Aug. 20, 2018

Werklund School researcher dissects the complexity and bias around weight and body image

Shelly Russell-Mayhew conducts impactful study with funding from Social Science and Humanities Research Council
Shelly Russel-Mayhew
Shelly Russel-Mayhew

What is weight? Is it our relationship to gravity? A proxy for health? A number on a scale that indicates our worth?

The concept of weight is complex. It's something Dr. Shelly Russell-Mayhew, PhD, professor in counselling psychology from the Werklund School of Education, is seeking to explore further, with funding the University of Calgary received from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) that was announced this spring.

Russell-Mayhew’s research program includes studies on obesity, eating disorders, body image and weight-bias in both a school context and in health-care settings, as well as across all ages. The funding from SSHRC is primarily allocated to her current qualitative study, Weight of the World: Expert Conceptualization of the Complexities of Weight.

The Weight of the World study will collect data from experts who bring their own unique perspectives to the conversation — practitioners, researchers and policy-makers, as well as individuals who have personal experiences with weight issues. While Russell-Mayhew says there's no easy solution to weight issues, as it is a complex subject, she hopes with more understanding we can provide better information to discuss the subject in schools and health-care settings.

“The purpose of the study is not necessarily to get consensus, but to open up a dialogue about weight bias and how the experience of weight affects our collectiveness.”

Russell-Mayhew says while there is something universal about the human experience of weight, it is also highly personal and influenced by how other people view weight within particular social, cultural and political contexts. These “common knowledges” of weight are contextually and culturally dependent and as such require further analysis to deconstruct.

“I believe that all of my research has led me to here,” says Russell-Mayhew. “I’ve found in this research, one initial topic or line of questioning will lead to more inquiries, and that speaks to the complexity and ongoing work to be accomplished.

“We hope the results of this study will offer the opportunity to consider more thoughtful, effective, skilful and humane practices in contexts where prescription and assumed practices do not satisfy the complexity of weight.”

Russell-Mayhew was recognized this year with the University of Calgary’s Educational Leadership (Group) Award, as well as the Werklund School of Education’s Research Excellence Award. Her study is one of a number of projects at the University of Calgary to receive the cumulative $2.1 million in funding from the SSHRC, including projects from the faculties of arts, kinesiology, social work, environmental design, law, Werklund School of Education, Haskayne School of Business and the School of Public Policy.