Career File: Andrea LaMarre

Andrea LaMarre recently defended her PhD, which explored experiences of eating disorder recovery from the perspective of people in recovery and their supporters. She is now working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact at the University of Waterloo, and continuing to build community in the arts and social justice spheres.

Andrea Lamarre

What is your current position?

I recently defended my PhD at the University of Guelph in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition. I am now starting an exciting postdoctoral fellowship at the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact at the University of Waterloo. I am also continuing to work as a collaborator on a large grant under the directorship of Dr. Carla Rice, Bodies in Translation: Activist Art, Technology, and Access to Life, including some research exploring “relaxed performance” approaches to theatre with the British Council of Canada. I am also a facilitator for the organization Art with Impact, where I will be running workshops that aim to break down mental health stigma using film.

Could you say a bit about your career trajectory so far?

When I started university, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I was a closet feminist, but not very confident in being critical. My undergraduate degree was interrupted by getting very unwell and dropping out of school in order to seek mental health treatment—this changed my course 180 degrees. I returned to school at a different university the following year to pursue sociology. I met my now-advisor, Dr. Carla Rice, the next year when I was trying to figure out what to do next. I was interested in making meaning of my experiences with an eating disorder (we can complicate that language, but this is what I was labelled with!) and Carla had just come to the University of Guelph; I saw a profile of hers in the University newsfeed, and saw that she researched body image and women’s health. We met and it was clear to me that she would be a wonderful advisor, so I applied to do my Masters under her advisorship. Little did I know how well this would work out for us! I worked with Carla on both my Masters and my PhD. I am now embarking on a new journey into public health for my post-doc; I will be working at a population health centre at the University of Waterloo that has a strong focus on community engagement and health equity. In order to keep a foot in the world of impactful artistic-social science collaborations, I am continuing to work on a project with the British Council of Canada that investigates how theatre can be made more accessible.

How did you get to be where you are today?

Luck, good timing, perseverance, and passion. I am unreasonably persistent in applying for funding and shopping my articles out for publication. As it turns out, this is a requirement for academic success in the neoliberal university. As time went on, I also developed some amazing collaborations, which have been absolutely key in sustaining the work I do, as well as making sure that I don’t get ground down by the system.

When did you decide to be an academic? What was it that prompted this decision?

I’m not sure that I ever really did! At this stage in my career, I am finding that I have to be open to the possibility that I may not secure an academic position. I am imagining places and spaces that will allow me to continue to do the research, writing, and teaching that I love without necessarily being in the academy as a tenure-track professor. So, more than deciding to be an academic, I suppose I decided to pursue research that is community-engaged and will make a difference to those most impacted by whatever I’m researching (so far, mostly eating disorders, but it is early in my career) when I saw the impact that this work can have for people—when participants told me that participating in research was meaningful, when I got to speak to government officials about making policy change, when communities responded favourably to my presentations and writing. I decided to pursue teaching when students told me that they discovered something new about themselves when they took my course, and when I saw transformations in how they were seeing and thinking about the world in their work.

What are the biggest challenges/ barriers you have faced so far in doing your work (e.g. job precarity, publications, time constraints)?

The most obvious at this particular moment is the inability to find a full time, permanent post, despite having “done everything right.” I have publications, presentations, teaching experience, and passion… but there are too few jobs to go around and many amazing, talented, and qualified applicants. This is doubly challenging, I find, because I would rather be collaborating with the other early-career academics applying for the same limited jobs than competing with them. There is also always that feeling of needing to do more but not having enough hours in the day, but I don’t know that this is a unique-to-academia issue. There is certainly a blurring of the personal and professional worlds, and time, that happens quite a bit in academia and that I find challenging.

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

I found out about ISCHP through my advisor, Dr. Carla Rice. She invited me to present on a panel at the 2013 conference in Bradford, which was my first international conference. I found the community incredibly welcoming and was intellectually inspired at the conference.

What makes you critical of mainstream psychology worldwide?

I often feel that the reliance on mainstream models hinges on this need to be taken seriously in a world that demands “evidence bases” for everything. This doesn’t often lead to a compassionate way of inhabiting and relating to different bodies. I am critical of mainstream psychology because of its roots in categorizing and classifying this difference as problem, as abnormal, as wrong, and its concurrent insistence on cure. I am especially critical because this history tends to be erased in its reproduction, and so the issues of marginalization and oppression it engenders.

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

To plug my advisor, Dr. Carla Rice’s book, Becoming Women (2014) offers a fantastic alternative perspective to mainstream psychological ways of looking at and understanding embodiment. I have found that my students respond well to Anne McClintock’s Double Crossings: Madness, Sexuality, and Imperialism to understand those problematic histories of seeking out and labelling difference under colonialism. One of my favourite articles is not directly health psychology related, but has helped students to explore culture in a more intersectional way: Uma Narayan (2000) Undoing the “package picture” of cultures. Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 25 (4), 1083-1086. More explicitly critical health psychology related is the book Critical psychology: An introduction (1999) by Fox & Prilleltensky, (Eds.). – a bit dated, but the chapter Abnormal and clinical psychology: The politics of madness by Hare-Mustin & Marecek in particular still resonates.

