Creative and critical feminist research

Madeleine Pownall reports from the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society's Psychology of Women and Equalities Section.

The Psychology of Women and Equalities Section annual conference celebrated the multi-faceted nature of the female experience, in all its messy, complex, political glory. Over the course of three days, scholars from all over the UK, South Africa, Australia, and Iceland gathered in Windsor’s beautiful Cumberland Lodge to discuss the psychology of women through a creative, often critical, lens.

The POWES conference not only incorporated a critical appraisal of the female experience in isolation, but also discussed how this experience is enacted in a wider, cultural, political context. The BPS section has recently seen a name change, now including ‘Equalities’ in its title (the E is silent). To reflect this, equality was at the heart of the conference proceedings. Therefore, the diversity and complexity of gendered experiences were captured.

Healthy aging

'Anti-aging is like salted caramel, it’s everywhere at the moment', begins Professor Jayne Raisborough (Leeds Beckett University) in her keynote presentation. Anti-aging narratives sell the idea that aging is situated in two discrete binaries, she explains. According to clever (exploitative) marketing, the way in which one ages is now a case of ‘misery and death vs. renewal and activity’. This binary is in line with Susan Fiske’s work on benevolent and hostile sexism. Thanks to hyper-commercialisation, we now have a choice in how we age. Therefore, ‘aging well’ (whatever that may really mean) has been constructed to mean aligning oneself with productivity. Against a background of austerity, this is all intrinsically linked to workplace productivity and activity. Raisborough explains that you can’t just age gracefully now – that isn’t enough (and it doesn’t sell). You now have to age well. This involves engaging in narratives that situate 'the horror of aging' as problematic and, importantly for marketing purposes, reversible. To demonstrate this rhetoric, Raisborough shows us a stock photo of grinning pensioners jumping on a trampoline: 'Look! If you age well, you are literally buoyant!'.

The issue of aging is saturated with gendered inequalities. Age is a site where, for women, inequalities accumulate. This means that it is an important issue for psychologists to critically consider. Not only are inequalities piled upon inequalities in this period, but women are also instructed by society to work to defy their age. Women, Raisborough explains, are culturally imagined as ‘managers of age’. Anti-aging products (including, to much amusement, anti-aging shampoo) do not only inform women that they should look younger, they also present aging as a fundamental moral dilemma. A problem that needs fixing. Anti-aging messages instruct older women how they should be behaving. This contributes to the shaping of the self in older women, which has harmful consequences such as objectification and decreased sense of worth.  

So, how can we combat these problematic messages? The key is 'critical optimism'. Viewing aging optimistically not only foregrounds ‘survival methods’, but also rebuts messages of harmful gendered aging. Although historically associated with naivety, Raisborough prompts us to use optimism to foster new pedagogies of age.

To accompany this new optimistic agenda, Rainsborough shares themes from her in-depth interviews with older feminist-identifying women. They discussed how anti-aging narrative have shaped their understanding of their own age, revealing a torrent of anger againt the cultural rhetoric of ‘anti-aging’. Importantly, these interviews did not only discuss how beauty and self-esteem (and the interplay between the two) are managed in older age, but also discussed wider personal issues. It was more important to the interview participants to be visible, interested, and engaged with the world then it was to be seen to have ‘aged well’. Anti-aging, therefore, attempts to strip them of this. To summarise the problem, Rainsborough explains, 'to deny age is to deny life'.


Conversations surrounding motherhood and maternity go hand-in-hand with the psychology of women. Professor Katherine Runswick-Cole (University of Sheffield) discussed the specific nuances involved in the mothering of disabled children in her keynote address. She explains that ‘good parenting’ is constructed as the primary route for successful parenting, despite being saturated in cultural and political ideologies. The experience of mothering disabled children is often framed through self-help literature as a 'quest for the norm'. Parents are guided to locate the 'problem' and are provided with tools to 'escape it'. Runswick-Cole argues that this is a dangerous and unhelpful way of viewing motherhood, offering her own personal reflections.

Against a background of austerity and inequality, Runswick-Cole explains that the position of mothering disabled children is precarious because our political and social ideals favour abled-bodied people. In reaction to this, there has been a trend of 'cruel optimism', a belief that ‘the market’ and medicalised interventions will solve psychological and political ills involved in disability. She also cautions that ableism isn’t just preference for able bodies. It’s about structures, processes, and practices that favour able-bodied people and position disabled people as ‘other’.

