too easily traps veterans in a story of dramatically ‘overcoming’ illness and injury. The danger is that this doesn’t allow veterans to become civilians, or even just ordinary people, in the same way Paralympic sport sometimes positions athletes in the exclusionary identity of ‘super-crips’. We need to promote the benefits of sporting and other pursuits without the ‘inspirational’ populist messages. Doing so might better enable the charities to focus on a common purpose of supporting veterans in transitioning to healthy and productive civilian lives.

Take the long view

Sport can be a powerful tool for recovery, as Prince Harry has argued in relation to Invictus. But we also need to look well beyond the initial ‘post-transition’ phase of rehabilitation and support. Veterans’ long-term future in civilian life may well be served better by funnelling resources into their education and career development, for instance. My latest research with colleagues from Northumbria University explores the narratives of older limbless veterans in relation to the challenges of ageing with limb-loss. For these veterans, years of wear and tear on their remaining limbs – along with comorbidities such as arthritis and low back pain – create an ongoing struggle to maintain a sense of independence. As well as a ‘get on with it’ approach to dealing with pain and hardship, these veterans stressed the need for more mundane yet purposeful activity – photography was a popular one – to keep them engaged and provide structure to their daily lives. Also highlighted was the importance of a telling a positive career story post-injury; something that brought a sense of continuity to their post-injury lives. There are, therefore, other things besides glamorous and well-publicised sporting opportunities to consider in terms of rehabilitation and recovery.

There are finite resources – shrinking resources, now there is no war on – for supporting veteran communities. It matters how we use them. Sport, exercise, and various other pursuits clearly have a role to play. It’s time to consider how we can make that sustainable.

1Herman, A., & Yarwood, R. (2015; p. 2640). From warfare to welfare: veterans, military charities and the blurred spatiality of post-service welfare in the United Kingdom. Environment and Planning A, 47,

Davina Cooper keynote – ISCHP conference 2017 (Loughborough, UK)

Can you believe it has been nearly 6 months since ISCHP’s bi-annual UK conference! In this blog post is a recording of one of the fantastic conference keynotes. We hope you enjoy the last post of the year, which is a recording of Davina Cooper’s keynote ‘Prefigurative Concepts: Thinking from Unlikely Places’ presented on Wednesday 11th July 2017 (approximately 55 minutes).

Causing stigma by highlighting stigma? A lesson from Twitter

Russell Delderfield in the following blog post explores and problematises the issue of stigma and eating disorders, within the context of exchanges he had on the social media site Twitter. 

Russell D pic

Image by frankieleon (Creative Commons License) 

I have recently had the wind knocked out of my post-PhD prideful sails. I studied male eating disorders using qualitative approaches for my doctorate.

The issue of stigma arises constantly in the research I read and conduct. It feels as if there is no avoiding it. It is pervasive and un-ignorable. I cannot possibly ‘choose’ to set it aside and not engage with it. Yet, when it appears in psychological publications, the treatment of it (within my field, at least) is dissatisfying. The inferences seem to start from a hefty assumption: that ‘stigma’ is a coherent, unified ‘thing’. And more importantly, that it either exists – or doesn’t. In addition, there is a kind of unwritten imperative that I experience. This asserts that mining the data for its evidence about stigma and presenting this to the world is a good thing; it helps to hold it up to the light for further keen observation. And this is where our dilemma begins.

Let me backtrack and fill in some gaps at this point. Whilst I qualitatively explore  men’s experiences with eating disorder, I’m not entirely alone. There are other clinicians, psychologists and psychiatrists who investigate  male disordered eating. A small number of studies have been published that try to improve our understanding using qualitative methods (I count 6 in my collection, thus far). Although I do not profess to specifically examine stigma in male eating disorders (my interest is broader than this alone), some of my participants share stigma they encounter.

During my PhD, I wanted to address the cursory and superficial coverage of stigma that I perceived in other work. So, I did something that no other person has done (at least to my knowledge) within my field. I did not simply report on the existence of stigma and select some careful quotes from the data to illuminate what men had been through, I took the study of a couple of men’s experiences back to its ‘roots’, with a Bordo-esque exploration of what this stigma meant to these men. I explored stigma through the lens of spoiled identity. I asked, ‘What does it mean to the man to live with stigma?’, ‘What does the experience of stigma mean for a man’s masculine identity?’, and ‘What does the avoidance of stigma mean for a man’s masculine identity?’