What advice would/do you give to other critical psychology academics?

I’m not sure I’m in much of a position to offer advice, but I think the main thing would be to find people who you can work with and who share your passions. Collaborations have really been key for me.

What are you currently working on (research or books)?

I just finished my PhD, which was about the experiences of people in recovery from eating disorders and their chosen supporters. I interviewed 20 people who had experienced distress around food, weight, and shape and who were doing significantly better. They chose supporters; I ended up interviewing 14 supporters, which helps to illustrate how people experiencing this kind of distress do not always have the support they need. I also made digital stories (short, 3-5 min, first person films made collaboratively with participants) with 5 participants, and screened these with healthcare providers to see if they impacted how they thought about recovery. The project was underscored by a critical feminist theoretical framework, looking at how power flows through the recovery “assemblage” – so, the set of relationships, institutions, labels, people, and things that impact who is seen as legitimately recovered and what this recovery looks like. Now, I am working my 300-page dissertation (no one reined me in) into a series of articles. At the same time, I am exploring the product and process of my dissertation work in dance form, creating an original choreographic piece. I am involved in another big project that recently wrapped up about weight stigma in reproductive healthcare, for which we are working through publications and digital story screenings. Now, I’m beginning to broaden my horizons toward public health, and am already seeing interesting parallels between my new work on public health evaluation capacity and some of the work I’ve done on the need for systems-level change in healthcare.

Given limited time and resources, what research study would you most like to conduct?

None of these are particularly appealing from a funding standpoint, but I have three studies I am dreaming up. The first involves looking at how mental health technologies have been used to download responsibility for health, including eating disorder recovery, onto individuals. I want to understand the lived experience of having this responsibility for recovery. In some ways I imagine these apps as helpful in barrier reduction, but they also play into this neoliberal, individualizing perspective on health. I would also love to conduct a study on weight and other kinds of stigma within the eating disorders community. One would imagine that those treating and researching eating disorders would have a perspective that complicates some of the mainstream “anti-obesity” rhetoric that does harm to so many, but we don’t see that playing out. In the mainstream eating disorders community, those who are multiply marginalized often face significant barriers. I’m also intrigued by how eating disorder recovery and reproductive health discourses intersect, so that’s a study I’m working up right now—looking at how people in recovery (who are generally assumed to be women) often have to “prove” their recovery in many ways, including the restoration of menses. I’m generally fascinated with taking a critical perspective on that which is generally framed as biomedical—looking at the power that flows through that frame.

And lastly, making reference to critical health psychology research and theory contrast and compare the following: dogs and cats.

Dogs tend to occupy a position of power in mainstream society; however, cats have recently come to dominate the academic landscape as pets-of-choice. We might interrogate, however, the question of whether cats have known themselves to be dominant for years and are content to be quietly superior. In mainstream psychological discourse, cats might be framed as narcissists. As a critical health psychologist, I prefer to accept the differences between cats and dogs as demonstrating their unique strengths.

Marketing ‘childhood obesity’ and ‘health’

By Darren Powell 

It seems like not a day goes by when I read or hear about ‘junk food’ marketing and the effect this is having on ‘childhood obesity’. The dominant narrative tends to go like this: ‘Children today are too fat. Children’s over consumption of junk food is the main cause. The marketing of junk food is a significant part of the problem. Removing junk food marketing is an obvious solution.’

A number of countries across the Global North (such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand) have introduced regulatory controls on food and drink marketing that relates to ‘junk food’ – products deemed too high in fat, sugar and salt (also known as HFSS). (And when I say regulatory controls, in most cases this means self-regulation by the advertising industry.)

These controls take many forms, but often includes commitments by corporations and their advertisers to not advertise HFSS food or drink during children’s television programmes, not use brand generated characters (e.g. Ronald McDonald) or licensed TV/film characters (e.g. Dora the Explorer) on HFSS marketing, and not sponsor children’s sport with HFSS products.

Despite this now being a ‘common-sense’ approach to solving the ‘childhood obesity crisis’, I am not convinced that this will be healthy for children, fat or otherwise. My concern is that the demonization and pathologization of both ‘junk food’ advertisements and fat children, combined with the recent turn to regulating ‘junk food’ marketing to children, may have unhealthy consequences for children.

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Stricter regulatory controls (or at least the threat of stricter regulations) and the public backlash against ‘junk food’ advertising has created a new opportunity for corporations and their advertisers: marketing healthy products and healthy lifestyles to children.

