Talking bodies - revisited.
I originally wrote this post almost a year ago, and have edited it a couple of times since. As I sit in [generic franchise coffee shop] awaiting my train home, from possibly the best conference I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending (also funnily enough, by the same name of this original post!), I thought I’d revisit an old blog. I revisit my thoughts with reflections, as emphasised in italics throughout.
This is not a critique, but more an observation of a critical nature.
In June 2018, I presented at a conference that was focused on Bodies, and I was really excited to see what kinds of research were being done in an area that is of interest to me. The venue was wonderful (Assembly Rooms in Bath), the presenters were amazing (always an OMG moment when there are people there who you’ve cited in your own work), and it was wonderful to see academic friends I’ve not seen for a while.
What stood out to me most about the conference though, was the overall ‘mainstream’ nature of the work. This is not a bad thing – it just took me aback, purely because my own focus is so critical. It made me realise just how critical I am (and actually, how compartmentalised critical work can become in academia). I know that critical work is not the be all and end all, but it is very hard to switch off that critical spidey-sense for other research when that’s all you know.
On reflection of the above, it is amazing how much the creation of a welcoming space changes not only the nature of the conference talks, but also expectations around them. For where I’ve just been, critical focuses of the body, in a very broad and inclusive way, was talk of the day. In this space, I did not feel like a compartmentalised critical academic. I felt surrounded by like-minded peers.
Though in addition, there is something important here in the distinction between ‘mainstream’ and ‘critical’ (othered?) spaces. I’m interested in what happens in those ‘in-between spaces’, and topics that don’t get enough focus, or 4 star papers. This really says something about the academy. But it also makes me think of Sara Ahmed, and her analogy of the plumbers – we are in the system, and understand them enough, to know how to dismantle them.
When I think of appearance-related work, I think about identity politics, about difference and ‘othering’, about social/cultural norms and trends. The work at this Bath-based conference that centred on appearance mostly looked at BMI – that contested body mass index - and satisfaction scales. My critical spidey-sense was tingling throughout the conference. I was there thinking - should we not be questioning the notion of BMI and the obsessive nature with which we focus on this? Of course there is a place for statistics in research, but how can we understand real bodies without a bit of in-depth qualitative work? Not everything comes down to a point on a graph. When you’re at academic conferences such as this one, you really see the discord between how quantitative and qualitative work are seen, are published, and the impact they have. I appreciate that quantitative work is what gets published, but this should not deter people from pushing back with the amazing qualitative research that’s being done.
There was a point during the second day of the conference that I just wanted to scream (not out of pain, but out of sheer interest and wanting to explore more). There were so many good talks on, with interesting areas, but I was completely blindsided with the approach taken with some of them. A researcher was presenting their work on men’s body image, exploring perceptions towards ‘sporty’ images of men versus ‘sexy’ images of men (how these categories were determined, particularly the ‘sexy’ one, is something that I already wanted to know more about. Within the research itself, a comment had been captured from a male participant that I couldn’t ignore –he had commented that he didn’t like looking at the ‘sexy’ images of men because he wasn’t gay. Oh wow.
Conflation of gender and sexuality here much?! Just purely from my own research area, I wanted to know more about this, to unpack this, given the issues we see in how gender and sexuality are understood. I know from teaching these areas, as well as discussions with other academics and researchers, that these topics can be difficult to navigate. These difficulties are amplified more when we don’t take the time to unpack these kinds of nuances. I appreciate this was not the focus of their work, but for the fact it was mentioned, I felt like it should be something to unpack, not to laugh at because ‘oh poor straight man doesn’t like the idea of being seen as anything but straight’. It made me wonder about the amount of research where things like this crop up, but don’t make the light of day, because they don’t fit into the majority issue that is focused on.
In contrast to where I’ve just been, these topics were the kinds of things that were being unpacked, with so much to take away and ruminate over. I attended talks at Talking Bodies that were on the fringes of my research area, and the speakers did so well in explaining, unpacking, and making topics accessible. I cannot put into words the difference this has made. I’m not coming away from this conference today feeling frustrated and unfulfilled – I feel inspired, engaged, and also validated in the approaches been taken. Talking Bodies also set itself apart in the emphasis on activism, not just in the talks, but also in the ethos. Prof Emma Rees, the wonderful conference organiser, opened the week by saying how academia shouldn’t just talk to itself – we must engage with practitioners, activists, and activism, in making a difference.
I guess what this made me realise is that being critical is not the be all and end all of research, but it is wholly clear this is where I am positioned, and I’m really okay with that. I talk to my research methods students all the time about neither qualitative or quantitative work being better than the other – they enable us to do different things with our research. Understanding this position helps me consider different kinds of research, and I see the different ways of talking about bodies.
I guess that in summary, it’s wonderful to see how thoughts develop over time, and the difference a space and a community makes to that. This post was originally written to vent my frustrations about the lack of criticality in research about the body. But this week, I’ve come away feeling more strongly than ever about this, and more importantly, how these musings should not just live in the academy, but outside of this too.