This, for me, emulated the ethos of feminist eating disorder work where there is an established history of women and researchers sharing their stories of ‘spoiled’ identity, objectified womanhood and the meanings of what it is to be an anorexic, bulimic or binge-eating woman. I formulated a useful exposition of what spoiled masculinities mean and feel like for men living with an eating disorder. This went beyond simply saying ‘men report they experience stigma and here’s an example of the stigma they had to deal with.’ Finally, I was satisfied. This laudable and novel achievement was a source of pride. Job done (at least for now, I’m not naïve enough to believe that qualitative work is finite).

Well that was then, and this is now. Over the summer a fellow researcher tweeted about a BBC News report that asked why men who have eating disorders keep it a secret. I was straight on the case. I retweeted with my usual ‘awareness-raising-challenge-the-stigma’ gusto. In a painfully cropped 140 words, I said that stigma is one reason that men do not speak out. I tweeted that I knew this due to my qualitative research with the men themselves. I encouraged others to face-down this stigma that can be so debilitating.

And I was challenged in turn. One of the men who has an eating disorder, who follows my research on Twitter, contacted me to raise something that I had not thought of before. In my positively proselytising mission to campaign against the damaging effects of stigma (important as I still believe it is), I had overlooked something. One tweet was all it took:

twitter“I sometimes wonder if (only) talking about how men with EDs feel stigmatised teaches men with EDs that they should feel stigmatised…”

I was floored – both as a man with an eating disorder and a researcher.

I wonder how many men feel similarly? I wonder if it is true that holding a mirror to the nature and effects of stigma simply serves to perpetuate it? In my empowered role as researcher I had overlooked something that, once said, seems so obvious. How could I not have thought about this before? Am I part of the problem, instead of being one among many cogs of the solution?

I didn’t despair for long. My interlocutor and I had a thought-provoking exchange of views. I learnt something extremely valuable. This is the very substance of what critical psychology embraces: it acknowledges the fallibility of research because it is carried out by humans about humans for humans. It challenges the monadic perspective of psychology and the monolithic nature of published research studies.   In many ways, the fact that people actually respond to my research on Twitter, rather than just passively consuming it, means that my work finds meaning somewhere. Talking about my research findings with the public leads to dialogue and a shared understanding of my single researcher experience.

However, I’m still left with a dilemma. I accept the proposition in the tweet but I do not have an answer as to how do we erode the deleterious effects of stigma, if we do not highlight the concept and the role it purportedly plays in preventing men from getting help. As a researcher, I must make sense of the potential consequences of my findings. Is uncomplicated campaigning for improvement unequivocally beneficent? I thought so, but I don’t anymore. I set out to redress the lack of complexity in male eating disorders research when it comes to stigma (amongst many other things). In turn, this bred further complexity because it created an unforeseen conversation.

Unforeseen, but not unwelcome: it’s a lesson that I appreciated learning.

Dr Russell Delderfield
University of Bradford

‘You are enough’

Andrea La Marre in this blog post reflects upon her experiences of speaking in a community setting to a group of young people on the topic of bodies and body image. 

I go to a lot of conferences. This summer I did the grueling three-conference circuit including QMiP, ISCHP, and POWs. Over the course of nine days, I spoke to some brilliant academics about my work, and learned a lot. I love going to conferences; oddly, I’ve come to love public speaking.

As much as I love conferences, however, I have been trying to break away from speaking only or primarily in academic settings. My focus is turning to ways to speak to people who I might never otherwise interact with.


Like, say… a group of Girl Guide Pathfinders.


A few weeks ago, I delivered a talk about growing up in a body-obsessed world to a group of community members. I had no idea that the audience would be mostly teenage girls, but I couldn’t have chosen a better crowd. It suddenly no longer mattered that my methods were verging on post-qualitative; my deep dives into Deleuze during the course of my dissertation seemed inconsequential in the face of a call to speak on a different level.


