Cheese and Change

I love being a researcher. I really feel like this is the career for me; I’ve always been curious, and I like to know things. Of course, the route I’ve chosen doesn’t lend itself to certainty. I tend to research things without answers, and I report results in an almost annoyingly non-prescriptive fashion. I’m regularly asked by reviewers to comment on the implications of my work, and I always do so somewhat hedgingly – forever with the caveat that no one size fits all.

When I found a subject that enamoured me enough to focus my attention on it, I decided that I would devote (at least a good chunk of) my life to learning more about it. The more I learn about eating disorders, the more I realize there’s so much more to be done. Especially with respect to inviting marginalized folks in and honouring their perspectives, the eating disorders field is in many ways a fledgling. I’m also learning that, in my opinion, if we want to make change in how we prevent, treat, and research eating disorders, we need to do it in an interdisciplinary way. No, scratch that – we need to do in it a way that transcends disciplines and invites those from the margins to the centre. We need to redefine whose expertise counts, how we make our decisions, and what matters as knowledge.

If we put together some unexpected ingredients, I think we might find that we’re better able to manoeuvre within systems and scaffold change that ultimately rearranges those systems. I believe that this broader rearrangement is necessary if we want to see the changes really take root.

There is resistance to this change, and this coming together, though. I don’t mean coming together in a superficial, “let’s forget our differences” kind of way – and this is important. I mean it in a “let’s acknowledge our differences, name the lenses we’re looking through, and let’s have uncomfortable conversations” kind of way. Let’s put ricotta and mango into a muffin, mix it up, and see what happens.

Cheesy baking metaphors aside (or are they ever really aside? I live and die by the cheesy baking metaphor. Oh dear, there’s even an unintended pun in this particularly cheese – ricotta), there’s a frustrating part about being a researcher, too – particularly one interested in talking to diverse and often marginalized people, and one oriented toward social justice. The frustration lies in taking a bird’s eye view of the tensions within the field while simultaneously listening to stories of those who’ve been forgotten by the system, and feeling powerless to do anything about it.

Contrary to popular belief (or perhaps not…), I don’t really have much power. Sure, I have privilege – I have privilege in spades. Things come easier to me because of my privileges, and people are more likely to listen to me because of my white privilege, my cis-gender privilege, my thin privilege, my heterosexual privilege, my academic social capital, and more. Unfortunately, relative to the dominant voices maintaining the status quo, my status as PhD student performing qualitative, feminist, critical research is low. Moreover, the audience I reach with my work is often already familiar with the frameworks I’m using and perspectives I’m sharing. On the broader stage, most people don't need to listen to my critiques. There really are no consequences for ignoring me. I don't have much power, but I still have more of a voice than those who tell me their stories - which tells you something about how power works in this (and probably other) fields. Problematically.

This is frustrating not because it denies me fame and fortune. It is frustrating because time and again, I’m told about the problems with the system, and the pain of people with eating disorders and their supporters who struggle to navigate unwieldy systems and who face marginalization and outright oppression when they try to do so. And all I can do is pick away at the edges; critique, name, tweet. I hold these stories, and they ground me while they propel me forward – but sometimes all I can do is hold them.

Often, I’m the first person to whom people have told their stories to – because no one else has asked. I’d like to invite these stories into the discussions “we” have, at the academic and policy level around eating disorders. These stories should be central to decisions. Research participants, patients, supporters… they are not just pieces of data or outcome statistics. They are people, in all of their complexities. This feels incredibly trite to write down… and yet somehow the obvious nature of this statement doesn’t always lead to greater inclusion.  

Somehow I’ve wiggled my way into this discussion at the level of the field more broadly. And that’s great. But it’s not really me people need to listen to – it’s my participants. I feel a great responsibility to those who’ve been generous to share their stories with me; their un-collapsability (new word for you) needs to be named; the differences and shared frustrations need to be acknowledged. I’m unsatisfied with simply recording them in my (very wordy) dissertation.

This post isn’t really about mango ricotta muffins; it’s a call to action. It’s a call to listen, to honour, to hold – and to move.

[Mango ricotta muffin recipe from Single Girls Kitchen]