Indeed, it seems as though anti-obesity campaigners and politicians are fully onboard with the idea that replacing ‘unhealthy’ marketing with ‘healthy’ marketing is inherently healthy; that using the same marketing strategies as before (e.g. brand mascots, TV advertisements, sport sponsorship), but now to promote fruit, vegetables, milk, physical activity and healthy lifestyles, is widely positioned as a simple solution to children’s fat bodies and allegedly unhealthy behaviours. What is rarely critiqued though is the ways in which these so-called healthy marketing practices may impact children’s health knowledge, health practices, and health identities in potentially unhealthy ways.

We must first recognise that the term ‘health’ is not one thing for all people. Western views of health tend to privilege biomedical science, individualism, and the non-fat body. This narrow notion of health is also at play in the marketing of health to children, where advertising is positioned as only being unhealthy because it promotes a particular sort of food that ‘will’ make children fat or fatter. It is not the only perspective of health though.

In the New Zealand context, for instance, a unidimensional focus on tinana (physical dimension) as a main indicator of healthy food and healthy bodies does not align well with Māori perspectives of health and wellbeing that may also encompass wairua (spiritual), hinengaro (mental and emotional), and whānau (close and wider family), as well as te whenua (the land, identity and belonging), te reo (language), te taiao (the environment) and whanaungatanga (extended family and relationships).

For instance, from a physical health and ‘healthy marketing’ perspective, bananas may be considered healthy (not necessarily for all children though). However, as journalist Tess McClure reported, workers on banana plantations in the Philippines were “forced to work 18 hour days, paid as little as 30 cents per hour, constantly exposed to toxic chemicals, and threatened with violence or death when they campaign for better conditions.”[1] If a child’s understanding of health is inextricably interconnected with multiple elements, such as the ethical production of food, bananas may actually be unhealthy.

In short, when policymakers and other stakeholder deem that health is primarily individualistic and physical, what is healthy for ‘others’ is ignored or even subjugated.

Furthermore, this current shift to ‘healthy’ marketing may also silence strong arguments that all advertising and marketing – whether for food, toys, or clothes– is potentially ‘unhealthy’ for children.

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A number of critics of the ‘corporate assault’ on children share a concern that as children are increasingly targeted as consumers, their experiences of childhood may be diminished. How children see themselves and others in terms of class, culture, gender, sexuality, health and worth are being re-shaped by advertising; their identities re-aligned with the goals of neoliberalism, capitalism and corporations. The child-citizen is now imagined as the child-consumer.

Given that Westernised views of health dominate public health imperatives and children’s understanding of health, it is necessary to examine how the marketing of ‘health’ may ignore or even colonise the health knowledge, practices and identities of ‘others’.

Academics and advocates need to continue to search for means to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions that ‘fat is bad’ and ‘healthy marketing is good’ for all children. We need to pay closer attention to how advertising – all advertising – may be ‘dangerous’. And we need to continue to illuminate the ways in which marketing policies and practices may have unintended, even unhealthy, consequences for all children.

 

Author information:

Darren Powell is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland, New Zealand. He is a recent recipient of a Royal Society Te Apārangi Marsden Fund Fast-Start Grant to conduct a research project about the impact of marketing ‘health’ to children.

References

[1] McClure, T. (2016). Banana Republic: the ugly story behind New Zealand’s most popular fruit. Retreived from https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/201808688/banana-republic-the-ugly-story-behind-new-zealand’s-most-popular-fruit

Book review: Laura Ellingson (2017). Embodiment in qualitative research. Routledge.

Book review by Craig Owen

Ellingson photo

In this text, Laura Ellingson provides a theoretical approach, a methodological philosophy, and a range of practical tips and examples for how to attend to the meaningful presence of your own and your research participants’ bodies throughout all stages of the research process.

Laura starts by taking a poststructuralist approach to theorising embodiment. She calls on us to recognise how the body is always in a process of becoming, a liminal state that is shifting and never fixed or finalised. The goal of research on embodiment is thus to shine a light on this dynamic process, to capture snapshots of these transitions, changes and movements of the body over time.

To achieve this goal, Laura sketches out the benefits of a flexible and inclusive methodology, one that is open to embracing a wide range of methods and theories, and one not afraid of crossing paradigmatic, methodological and disciplinary boundaries. Adopting this approach allows us to openly acknowledge how qualitative research, just like everyday life, is a messy business. By embracing the mess, that is, being open to mistakes, mis-directions, unexpected opportunities and unanticipated tangents in research practice, we are better placed to engage with the multiple, slippery and fuzzy realities of embodied life. For Laura, such an approach is not haphazard, nor lacking in rigor, but rather reflects “a creative, generative commitment to embodied pragmatism” (p.192).

To help bring the body into our research in a more deliberate and creative manner, Laura also provides a range of practical guidelines and flexible starting points for experimentation. She encourages us to actively engage with sensuousness, to (re)learn our own senses, carefully attending to how, through our engagements in new research contexts and interactions, we and others learn new skills of how to see, taste, feel and hear in different ways.

Of course, reflexivity is crucial here. Laura suggests that we can reflect on the specific parts of our body-self that are relevant in our research, to consider what our body has learned, how our senses have changed over course of the fieldwork, and how we come to recognise discourses circulating through our body and those of our participants.