While I’m fairly new to the world of escaping academic-speak, I’m sure many of you are well familiar with this flip. With the need to distill messages that we’ve spent years crafting into elegant turns of theoretical phrase into digestible morsels. Not to dumb things down, but to make sure that our messages land.


So, what does one say to a group of teenagers who are, at this precise moment, growing up in a world that makes sure that many bodies don’t, and will never, fit? In a society that is racist, classist, ableist, ageist, and still—somehow, still—sexist?


I tried to make the message about more than aesthetic ideals, because the feeling of not fitting runs so much deeper than that. We don’t dislike our bodies only because we don’t think they are beautiful—though we often don’t. We dislike our bodies because we are also told they are not doing enough; that they are wrong and unwelcome. We are simultaneously made to feel like not enough and too much in this world. We are told that we need to continually strive for productivity. If we fail in our pursuit, we are not worthy citizens.


These messages seep in, and of course they land on our bodies. The world wants big things from us, while it simultaneously wants to keep us small. Reconciling those tensions is challenging when living in a world that keeps the surface level interest in the aesthetic value of bodies, the struggle for voice and representation materialize corporeally.


It felt important to me to talk about how systemic oppressions, like racism, classism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism all impact how we feel about our bodies with this group in particular because conversations about bodies with teens too often remain stuck at the level of media literacy debunking the thin ideal. And while debunking the thin ideal—and, increasingly, the fit ideal—is a worthy endeavor, media literacy is not immunity. I tried to highlight how even when we know we should not be swayed by the pull of aesthetic ideals, we may still feel crummy about ourselves at times.


Normalizing this experience is not about accepting the status quo—far from it. It is about recognizing that this sense of being ill at ease in one’s body does not stem only from not being a supermodel, but also from living in a world that constantly demands perfection and productivity, gives some people more than others, and then tells us it is our fault if we don’t succeed.


During this talk, it didn’t matter how I had analyzed my data; the teens didn’t care about methodological rigour or sample sizes. They cared about stories, and ways to move forward. One of the most poignant questions I was asked echoed a question I ask my participants in each interview: if you could go back and tell yourself something when you were struggling, what would you say?


I found this question really hard to answer; after all, who’s to say I’d have listened to the dorky grad student standing up at the front of the room? I chose a simple answer, which is much harder to feel: “You are enough, exactly as you are. You are not measured by how productive you are, how thin you are, or how health conscious. You are enough.”


I chose this not because I believe in some Polyanna-esque version of complete body peace or think that we can realize a society untethered from productivity discourses tomorrow, but because I believe it’s important that we start by believing that we are, truly, enough (and not too much). I chose it because whether or not I would have believed it is irrelevant. I chose it because I hope that it resonates with the audience—now, or 10 years from now. And I hope it is enough.  

Harnessing the power of new technologies – meme workshop at ISCHP 2017’s conference

In this blog post, Neda Mahmoodi adds a commentary following a workshop held by Neda and Glen Jankowski at the ISCHP conference this year in Loughborough, UK. This is an adaptation of the abstract submitted for the ISCHP conference. From this it is possible to get a taste of the workshop’s aims to illustrate the promise of doing research in engaging ways that use audio-visual textual forms. 

Meme 1

(Meme 1)

Time constraints, increasing job precarity, and a ‘publish or perish’ culture can lead many of us frustrated with the impact our research has. Traditionally, research and theoretical studies have been disseminated through articles published in journals, or via conferences presentations. Disturbingly, around 1.8 million journal articles were published in 2015 alone and yet it is estimated that only half of these were actually read (1). However, the rise of the internet, particularly social media, has broadened opportunities. In this year’s workshop sessions during the 10th Biennial ISCHP conference, Glen Jankowski and Neda Mahmoodi discussed some of the free and easy methods to disseminate research beyond traditional academic outputs, including the use of memes. A meme is a virally-transmitted cultural symbol, social idea or concept expressed in some form of content. It can be a photo, a video, a person, a fictional character, an event, a song, a belief, an action, a word or anything else. It’s social phenomenon of mass online sharing makes them ideal for a rapid dissemination of ideas in an open access way, and therefore one small step to putting our ‘work to work’.


