In between feminist and critical health psychology: Finding myself, fitting in, and flailing

By Andrea LaMarre

Photo by Alex Hamilton. Karamatura Track in the Waitakere Ranges

This blog post has been adapted from one of Andrea’s presentation at ISCHP’s 12 Biennial Conference in September 2021. Andrea was one of the recipients of the emerging researcher award.

When I consider the question of what a feminist health psychology is, I can’t help but think of myself, wandering between disciplines and literatures, trying to find a place where I feel at home. I think about a young Andrea who, despite having embodied so many privileges, felt like her emotions were too much for everyone. I think about how shrinking myself and trying to please everyone have been strategies I’ve adopted to fit into societal ideas about who I should be. I think about how in graduate school, I began to embrace a louder, more outspoken feminism that encourages emotion, sensation, and commitment to filter through and drive what I do. I think about the theorists and scholars who taught me that being critical, and being feminist, might mean seeping outside of boundaries—corporeally, theoretically, methodologically.

When I think about a feminist health psychology, I think about how my journey to where I am today has taught me about the value of centering uncertainty and complexity in thought and praxis—around health, around academia, around life. In this blog post, I offer a reflection on flailing—diving in and out of ideas about what I could, should, and want to do. Uncertainty, complexity, and seeping outside of boundaries have become foundational aspects of my own research praxis—and are potential stepping-stones for an invitational feminist health psychology.

I was born in 1989 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. My dad is a biomedical science professor, and my mom stayed at home, raising my brother and me. She’d lived many lives—years working on a horse farm in British Columbia, obtaining a college diploma as a vet tech and a BSc, sewing reusable bags for grocery shopping in the plastic-bag-dominated 1980s. In motherhood, my mother found her home and her passion; she was, and is, a feminist through and through. As I contemplate my own path, 32, like she was when she had me, I wonder whether I could make the same choices for myself. My parents told me I could be anything, do anything. I was one of those self-fulfilling prophecy children, marked out at a young age as academically excellent and thus given the kind of attention and support I needed to thrive in grade school, through to high school, into university, and beyond.

By age 6, I endlessly contemplated what happened after you die; I could never sleep, pondering the unknown in a haze of uncertainty. I had my first panic attack at age 8—I floated above my body as I walked through a craft fair. Precocious as ever, I read Jane Eyre into the night as I wrestled with the darkness in my head. I learned early on that my emotions were too much—too intense, too scary, too explosive. I contained them, for a time.

At age 15, my father suddenly and unexpectedly left my mom. I gripped onto the levers of control I could manage to contain those wild emotions I had already learned were not welcome. As I chewed endless packs of sugar-free gum and drank Diet Coke, I ran and ran and ran until I felt emptiness and numbness. I continued to excel at school. My emotions continued to leak out unexpectedly, slipping through the veneer I thought I’d perfected.

I wanted to be a lawyer. I studied International Development and Globalization; I absorbed atrocities and became aware of my privilege. I learned about how colonization is still happening, rather than being a thing of the past (as my suburban Southern Ontario 90s education would have had me believe). I learned about neoliberalism and fiscal austerity and the withdrawal of the welfare state. I learned about feminisms from international scholars who encouraged me to think about how white feminism does not solve as much as it hopes to. I dropped out of university after I fainted running on a treadmill in the university gym.

I clawed my way back to a level of function using mainstream treatment systems. I was told what to eat, what (not) to do. I was deemed recovered. I switched universities, switched majors. Close to the end of my time studying sociology, I met Carla – Carla Rice, whose feminisms and critiques changed how I oriented to study and to difference as a way of seeing the world. Working with Carla, making art with amazing people who embodied difference and artistry, also changed my outlook on my own journey and how it entwined with the changes I want to make in the world. I honed a critical eye as I embarked on my Masters study, exploring eating disorder recovery through a social justice lens. This study—the words of my participants, the short films they made—shifted and changed me. It wove its way into the fabric of my being and joined with the emotions I was beginning to see didn’t make me wrong, bad, or “too much.” I read, and listened, and learned. My studies were interdisciplinary and tied together by centering difference and considering how norms are made, and how norms exclude. I was, and am, methodologically and theoretically eclectic. I did not then, and do not now, identify strongly with any particular discipline. I did then, and do now, run in the opposite direction the minute I am called to speak with a single disciplinary voice.

Why a feminist health psychology, then?

Finding a “fit” is a funny thing. It’s something I’ve always chased, to a degree, despite not wanting to be contained. I discovered, as I sought my first academic job, that being a bit of a philoso-psycholo-sociolo-anthro-theorist was not an ideal position from which to seek employment. I was unrecognizable and unintelligible. I dabbled in Deleuze and Braidotti’s philosophies and found comfort in rhizomes—those connected-but-disconnected thoughts, things, and emotions that call forth new ways of being and doing.

It was through critical health psychology that I found a potential place to land; I applied for a job clear on the other side of the world from where I grew up. I got that job – and I continue to feel like I’m flailing at times. I continue to feel uncomfortable in psychology. My theorizing around bodies, health, wellness, and eating leans into and away from psychology. While some of the earliest critical feminist work on eating disorders stems from a critical health psychology perspective, there are still moments where I wonder about the acceptability of my work within this field.

It is in feminisms that I find common ground – with people within health psychology and with those outside of it. Feminisms have continued to provide a backbone for my work and my life as I work to make sense of different, divergent, and unexpected relationships with and sensations of bodies and food. In feminisms – open, multiple, complicated, feminisms – I find the capacity to be both person and scholar; both emotional and “professional.” A place where I don’t feel like I am stuffing myself into a container. And this, to me, is the potential of feminist health psychologies.

About the Author

Andrea LaMarre is a lecturer in critical health psychology at Massey University, New Zealand. She obtained her PhD from the University of Guelph in 2018. In her work, she uses critical, feminist, qualitative, and arts-based approaches to explore eating distress and embodiment.

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