In the course of planning and conducting interviews, focus groups, or any other form of communicative interaction, Laura suggests planning questions that explicitly encourage participants to reflect on touch, taste, smell, texture, temperature and movement. When conducting ethnographic fieldwork, she advises us to spend time focusing on and describing one specific sense. It is also essential for us to enhance our note-taking practice; getting in the habit of making notes about a range of sensations and emotions during important moments of understanding and connection. By jotting down more visceral, messy and sensorially rich notes, this will hopefully help spark our imagination and reflections when we return to (re)analyse the data at a later date.

To succinctly illustrate the benefits of this approach, at the beginning of each chapter, Laura provides eloquent examples where she creatively writes her own and others’ bodies into her research. Reading these descriptively rich and flowing sections of prose, I felt like I was getting to know Laura, her passion for research, her attention to specific details in the field, her quirky way of reflecting on her own disability, and her strange hankering for sugar-free fizzy pop. If only I could write in such an evocative and engaging way. As an early career researcher, I’m still struggling to get to grips with what I see as the staid academic style. But this embodied style is so much more gripping and reader friendly.

Ultimately, reading this text has helped me recognise that I need to experiment with my research practice and writing style, specifically, enriching my vocabulary, getting in the habit of describing single events in more holistic sensory ways, and experimenting with more imaginative, figurative and poetic language. No doubt, this will not be an easy task. But, if we take Laura’s advice that our progress will be as much a result of our mistakes and accidents as our plans and successes, we need only try.

Career File: Rado Masaryk

Dr Rado Masaryk is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Applied Psychology, Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University in Bratislava. He is also hosting the next 2019 ISCHP conference in Bratislava and our new conference chair. We are delighted to feature his career file.

Rado

Could you say a bit about your career trajectory so far?

One year after finishing my Masters in psychology I found out about a PhD position opening at the Faculty of Education which is a school that trains future teachers. I was sceptical at first. I had never thought of myself as an academic type. But I applied anyway, and got accepted, and found myself in a rather bizarre institution. The school was heavily underfunded, most of the students had no intention of ever going into teaching, there was no tradition of doing real research, many of my colleagues were severely burned out and they found no joy in their teaching or research. I nevertheless hung around until I got my doctorate. And then surprisingly I hung around for several additional years, because I felt that working with future teachers was the most important job in the world. However, I got to feeling a bit stagnant as far as my academic career went. So after 9 years it was time to move on. The Head of the Institute of Experimental Psychology at the Slovak Academy of Sciences offered me a job and a chance to manage a group of inspiring young researchers. I started to publish internationally (it was about time!). Now I work at the Comenius University’s Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences which is a small institution and at the same time a very dedicated group of researchers. We are the youngest and the most radical part of the Comenius University, and I enjoy working for this progressive faculty.

How did you get to be where you are today?

By being detail-focused and responsible when it comes to important things. By not taking personally those things that I cannot change or that do not actually matter that much. And by forgiving myself for not being always wise enough to know the difference.

When did you decide to be an academic? What was it that prompted this decision?

There were these moments, for instance when sitting around a table as grad students brainstorming with some of our professors, and they genuinely loved some of our research design ideas. When I saw my first paper getting published. When someone I admired came to me after my conference talk and gave me positive feedback. When I realized how deeply I can affect some of my students’ lives. Academia can be highly addictive.

What are the biggest challenges/ barriers you have faced so far in doing your work?

As a person from a post-communist country I had to work very hard to achieve things that would have been much easier if I had done my PhD training in an established institution in Western Europe or the US: things like getting to conferences, securing access to books and journals, meeting experts, or publishing in the English language are just some of the things that I will never take for granted. I was 38 when I first flew to an international conference knowing my flight ticket would be reimbursed by my employer. Now I do everything in my power to make sure the current generation of PhD candidates here can have better conditions to develop their academic careers than I did.

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

This could be traced to the time when Wendy, Chris and Kerry came to Bratislava; they introduced me to ISCHP and I signed up for the mailing list. Then I attended the 2017 conference in Loughborough. However, my first encounter with critical psychology was a brilliant chapter written by Wendy and Rex Stainton Rogers for a local Social Psychology textbook which at the time was recommended reading to prepare for my social psychology qualifying examination. This chapter was very different from the rest of the book – refreshing, stimulating and thought-provoking.

What are you most looking forward to about hosting ISCHP’s 2019 conference in Bratislava?

I look forward to introducing the newcomers to my hometown. For those who have already been here before, I look forward to getting them re-acquainted with this vibrant city that keeps changing  and developing very rapidly. I hope to create an unforgettable experience, and I hope to be hearing “Hey, remember that one time in Bratislava?!” whenever ISCHP people get together in the future. But one thing I am looking forward to the most is the idea of doing a warm-up before the conference at Slovakia´s best summer music festival. We may even succeed in incorporating a discussion on critical health psychology into the festival program. I love conferences and I love festivals, and the idea of combining the two sounds very exciting to me.