(Meme 2)

During the conference workshop, attendees took part in a fun activity to ‘make a critical psychology related meme’ by captioning presented images. Examples created by workshop attendees includes Mariam Mousa’s (Auckland University of Technology) word art meme of the apple (meme 1) that taps into the theme of mental health and social media. Elizabeth Peel’s (Loughborough University) meme (meme 2) of the two wooden men explored the theme of taking a ‘hard’ line  when ‘processing’ knowledge in psychological and scientific research and theory.


The workshop also provided training in ‘how to make a podcast’. In pairs, attendees were given the opportunity to create a podcast by drafting their own interview questions and recording one another. This activity was described by attendees to be enjoyable and valued, with attendees stating that the activity showed how quick and simple it is to make and share a podcast, or a meme. Engaging in the activity gave attendees the confidence and skills to deviate from traditional methods of research outputs.



Earrings – and what they tell us about medicalisation

In this moving and personal blog post, Wendy Stainton-Rogers explores her experiences of the meaningful everyday practice of getting her ears pierced. Wendy connects this with her experience becoming, and remaining, the medical subject and object due to serious illness and disability.

Wendy for blog post pic (cropped) (1)

Three weeks ago I went into a jeweller’s shop in a busy shopping mall and got my ears pierced. It was on my ‘day out’ to celebrate my 71st birthday. Possibly a bit of a weird thing to do at my age, but not that big a deal surely? Actually, for me it was a very big deal. It was the first time in years that I had got something done to my body for a frivolous reason rather than for a medical one.

In 2011 during a biopsy to see if I had cancer, my bowel was accidently punctured and, a day or so later, I felt dreadful and my temperature skyrocketed, the alarm was called and I needed to have many hours of emergency surgery to deal with the septicaemia that had ensued. From that point on my life changed dramatically and I became highly medicalised. I was incredibly compromised, ill and weak and totally dependent. For several years after that, surgical catastrophes followed, one after another and my life became completely dominated by medical procedures. These ranged from the minor ones – such as regular ‘obs’ (observations – the taking of my temperature, blood pressure and pulse throughout the day and sometimes all night too), through constantly having routine cannulas fitted and being sent for all manner of Scans, X-Rays and Ultrasounds, to very invasive procedures, such as having a Hickman line fitted (more on this later). This powerful medicalisation of my body, my life and my consciousness was intensified in the weeks and days following  two further lengthy surgical procedures attempting to get rid of the cancer.  Each time I ended up in intensive and then critical care, linked up to a barrage of machines, with a dedicated nurse constantly looking after me.

As a health psychologist, ‘medicalisation’ is a word I had certainly read about and even written about, but it signified little to me of the enormous impact of what it can do to a person – that is, until I experienced it for myself. The days of horror are over (I hope!) but I am left disabled in some interesting ways, so my life is still dominated by medicalisation. The outcome of all that went wrong with my body is that my gut was destroyed and I have a condition called ‘total intestinal failure’. This means I have to have artificial food supplied through the Hickman Line – a tube that enters my body just at the top of my left breast and goes into my bloodstream near my heart.

Every night my line has to be ‘put up’; that is, attached to a ‘giving set’ (another tube that is joined up to a 3 litre bag of liquid food) via a pump, so that the food I need to keep me alive can be pumped into my body. The pumping takes about eleven hours. ‘Putting me up’ is a fine-tuned procedure that Robin (my husband and my carer) and I do together, following strict instructions to keep the line sterile (it took us three weeks in hospital to be trained to do this). An infection in the line is potentially lethal, and leads to immediate hospitalisation and what my GP calls ‘scary antibiotics’, so we are very vigilant to make sure we get it right.

These hours of food pumping rather mucks up your day! The eleven and a half hours of ‘putting up’, pumping and ‘taking down’ is an invariable constant that has to be built into my life. At first I spent all of the time in bed, but it’s much easier now that I have a smaller stand that is easier to manipulate. I can have my food pumped into me anywhere I can get it to so I don’t have to be in bed. At one conference I wheeled it into the bar, making life much more sociable.

