Wednesday 2 September 2015


Understanding Reflexivity 

Reflexivity is the awareness of the effect that anthropologists have on their research, the experience of fieldwork and the process of writing ethnography - applying a reflexive approach allows one to reflect on the production of ethnographic material. Ethnography is affected by the anthropologist in a number of ways - their position, personal history, socio-cultural circumstances, the theoretical framework within which they are working and the relationship between themselves and their participants. By being reflexive, anthropologists consider the effects that all of these have on their work and therefore situate themselves within their research.

Acknowledging my position in my research

For my master's research, I looked at the embodiment of fatness - that is, the lived experience of being, and living, fat (a quick note that my participants and I came to a mutual agreement to use the word fat rather than 'obese' or 'overweight' as the word fat is only viewed as a negative term because we have implied that is a bad thing to be. By using the word fat to describe their bodies, participants and I were reclaiming the word as a self-identifying term, rather than something rude or negative).

This research focused on the way in which fat individuals experience, negotiate and feel about their own bodies and I did this through the use of photographs - all of my participants were asked to provide images  that represented their experiences of living life as a fat person, these images were accompanied by narratives and stories throughout my thesis. And this choice of methodology came from a reflexive acknowledgement of myself, my position in my research, and my own body.

I'm not fat. I have never been labelled as fat by a doctor or someone in an authoritative position, I have never been told that I am overweight or obese, and I have never identified as fat. When I began my research, I started to think about my position as a thin person studying fat culture, constantly asking myself "how would fat people feel about having a thin woman talk about the lives of fat people when she has never experienced being fat herself?" It was around this same time that I came across the a blog post written by Kath Read, a fat activist, blogger and a participant in my research. On her blog 'Fat Heffalump', Kath had written a post that talked about the relationship between academics and fat activists. The following passage from her blog post resonated with me for a while:

I don’t have a string of letters after my name. I have never attended a fine university… But what I have done, is spent a lifetime in this fat body. I have spent almost 40 years learning exactly what the world thinks of fatness. I have lived in this fat body, loved in it, laughed in it, cried in it… I am the world’s leading expert on life in this fat body… And yet, despite the growing media attention on fat bodies, actual fat people are in the minority of people who get to speak on the topic of fatness….People who have no connection to fatness, either personally or professionally are given forum to express their own opinions on fatness.
After reading this, I began searching for academic literature on the lived experience of fatness. What I came to notice was that most of the literature focused on 'obesity' as a health problem, cross-cultural studies focusing on dieting and eating habits and social science researchers who were deeply critical of how 'obesity' is framed. And what I soon realised, was that these studies shared one commonality - the fat person was always talked about, rather than given the opportunity to talk for themselves. In Kath's blog post, she acknowledged that the opportunities for academics to collaborate with fat activists and fat individuals can result in powerful projects, however, the failure to acknowledge their privilege does harm as it gives agencies such as the media unspoken permission to dismiss the voices of fat people as well. This meant that an important part of my role as a researcher, was being able to acknowledge my thin privilege. 

Understanding Thin Privilege

Certain cultural and social structures in western society privilege the thin, or at least what has been deemed a 'normal' body size. In other words, a western cultural body hierarchy creates body privilege - an invisible package of unearned assets that thin or 'normal' sized individuals can take for granted on a daily basis. These 'normal' bodies unwittingly avert various forms of social stigma, while eliciting social benefits (Kwan 2010:147). 

Thin bodies are repeatedly depicted as the norm in western culture

(You can read a post I wrote last year about the normalisation of fat discrimination in the media here)

Linda Bacon, an advocate for the Health at Every Size Movement, a fat-rights activist, and a thin academic, explains thin privilege as:

receiving unjust advantages at the expense of the other… thin privilege is not a binary phenomenon that you either have or not, but expresses itself differently across the weight spectrum… thin privilege exists only, of course, because fat oppression exists (2009:2). 

In a talk Linda Bacon delivered at a Fat Acceptance conference in 2009, she described an experience that she had in one of her lectures where a fat woman confronted her position as a thin person and said "You don't represent me. I don't trust you. You're just another skinny bitch telling me and everyone else what it's like to live in my body. It's not okay that you get to define my experience". Bacon reflected on this, saying "she was absolutely right that she deserves the space to make her experience known, but it's not just about having an audience, it's about gaining the trust of that audience."

What this means, is that when a thin academic speaks out for fat rights, and against thin privilege, most audiences see the thin academic's work as far more credible than the same words articulated by a fat person. People attach more of a sense of legitimacy to their words as they cannot write it off as a way of rationalising their fatness. Linda's experience reminded me of a conversation I had with Cat Pause, a fat activist, academic and blogger. We were talking on the phone one day about how my research was going, and I told her a lot of people misunderstood my research as 'trying to solve the obesity problem'. Cat went on to say:

most scholars in my area know exactly what it is that I do and so I experience a lot of “that’s not real research” or “keep your politics out of your scholarship” because there’s no misunderstanding that possibly I’m trying to solve the ‘problem’. You don’t have to be under the scrutiny of whether or not what you’re doing is for personal gain.

This made me realise that not only is my body privileged, but my opinion may often be privileged over fat bodies as well - what I had to do, was carefully structure my research so that my participants' voices played active roles in my thesis. As a thin person, I would never be able to fully participate in being fat, however, what I did have was the ability to listen and observe carefully, the education to contextualise stories and experiences and the opportunity to tell the stories of those who are at times, silenced. 

Me with Shelley - one of the participants in my thesis. Creating and maintaining a strong, respectful relationship with my participants was one of the most important parts of my research

It was this reflexive acknolwedgement of my position, privilege and my own body that resulted in my decision to use photo-elicitation methods in my research (having participants provide images and discuss them in an interview). I placed emphasis on participants providing their own images to complement their narratives and lived experiences, allowing them to have control over their story, decide how their bodies should be represented, and control over the topics that were discussed. The result was a participatory visual ethnography that allowed my participants to be active co-creators in the outcome of my research and this came out of the reflexive approach that I took in recognising that this was their story to tell, rather than my own. 

Acknowledging my body, my thin privilege, and my position as a researcher was such an important moment in the process of writing my thesis - it guided my theoretical framework, my methodologies, and it allowed me to form a close relationship with all of my participants that was based on mutual respect, co-creation, an understanding of each other and our relationship to the research.

- Tayla


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