What makes you critical of mainstream psychology worldwide?

As early as in my undergraduate years I was exposed to amazing professors such as Jana Plichtová, Viera Bačová or Gabriel Bianchi who were among the first researchers in Slovakia who introduced us to qualitative methodology and showed us how the essentialist approach to doing psychological research can sometimes completely miss the mark. All three of them had an extensive background in rigorous experimental research so their criticism of the mainstream methodology was very credible and authentic.

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

“Health and Illness” by Claudine Herzlich. “Explaining Health and Illness: An Exploration of Diversity” by Wendy Stainton Rogers. “Representations of Health, Illness and Handicap” by Ivana Marková and Robert Farr. And “Madness and Social Representations: Living with the Mad in One French Community” by Denise Jodelet. This latter book, a fascinating account of how representations of an illness can impact ways how people with a certain diagnosis are treated by the other, inspired my own work on how people understand erectile dysfunction.

What are you currently working on (research or books)?

In one project we seek to persuade secondary school students to think about their future studies much earlier, not just when it is time to fill out their college application. Another project is focused on discerning credible news stories by young people. We also submitted a grant proposal to do a project on social representations of neurodegenerative diseases. And I am doing a small pet project with a grad student where we try to see how the taste of wine is influenced by the information about its price. This is one of the perks of academic life: wine sampling can be passed off as serious work!

And lastly, making reference to critical health psychology research and theory contrast and compare the following: dogs and cats.

Someone once said that the dog mentality is “The human gives me food therefore the human is God”, while cats tend to think “The human gives me food therefore I am God”. This shows that for critical psychology it is not only important to examine the existing distribution of power, but also to reflect on the privileges within.

 

Introducing ISCHP’s Podcast: The Operative Word

Brett Scholz (University of Canberra), Britta Wigginton (University of Queensland), and Ally Gibson (UNSW Sydney)

At ISCHP (the International Society of Critical Health Psychology) conferences, conversations inevitably circulate around how to break down existing paywalls, geographical boundaries, and the institutional privileges that disallow or constrain access to academic knowledge. Indeed, flattening academic power structures and promoting fairness are some of the values that characterise ISCHP as an academic community. As critical scholars, we are all too aware of the power relations imbued in the knowledge production and dissemination process(es) of the academy. The creation of a podcast series for ISCHP, entitled The Operative Word, therefore represents our attempt to join digital media platforms, in an effort to freely disseminate and share critical perspectives and knowledge, and to inspire conversations amongst critical scholars around the world – wherever their location.

Inspiration

The idea for this podcast arose during our last conference in Loughborough (UK) in July 2017.  The three of us were having an impromptu conversation about our favourite podcasts, and we were commenting on how few academic podcasts were available, particularly those that took a critical lens to health and other social phenomena. At the same conference, our ISCHP colleagues, Dr Glen Jankowski and Dr Neda Mahmoodi, also happened to run a workshop on using podcasts to disseminate academic work. We therefore thought that perhaps it was time for ISCHP to have its own podcast.

We’re hoping that this can be a resource for students new to critical psychology. In addition, we hope that those who are involved in teaching and research will be able to draw on this for their own interests and be able to use it in the classroom. And because of the eclectic community that makes up ISCHP, we anticipate that listeners both within and beyond psychology will be interested in our content. We also hope that this podcast bridges the geographical and socio-economic barriers to attending the conference in person and in being able to participate in the community between conferences. In keeping with (some) academic tradition, the podcast takes the format of a journal – our first volume for 2018 consists of six issues, which all build on content from the 2017 conference.

What’s in Store: Volume 1 of The Operative Word

A fairly recent addition to the ISCHP conference programme is the invited ‘5-Minute Challenge’. Speakers are asked to present a thought-provoking or challenging argument that cannot focus on a specific research study but must rather have relevance for a broader audience. The trick is to keep to the strict 5-Minute time limit and speak to pre-timed slides using only use images chosen by the speaker. With no question time for the audience afterwards, this snappy format makes for an entertaining, sometimes slightly frantic, and always thought-provoking segment of the conference.

For Volume 1 of The Operative Word, all 5-Minute Challengers from the 2017 ISCHP Conference were invited to be interviewed for a podcast Issue dedicated to airing their challenge, and then discussing it in more depth. To spice things up, we also invited Prof Antonia Lyons (Victoria University of Wellington) to revisit her keynote presentation from the conference (Issue 4). In each Issue, or episode, of this volume, we will feature one of these interviews. In keeping with the podcast name, each Issue has been titled with one word that encapsulates the spirit of the argument – namely, ‘the operative word’.

Thanks to their creative responses to the 5-Minute Challenge, we interviewed ISCHP community members on a range of topics. Not only did these topics stimulate rich discussions but, in many ways, they resonated with our own experiences in academia and – unexpectedly – in constructing this podcast.