This kind of intrusion into one’s time is one of the strongest downsides of being medicalised. It’s all too easy to talk blithely about people having procedures like, say, chemotherapy or renal dialysis and to not to properly realise the enormous impact the way in which it devours time for the person concerned. It is totally life-limiting and intrusive.

Medicalisation has many, many facets in addition to eating into time. Another is what it does to your identity. So – back to the earrings. They used, in the past, to be very much part of my ‘style’. I have a gargantuan collection of earrings – elegant ones to wear to job interviews, flamboyant ones for parties and dancing, deeply emotionally meaningful ones that I had been given to mark special days – the list goes on and on. But through all the horrors and tribulations of hospital treatment earrings were clearly not something I could wear, and even when I got home, for a long time I was just too weak and clumsy to get them in. So my piercings closed up, and for a long while I was so sensitised to the need to be sterile that I couldn’t contemplate having my ears pierced again for fear of infection. So my ‘birthday treat’ was, indeed, a really, extremely, fabulously and magnificently big deal. And now only a few more weeks to go and I can be as frivolous with my ears as I want. Hallelujah!

1 Picture kindly provided by Wendy Stainton-Rogers to accompany this blog post. 

Sun, strawberries, and social representations theory: ISCHP 2017

ISCHP has been kindly granted permission by Katie Bevans-Wright to re-post a piece of writing posted on July 16th 2017 after Katie attended this year’s ISCHP conference in Loughborough, UK. The original article can be found at

Katie blog post pic(1)

This week I attended my second International Society of Critical Health Psychology Conference – a good time for a first blog post!

It had been four years since my last ISCHP. Back then I was in the early days of my PhD research and the Bradford conference opened my eyes to a world of passionate critical health psychologists. I was very much looking forward to Loughborough 2017 and it certainly didn’t disappoint. From arriving on a sunny Sunday afternoon to a reception of bangers and mash, and strawberries and cream, to the final (and very inspirational) keynote on the Wednesday by Dave Harper the whole 3 days were just fantastic. Unlike many other conferences where I feel very much on the margins as a critical social psychologist, I feel at home at ISCHP. My impression of ISCHP is that it is a critical space through and through, embracing scholars from many different theoretical and methodologically orientations and addressing a HUGE range of social and health concerns. There appears to be an understanding across the board that the most popular way of doing things is not necessarily the best or most effective one.

Scanning through the conference programme was not a case of locating where ‘my kind of talks’ were on and when but instead (refreshingly) having to face tricky decisions about what to attend and what to miss out on. Two of this events themes (‘diversity and inclusivity’ and ‘ageing’) summed up much of my research and interests, adding to dilemmas over which talks to attend. I thoroughly enjoyed talks on ageing and issues such as social inclusion, physical activity and sexual health. Many of the diversity and inclusivity talks touched upon the challenges of conducting good quality, ethical co-produced research with ‘disadvantaged’ or marginalised communities – these were most definitely relatable.

Presenting in one of two symposia on the theory of social representations was a personal highlight. For me this was an opportunity to position my work in the context of this fascinating and evolving theoretical framework. Between the two symposia, eight scholars (including colleagues at Keele: Michael Murray and Jenny Taylor) presented research on innovations in theory and methodology. It was inspiring to see SRT used to underpin novel methodologies such as film analysis and also to see people exploring different theoretical combinations to better understand social issues.

I came away from ISCHP 2017 feeling inspired, energised and motivated to crack on with the paper I’m currently working on! On top of that I met many friendly like-minded academics who I hope to cross paths with in the future. Already looking forward to ISCHP 2019!


1 Katie Wright-Bevans kindly gave permission for the picture to be republished on ISCHP’s website to accompany this blog post. 

For more information about ISCHP 2017’s successful conference in the UK the reader may wish to see the ‘Past conferences’ page of this website.

Telling tales of gendered bodies: Professor Virginia Braun’s Inaugral

Renowned feminist academic Virginia Braun recently gave her inaugral lecture: “Telling tales of gendered bodies: A personal and political reflection on critical scholarship in Trumped-up times” or the alternative title: “Trump Stole My Ontology”.

