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Source: Massey University

As a critical health psychologist, Professor Sarah Riley’s interests are diverse, spanning gender and body image issues, illness and ageing to how men dance.

From the impact of pop culture on body image to why men dance the way they do, how people manage ageing and illness, and whether self-help books help or not –  these are just some of the topics Sarah Riley, a professor in critical health psychology, is fascinated by.

Professor Riley moved to New Zealand from the UK in 2019 to take up the lead for Massey’s Master’s in Health Psychology programme in the School of Psychology, and is based on the Wellington campus. 

Massey, she says, “has been an international leading light in critical health psychology throughout the whole of my career, it really is a beacon for critical health psychology. So it was a real honour to be considered for the post and to help lead the team to the next iteration of critical health psychology at Massey.”

In her webinar for the ‘No lockdown for the mind’ series this week she discussed elements of postfeminism, focusing in particular on its relationship with feminism, women’s sexuality, and cultural expectations to work on the self. Charting postfeminism, from the rise of the Spice Girls to contemporary figures like pop stars Nikki Minaj and Little Mix, she talked about her research “at the intersections of psychology, cultural and media studies, describing how a postfeminist sensibility informs young women’s understanding of themselves, their bodies, sexuality and politics.”

Postfeminism is, she says, “a set of ideas about ideal femininity that tie ideas around working on the body and self to meet a highly-stylised, sexually agentic, and entrepreneurial sense of femininity that is framed in terms of freedom and empowerment, but for many women involves high levels of work and consumption.”

Media and the meaning of Kim Kardashian

Professor Riley says her intellectual inspiration comes from reading widely and linking together different literature from psychology, sociology and cultural studies.” Sometimes this has made me a jack-of- all-trades, but it has also given me insights from a broader perspective that I can apply to issues in a way that people focused within a specific discipline often don’t. “

Through her research on gender, body image, managing lifestyle advice, drug and alcohol use, and broader patterns of citizenship and leisure, “I’ve tried to tell the stories of people’s lives and to contextualise them with broader discourses of what it means to be a good person which link to issues of power and identity.”

Discussions about body image and gender in the media reflect ongoing preoccupations of life in the 21st century that are central to her research. “Body image is a hot topic for media,” says Professor Riley, who was often interviewed for the BBC, even about what she thought of Kim Kardashian‘s bottom. 

“I can’t say it was how I imagined a feminist researcher’s career might go! But it was an opportunity for me to talk about expectations of women to mould their bodies into cultural prescriptions and yet to understand that this work purely as an empowering, individual choice. It allowed me to talk about the way that racialised identities are produced in subtle and often damaging ways in relation to body image too.”

She’s been interested in gender throughout her academic career: her PhD looked at how men working in the professions of accountancy, law and architecture made sense of gender changes given that women were studying these subjects in equal numbers at university.

A paper she published recently in the Journal of Gender Studies explored how gender expectations and traditional ideas of masculinity influenced the way men learned to dance in a British Latin and ballroom class. In particular the study explored some men’s resistance to moving their hips and what this revealed about their internalised ideas of masculinity and male sexuality.

What is critical health psychology?

An interdisciplinary approach informed by critical theory is at the heart of the critical health psychology field, she explains. “We take a broad view of health and wellbeing, understanding health as produced not just at the intersections of psychology and the body – but enmeshed in the social, political and economic. 

“We recognise the value of working with different ways of knowing health. Asking questions to hear multiple perspectives is often more valuable than seeking a fixed answer. Health cannot be a one size fits all. A critical thread runs through everything we do. And we distinguish ourselves with our approach rather than a fixed topic of study.”

Professor Riley applies critical health psychology principles to a wide range of topics, including how to manage lifestyle advice after a diagnosis of coronary heart disease, analysis of self-help aimed at women, drug and alcohol use, and understanding rave as a form of political participation. She is currently involved in an EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, UK) grant looking at how to enhance the working experience of women in STEM subjects at universities.

In the health psychology cohort at Massey – which this year celebrates 30 years since Professors Kerry Chamberlain and John Spicer launched the first undergraduate health psychology paper – other issues being researched include health and ageing, the role of pharmacies, health and disaster management, eating disorder recovery, digital health technologies, health and inequality, and reproductive justice.

She believes a critical perspective on health and psychology is important because it opens up new ways of thinking. “It aligns with the University mission to be a critical conscience of society. And we can use this to make a difference and to inspire ourselves and others by examining, challenging and thinking deeply about who we are, how we make sense of ourselves within our societal framework and the implications this has for people’s health.”

COVID-19 through a health psychology lens

The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown gave Professor Riley and her colleagues an opportunity to “share some of our thinking that’s come from using a critical health psychology lens. We believe that the way people make sense of an issue is linked to politics, history, economics and power. From this perspective, ‘big’ issues are in our everyday experiences, and in the blog we wanted to explore what this might mean for trying to live a good life under COVID.” 

“The context of COVID-19 and lockdown intensifies the stresses and joys of daily life – in this blog we share a set of short responses to living everyday life in extraordinary times, developed from perspectives informed by critical health psychology.”

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