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A Transparent Reflection…

In creating this podcast, we have ended up reflecting on our own intentions for embarking on this alternative project and realised the need (especially as qualitative researchers) to locate ourselves, in the spirit of being transparent and reflexive.

To briefly introduce ourselves, we are three early career researchers (and friends) all working in Australian universities, and have held positions in various disciplines (psychology, nursing, public health, sociology). Our energy and drive to create this podcast stems from our collective passion to challenge dominant knowledge production and dissemination processes – or put another way, to go beyond the journal article. More broadly, we are motivated to use alternative platforms for dissemination of research and teaching content, in an effort to increase accessibility and stimulate connections and inspiration amongst our colleagues between the ISCHP conferences, which are held every two years. Accessibility is important to us but, at the same time, in being transparent about the context in which we work, we are increasingly aware of mounting pressures on academics to go beyond conventional publication methods. In Australia, we are expected to attend to, what are termed, ‘alternative metrics’ (altmetrics, for short), based on our social media impact. Essentially, how we are speaking to wider audiences – whether in other disciplines, in industry, or in the communities we research.

So, in some ways we recognise how our own practices and (precarious) employment positions represent or embody the neoliberal culture of current academia – the short-term employment we face, the unpaid labour we are expected to provide in the name of ‘service’ or ‘passion’, the ever-increasing demands we face in improving our research ‘track records’, what we have to sign up for in order to survive, and so on. Indeed, as critical scholars, we are all too aware of the power structures in which we operate and the practices that can often obscure the problematic and even destructive elements of working in Higher Education. But, as many can relate, taking a critical stance also means thinking productively, of trying to think of new ways of working within a system, of subtly pushing back the boundaries when we can. One of the elements that all three of us have experienced from being a part of ISCHP, for example, is the deep sense of engagement and genuine support that flows between members – how we as junior academics have been able to be guided, challenged, and encouraged from our senior colleagues. We believe that this continues to be a unique aspect of the ISCHP community, and we hope that that spirit comes out in our podcast.

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Similarly, in being open about our journey through this editorial process, we have admittedly faced a few challenges along the way. One concern that was raised by our community when we initially suggested creating this podcast was the fact that it would be produced in English, thereby reproducing the ongoing dominance of English in academic spaces and dissemination processes. We would therefore welcome non-English language community members to volunteer to produce and edit future Issues of The Operative Word, to make this possible since we were unable to do so. We would also hope that as this podcast develops, we could attract the funds or find volunteers to transcribe the Issues, allowing them to be accessible to d/Deaf or non-English speaking audiences. We’ve also faced the challenges of being podcasting ‘newbies’, having to teach ourselves how to navigate the world of podcasting and editing software, losing episodes, and even having to re-do them!

The Final Word

Yet, in saying all of that, we really believe in the purpose and possibilities of this podcast. Indeed, we have experienced designing, constructing, and editing this podcast as a lesson in hope. As the co-editors of this podcast, we are attempting to find room to do things differently, to enact the values that make up and sustain the ISCHP community, and hope to create new de-neoliberalised spaces and conversations.

Through The Operative Word we therefore aim to build up new and existing connections between members of the ISCHP community. Given the shared vision for social change, such connections within ISCHP and beyond are absolutely vital. After each ISCHP conference, we always go home and feel energised to continue fighting for social justice. We hope that this podcast acts as an extension of the ISCHP conference, and that it re-energises listeners’ resolve to work within their own contexts, knowing that their ISCHP connections are sharing similar struggles in different parts of the world.

Listening Guide

Volume 1 promises to be an exciting series, with discussion about issues that speak to the core of critical research in the social sciences. A taster episode is now available! And Issue 1 will be released at the beginning of July.

To listen to The Operative Word, please go to https://anchor.fm/theoperativeword and please don’t forget to subscribe!

Also keep the conversation going with our hashtag #TheOW and/or tag @crithealthpsych

 

As a health coach, my fat is my greatest asset –– not a challenge to be overcome

By Tiana Dodson
As a fat person, you’re constantly browbeaten with the idea that your health has been
somehow damaged, ruined, or compromised and that it’s imperative that you reclaim it
by figuring out some way to make your body thin. So we look for people who model what we’re supposed to be. We look for the yoga teacher with the tightest butt, the deadlifter with the biggest pecs, the marathoner who makes the 26.2 look effortless, and the lithe, glowing health guru smiling around the straw of a green juice.
It might seem logical –– imitate that which you want to become –– but what people don’t
know is that it’s more than a lifestyle that got those people there. It’s their job. So unless
you’re trying to make fitness your career, you’re more than likely going to be trying to
squeeze fitness into a life where time, energy, and resources are already at a premium.
Trying to emulate these people almost always falls short… and that’s without starting
from absolute fatness.
If you’ve got an extra 20 pounds or so, then yeah, that 21-day cleanse might put you out
the other side with washboard abs. But if you’re in a situation where losing 20 pounds
would be unnoticeable because your body is very large at the outset, any advice these
health gurus give is just not helping. In fact, it’s much more likely to throw you into a
shame spiral, because if you can’t succeed with the 7 simple steps that anybody can
do, then you’ve failed, and it’s all your fault.
This is why fat people need their own health and wellness gurus –– and that’s
where I come in.
When it comes to overcoming body hatred, yo-yo dieting, and the difficulties of
navigating a fat phobic culture, I’ve been there and my work is based in my own journey.
So when a person tells me how hard it is for them to even be at the gym because of
how other people look at them, I get it. I get it when someone says that they really want to order dessert at a restaurant, but they’re deterred by the thought of the dreaded eyebrow raise –– because even if it’s the only dessert they’ve ordered all month, it still looks like all they eat is dessert. I get it when they say that they’re dreading going home for Thanksgiving because they’ve had to buy pants in a larger size. I get it because I’m fat, too.