Not only is Virginia Braun lauded for her feminist work but also for her methodological innovation. Along with Victoria Clarke (see below), Professor Braun is the co-author of one of the most cited papers in psychology (an accessible guide to thematic analysis) and the co-author of Successful Qualitative Research

You can listen to her inaugural below and find out more about her here.

Alternative link to Inaugral:

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Professor Virginia Braun (L) and her long time collaborator and friend Dr Victoria Clarkecit

The 10th Biennial Conference at Loughborough University, UK: A view from the Conference Chair

~Elizabeth Peel / @profpeel

When the sunny 9 July 2017 opening of ISCHP2017 came around, featuring the book launch of the Critical Approaches to Health book series, and poetry from local BME and men’s mental health group Showcase Smoothie (and local ales, pies and strawberries and cream!) it seemed like only yesterday I was discussing putative themes and keynotes with the ISCHP Committee in front of a log fire in Grahamstown, South Africa two years previously.

We were delighted to host ISCHP2017 at Loughborough and welcome 120 delegates from 24 different countries to the campus. While the parallel streams focused on the conference themes of ageing, diversity and inclusivity, mental health, and innovations in critical theory and method contained excellent critical scholarship, for me it was the plenary sessions (and the ceilidh!) that made the conference.

There was a series of excellent ‘mystery’ provocative five-minute challenges namely:

  • Are we working within silos of knowledge? (Poul Rohleder);
  • Considering our discipline’s footprint in addressing global health issues (Britta Wigginton);
  • Is critical psychology still relevant in a ‘post-truth’ era? (Adam Jowett).

And the cryptically entitled:

  • Why are we talking about …. again? (Anthea Lesch);
  • The biggest lie on the Internet (Ally Gibson);
  • actuALLY (Brett Scholz);
  • Optimism (Andrea Lamarre); and
  • An honour of which I am very sensible (Glen Jankowski)

We had six excellent pre-conference workshops. I attended Neda Mahmoodi and Glen Jankowski’s practical session in which we developed impromptu memes and podcasts. Other workshops covered visualising health and illness (Ally Gibson & Andrea LaMarre), multi-media storytelling (Elisabeth Harrison & Carla Rice), using photography (Periklis Papaloukas & Iain Williamson), qualitative research (Wendy Stainton-Rogers & Carla Willig) and conversation analysis (Marco Pino & Charles Antaki). Wider aspects of the conference programme included a very interesting film and a photography display, both very well received.

The four keynote speakers – Ama de-Graft Aikins, Antonia Lyons, Davina Cooper and Dave Harper – did a really excellent job of stimulating thought and discussion around the important topics of Africa’s chronic illness burden, youth drinking cultures, prefigurative concepts, and public mental health respectively. The pecha kucha presentations were diverse and of a very high standard. I’d encourage those already planning (?!) for ISCHP2019 to consider the plenary formats of pecha kucha and five-minute challenge as their submission format of choice: not only do they capture the audience; but you capture a wider audience too. Here you can revisit the full programme_and the book of abstracts.

 No conference is complete without dancing and prizes! Our heart rates were impressively raised at the post-Gala dinner ceilidh and book/Routledge book voucher prizes were awarded to the following:

  • Student presentation: Sarah Gillborn (Leeds Beckett University)
  • Poster: Ian Williamson (De Montfort University)
  • Pecha kucha: Craig Owen (St Marys University)
  • 5 minute challenge: Harriet Gross (University of Lincoln)
  • Social media contributions: Andrea Lamarre (University of Guelph)
  • Most enthusiastic ceilidh dancer: Glen Jankowski (Leeds Beckett University)

Mine is just one perspective on the conference and there will be many others. As a community is needed to raise a child, so too is one needed to organize a conference, and my thanks go out again to all the conference planning committee, Sue White and other Loughborough team members Kathrina Connabeer, Carolyn Plateau, Laura Thompson and Gemma Witcomb. Psychology technician Peter Beaman popped over at late notice to take this great set of photographs for posterity, enjoy!


Last but not least, please do complete the conference feedback form – a really helpful thing to do, and useful for the team who takes on ISCHP2019.


1 day left to submit oral presentations for ISCHP17

Tomorrow, 10th March 2017, is the final day for submitting your abstracts for oral presentation formats for our conference – ISCHP 2017 in Loughborough.

