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.
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.