A Weighty Problem: On Disempowered Groups in Science, Study and Research


Words || Ursula Huxtable

Recently I was catching up on a psychology lecture which opened with some information on public health campaigns. Great, I thought, we’re going to look at ways psychology can be applied to helping people get their best personal health outcomes. But as the slides flicked by, I became increasingly unsettled by the material presented to me. For those of you who have never been sitting in a lecture and been hit with the realisation that the material in no way reflects your experience, it can be pretty demotivating.

The Obesity Epidemic™ is a trendy phrase when discussing health, and psychology is seemingly not immune. In a lecture that claimed its purpose was to explore habits and processes of behaviour change, I was bombarded with phrases such as “resisting temptation” which linked weight and self-control. I had to pause and step away for a little while until I got my feelings in order (thanks Echo360!). This wasn’t a new feeling for me, and certainly not a new problem that I had encountered in academic circles before. From textbooks on psychological disorders veering into discussing weight as a physical problem rather than the many associated psychological factors, as well as blatantly misrepresenting sexual and dissociative disorders, to tutorials which essentially ask students to discuss why gay people exist, academic psychology is just as culpable as the rest of the world in disregarding the mental health of vulnerable populations.

This isn’t to say that these questions should be swept under the rug, by any means. As someone who is deeply invested in the power of science to create positive change in society, and has been described, by myself and others, as large, big-boned, plus-sized, and yes, fat, I know that my abandoned lecture isn’t necessarily wrong. Poor diet and lack of exercise are linked to poorer health outcomes and public health campaigns can do so much good in helping people shift to healthier habits. But by linking obesity and self control, the material was dipping its toes in some not-so-empowering stereotypes.

The example being discussed pertained to getting people in low SES areas to make ‘better health choices’ when fast food is cheap and when ‘everyone is large, so being large is normal and no one thinks they need to make different choices for their health’?  What this example failed to acknowledge was that low SES communities aren’t isolated from the world and receive plenty of messages from the media which would contradict the normalisation of fat bodies. Disordered eating and exercise problems more commonly associated with affluent ‘thin’ communities – as if such a dichotomy exists in the first place –  were completely ignored.

The lecture went on to say that feeling you’re incapable of something significantly impacts your ability to complete the task. But how are you supposed to take care of your body when you can’t afford healthier food, or you have a chronic condition which makes exercise difficult, or you’re just constantly fed the message that you have no value unless you’re  thin? How are you supposed to feel empowered to take care of your body when you’re told it has no value being cared for at its size? The whole thing seemed pretty contradictory.

Obviously I must also take into consideration the fact that this was just an applied example being used to illustrate a theory, but I believe that when deciding what examples to use, academics need to think about their position of authority and the effect this may have when discussing disempowered groups in society. 

There is value in asking research questions about fat populations and other marginalised groups; in a purely intellectual sense they are no more or less important that asking questions about non-fat bodies. After all, how can better outcomes be achieved if we don’t know how to achieve them? The problem is, there is no purely intellectual sense when it comes to academia. These questions carry enormous social weight (no pun intended). Humans are inherently biased, and so any search for factual realities will be coloured by this bias, even in objective-as-it-gets science.

As university students, researchers and lecturers, we must take responsibility of bias in order to achieve this. I am painfully aware that my experiences make me sensitive to discussions pertaining to health and heteronormativity, but I view this as a great asset in my career as a scientist. I have insight into my biases which can inform how I conduct my work, and it makes me motivated to listen to people who have experiences different to mine so that I can continue to learn.

My love of science is strong, and I wish that discussion of topics such as healthy weight could be as uncomplicated as chatting about the process of photosynthesis. But it isn’t. And so we must be attentive to the social factors which surround such issues, and ensure that we are not contributing to the disempowerment of people affected by them in our academic exploration.

Chances are, there’s someone being affected sitting in your lecture hall.