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You can select from a range of oral presentation formats – pecha kucha (20 visual slides), 5-minute challenge presentations, or the classic oral presentation (10 minutes plus 5 minutes for questions). Symposia of three or four talks are also still open. Abstracts for these oral presentation formats are all due by the end of this Friday (10th March) UK time. Abstracts must be submitted using the forms available at and sent by email to the conference email address ( Abstracts must be a maximum of 250 words with no subheadings or references.


Only ePoster abstracts will be accepted after 10th March (until the final poster abstract deadline of 1st April). Posters will be displayed throughout the conference and are a great opportunity to bring along work you’ve been involved with if your collaborators cannot attend, or for students to attend with late-breaking research.

Registration is open at (early bird deadline: 30th April 2017).

‘Autism has never caused me any pain – but the stigma has’: Interview with Julie Dachez

~By Andrea LaMarre

This blog post takes the form of an interview with recent social psychology PhD graduate, Julie Dachez. Julie was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at the age of 27 and has been an activist ever since. She has just earned a doctoral degree in Social Psychology (“Another way of looking at autism: a psychosocial approach”). She is the author of the blog and of the graphic novel “La différence invisible”. She holds conferences all around France about autism and the pathologising of difference and has recently been named personality of the year by a french newspaper. Andrea interviewed Julie by email over the course of December about the experience of doing critical research on Aspergers in an environment not always open to critical perspectives.


Image from The Medical Model of Disability:

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ProfFile: Wendy Stainton-Rogers

This is the third in our new series ProfFile: informal interviews with leading or under recognized critical health psychologists. This month’s ProfFile is with Professor Wendy Stainton-Rogers, who is based in Yorkshire, UK.  A key organizer of ISCHP, Wendy has blazed a trail for many of us working in critical health, social and feminist psychology. For previous ProfFiles see here and here

Wendy at the Psychology of Women Section Conference, UK, July 2016. Image credit: Dee Lister. For more pics that Dee took at the POWS conference see her Flickr page

What is your current position?

I’m now retired but still a ‘Professor Emerita’ at the Open University in the UK. However, it’s rather more complicated than that.

Less than a month after my retirement in September 2011 I had to have a biopsy to see if I had developed cancer. This small procedure went catastrophically wrong and I was very ill for several years with the aftermath. As I write, five years later, yes I do have cancer, but not the aggressive one first diagnosed. It affects me but I am much recovered from what happened (more surgical catastrophes and two periods of acute starvation). Over this time I had most of my gut removed (hence the malnutrition). So these days I am IV fed by tube, pumped in for 11 hours overnight. I can’t eat at all, but can cook, so all is not lost.

It was what you might call a severe case of participant-observer experience! I have been encouraged to write about it, and maybe I will, given time. In sociological terms,  these days I’m a bit of a cyborg with a tube sticking out of me and have a Klingon carapace stuck on my abdomen, so I do see myself as very alien and disfigured.  Becoming disabled has been a truly salutary experience. I am out of a wheelchair now but have an intimate knowledge of the bowels of Leeds Beckett university’s (in Leeds, UK) rather laberynthine arrangements for access.

The good news is that I am getting better and now active academically once again. This year I’ve been to some seminars and the British Psychological Society’s Psychology of Women Section (POWS) conference, and am currently working hard on editing the second edition of the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology, together with Carla Willig. I’m keenly looking forward to attending the ISCHP conference in 2017, and even thinking of making some kind of contribution.

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Taking stock: Gearing up for ISCHP 2017

~Glen Jankowski, site co-editor

Being critical in a neoliberal discipline can often feel exhausting. We’re fighting an uphill battle and it can seem like little progress has been made, especially when we look at how long we’ve been fighting it.

Go back to 1987 for instance when the gods of discourse analysis, Jonathon Potter and Margaret Wetherell (1987, p. 174) tried to address the need to get out of the ivory tower in psychology in their book on discourse analysis:

We feel that researchers should pay considerably more attention to the practical use of their work over and above the amassing of research findings and the furtherance of careers…the image of a benign body of practitioners waiting to read the journals of pure scientists and put research findings into practice is heartwarming but unrealistic”.


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