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I’m also a certified health coach, which means that I have both the intellectual and
experiential knowledge of how bodies work. So when a client comes to me looking for
guidance on how to improve their health, I can easily put myself in their shoes because
their experiences are so familiar to me. And experiential knowledge can never be
outpaced by theoretical knowledge, no matter how many fat people a skinny health
coach has worked with. I’ve done –– and am still doing –– the work personally, so I know what it’s like to go through these steps, to experience the backslides, and to overcome the hurdles again and again.
The most well-intentioned ally can never be more than just that –– an ally.
But when your health’s on the line, you don’t just need an ally. You need a peer.
You need a partner. Not just because it’s nice. But because research indicates that
shared identity is foundational to forming a more effective partnership with a healthcare
provider (Street et al, 2008) . My compassion and my empathy comes from the fact that I have been there at
the lowest lows, and I’ve climbed up to the highest highs –– and I know how to help
other people do that too.

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Health is more than numbers on pieces of paper, health is all-encompassing and
holistic. And to get there, you need to be able to work with someone who can get
all of your life, not just the theoretical experience of it. When you’re talking about wanting someone to be healthy, you also need to be talking about all of them, all the things that make their life uniquely theirs. This includes the intersections of their identity and the social determinants of health (The World Health Organisation., 2010), because fatness never happens in a vacuum. It’s related to race, class, gender, sexuality, geography, and genetics, among many other things.
When you’re assessing the potential for health improvement, you have to be able to
understand how these things affect the probability and achievability of real health
improvement. Because not everybody can just get up and walk, not everybody has
equal access to healthcare providers. You have to take into consideration where a
person is starting from, what they’re capable of in their reality before you can start
prescribing things to improve their health. There’s just something about experiential knowledge that makes the difference between okay healthcare and life-changing healthcare.

So when I introduce myself as a fat health coach and you find yourself wondering how
that can even be possible, understand this: the “fat” part is the part that makes me really
damn good at what I do. It’s the same reason why welcoming, centering, promoting, and
employing people with marginalized identities does nothing but enrich a space. There is
so much to learn from those who are different from us, and embracing these differences
helps us all move forward.

References:
Street Jr., R., O’Malley, K., Cooper, L., & Haidet, P. (2008). Understanding
Concordance in Patient-Physician Relationships: Personal and Ethnic Dimensions of
Shared Identity. Annals of Family Medicine 6:3 , 198-205. Available as Open Access:
http://www.annfammed.org/content/6/3/198.long

The World Health Organization. (2010). A Conceptual Framework for Action on the
Social Determinants of Health. Social Determinants of Health Discussion Paper 2 . p. 6.
Available as Open Access:
http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/44489/9789241500852_eng.pdf;jsessioni
d=261C719F5A7315644BA8CE914440C62E?sequence=1

Are We Well Enough Yet?

By Annie Belcher

I’ve been away from Melbourne for the past month. Having a break from yoga and teaching has provided me space to think through and distill some thoughts I’ve been having about yoga – it’s downfalls and some parts I think we (those in the yoga industry in the Western World) could be doing better.

There are many aspects of yoga which I think need further thought and interrogation; issues of cultural appropriation, yoga’s limited engagement with structural issues, yoga’s focus on the individual. In this instance however, I’m speaking to the implications of commodification. Exploring what happens when yoga is simultaneously “health and wellness” and a commodified product.

I’m concerned that there’s no regulatory body that actively intervenes to ensure the consumers of yoga aren’t mistreated. Whether that’s through marketing yoga, in classes or in conversations.

There are many reasons why I love yoga and there is a reason why I have spent a lot of time learning about it, practicing it and teaching it. However, despite the many aspects of yoga I enjoy, I often question why I teach it. I question why so many of the associations that come with yoga make me cringe? Why I feel deeply uncomfortable in places that are bustling with yoga tourism? Why, in social situations I often omit the fact that I teach yoga? Why when I see images of bikini-clad women and oiled up men doing “yoga” I feel a desire to distance myself from the industry?

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I think the problem doesn’t actually lie with yoga, but with processes of commodification and how this has made people in the yoga industry behave. I’m concerned with the messages that are communicated to consumers when there is a need for yoga to create a monetary return.

I wonder why there are so many people doing yoga. Why there are 35 people wanting to “Balance their Chakras” on a Saturday afternoon. Why the amount of people doing yoga teacher trainings continues to rise. If it’s because people enjoy doing yoga then great, but I’m worried the amount of people doing yoga is because of a very clever marketing campaign rather than yoga itself. Because I don’t think what a lot of us gain from yoga is exclusive to yoga.

There are other platforms to inquire about the human experience: Buddhism, western science, Taoism, indigenous knowledge, being in nature, reading a book. We could move in other ways other than asana. Yoga can make you feel strong and calm, it can provide a sense of ease, connection and freedom, so I understand why so many people enjoy it.

I think yoga can be very beneficial for people but I do not think it is necessary. I also don’t think it is necessarily the best way to ‘help’ people. I believe thinking we need to ‘help’ people is problematic in itself. Let alone helping them by selling them yoga. Maybe I’m just being cynical and the way to solve the world’s problems is for everyone to become a yoga teacher and do yoga. I’m just not that optimistic though. I’m worried the yoga industry has created a market; similar to how the beauty industry has created a market.

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The beauty industry could be harmless – people using products to express themselves and to make themselves feel good. But the beauty industry has also created its own market by constantly telling people they aren’t thin enough, hairless enough, that their skin isn’t smooth enough. Because, to sell beauty products we need to work from the premise that people aren’t already beautiful as they are.

Let me be clear, I don’t think make-up is necessarily bad. In fact it can be great. But when people are told they need it just so the company can increase profits it gets ugly. The marketing that accompanies yoga, like the beauty industry, often works from the premise that people as they are aren’t enough. There’s a big flaw inherent in selling health and wellness. To sell someone health and wellness one needs to work from the premise that they don’t already have it. That people aren’t well enough, healthy enough, flexible enough, spiritual enough, strong enough, self aware enough, eating well enough, following self-care rituals enough, that people just aren’t enough as they are. And yoga is the perfect commodity to sell. You need to buy it many times a week to maintain the benefits. You can stop buying it when you reach the elusive and esoteric ‘enlightenment’ (so most of us are in it for a lifetime I imagine).

Phrases such as “Discover your best self” and “Fulfill possibility” can be said harmlessly, benevolently in fact. But what these phrases infer is that one isn’t already their best self, one hasn’t already fulfilled their potential unless they come to your yoga class, your workshop or your retreat. I think a lot about social impact and while yoga can be great for people, I think culturally and socially, the yoga industry can also be harmful.

My concern is that there is no (active) regulatory body that has the consumers’ best interests first and foremost. Yoga is not held to the same standards that other health and wellness providers are. As Bessel Van De Kolk articulated so well “you don’t know you’re being negligent until you know”. By telling people what they do and don’t need to feel good are we accidently being negligent? Can we abuse our power as “teacher”? Matthew Remski thinks so, highlighting the damage yoga instructors can do on participants’ bodies because of what the teacher believes is “right”, is “necessary” to get “better” at yoga.

I look at people selling things (for example supplements) whole heartedly believing the consumer needs them, telling them to spend a lot of money because they believe it will work. But is their belief enough? Or is it an abuse of their position of power? Are good intentions enough?

If yoga is going to continue to be commodified, it should at the very least be subject to market protections and regulations. I’m worried we easily lose sight of our initial reasons for teaching yoga when creating a monetary return also becomes a goal. I feel uncomfortable having to make money from yoga, I feel uncomfortable competing for business and I’m uncomfortable telling people they need yoga even if I do that implicitly by simply communicating what I’m selling.

It’s not yoga itself, it’s the commodification of yoga and what that has done to yoga and therefore, has made people teaching/selling yoga have to do and the effect that is having on consumers. It’s the message of advertising of not being good enough without yoga and that to be happy one must do yoga. Yogic philosophy poses an inherent contradiction to a market centered on need and insufficiency; that practitioners are told they are enough at the same time that they exist as consumers being told that they need more yoga. So if it makes you feel good, keep doing yoga, I’m going to. But can we use yoga to challenge ideas of insufficiency, scarcity, competition, and spread ideas of sufficiency and abundance? And if no one else is going to hold us to account, can those of us teaching/selling yoga hold ourselves accountable for our intended and unintended impacts on society?

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)

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

By Poul Rohleder, Xanthe Hunt and Leslie Swartz

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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: www.disabilityandsexualityproject.com. 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.

References:

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. (http://www.firah.org/centre-ressources/upload/publications/rl/asexualite/rl-axesuality-en.pdf).

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: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/16549716.2017.1337342

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: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09688080.2017.1332949?src=recsys

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.

Notes

(1) The original pecha kucha that was presented at ISCHP’s conference in 2017 can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ad3YLBvpbDw&t=

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 (nick.caddick@anglia.ac.uk)

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
@MaleEDResearch

‘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.