Therefore, instead of engaging in theories that succumb to ideas of medicalised models that 'fix' disabilities, Runswick-Cole proposed the theory of 'unmothering'. Borrowing from the idea of 'unschooling', unmothering challenges individualisation and maternal blame, whilst transgressing ideologies that situate disabled people as ‘other’. In this sense, unmothering creates a possibility for resisting the centering of the mother-child relationship in child development and instead locates the child in a wider context. Children learn about the world through interaction with environments, rather than placing the impetus firmly on mother’s ability and sensitivity. Closing the keynote, Runswick-Cole explained that this ultimately leads to the creation of ‘maternal commons’, in which 'maternal blame is resisted by collective endeavours'. 

Maternal blame was also firmly at the centre of Dr Maxine Woolhouse’s (Leeds Beckett University) presentation on childhood obesity. A discourse analysis of interviews with mother and daughter dyads revealed two dominant discourses: ‘choice within limits’ and ‘othering of extremes’. In order to navigate ‘good mum’ identities throughout the interviews, Woolhouse explained that mothers engage in 'careful discursive work'. The ‘good mum’ identity is maintained by expressing awareness of boundaries and balance within healthy food choices. Also, mothers in the interviews attempted to ‘other’ those with extreme weights, distancing themselves (and their daughters) from supposed embodiments of ‘bad health’.


Although the distinction between gender and sex is now firmly on psychology’s agenda, the boundaries between the two remain somewhat blurred. Therefore sex, or perhaps more appropriately, sexuality, is an important part of the conversation. The POWES conference explored multi-faceted sexuality, in terms of both having sex and sexual identity.

Usra Leedham (Ryerson University) initiated a lively conversation on the effects of pornography consumption on young girls’ views of their own sexuality. Sexuality, as Leedham explains, is both private and public, and is rooted in gendered senses of power and pleasure. Her research is predominately interested in how porn situates sex as ‘public work’, whilst creating complex discourses of interplays between desire and entrepreneurship. The interview participants in Leedham’s studies understand porn to be a fake, 'counterfeit experience' of sexuality. Sceptic of the authenticity of ‘public’ sex work, her participants grappled with concerns and constraints of their own sexuality in the research interviews. Summarising, Leedham urges us to consider what is done both with and through pornography. Her participants reported some contradictory feelings about porn. Some claimed that porn 'dissects desire', offering a fake representation of intimacy. However, interestingly, others reported to enjoy knowingly 'fooling themselves' with pornified fantasy.

Turning the attention from pleasure to education of sex, Amy Dean (The Open University) presented a paper on young people’s navigation of sex education. Interviews conducted in high schools and youth groups revealed some dominant discursive patterns. These patterns included viewing sex as 'risky', with participants expressing particular concern for STIs, pregnancy, and sexual abuse. Continuing with the theme of awareness for sexual safety, Sarah Seymour Smith (Nottingham Trent University) presented her research on online sex offending. Building upon the literature that suggests sex offenders use rapport building to introduce sexual content to minors online, Seymour Smith offered a discursive approach to these encounters. A discourse analysis of conversations using adults as ‘decoys’ posing as minors online revealed a distinct perpetrator discursive pattern. The use of ‘bargaining sequences’ was identified; perpetrators tended to use ‘if/then’ constructions to build up a sense of equity. This enables perpetrators to frame their sexual offending online as a reciprocal practice that deals with constantly conflicting resistance and compliance.

This discursive work, as Seymour Smith explains, attempts to use bargaining power to frame exchanges as consensual. Emily Thomas (Ryerson University) later extended the conversation on the conceptualisation of consent in offline sexual exchanges. Offering an insight into the nuances of sex, consent, and pleasure, Thomas reported from her semi-structured interviews, which were later analysed using critical discursive psychology. 'What is good sex?', Thomas prompted us to consider. According to her participants, good sex involves consent, comfort, and communication. Bad sex, however, is much more fluid a term. Sex is about navigation and negotiation and it is conceptualised differently depending on the 'dominant discourses'.

During the Q&A session, a spirited discussion of consent, desire, and sexuality ensued. After much deliberation, the general consensus was that sexual consent is difficult to conceptualise due to a lack of a common language. 'If your friend asked you to go out to dinner and you didn’t want to go, you wouldn’t just say "no thank you", right?' Thomas said. 'We make excuses'. When this discursive template is translated to the context of sexual decision making, it becomes a lot trickier to navigate. We are told through well-meaning consent campaigns to ‘just say no’, assured that our ‘no’ doesn’t (or shouldn’t) require a reason or excuse. As Thomas, and later the audience, later explains, this is completely out of line with how we communicate in the rest of our lives. How do we ask for sex? How do we give consent? The answers, as Thomas’ research demonstrated are more psychologically messy than they appear.

Shifting the focus back from sexuality to gender, Luke Ward (University of Northampton) kicked off discussions on young people’s experiences. Presenting his Masters research, Ward examined how transgender and non-binary young people position themselves within heteronormative hierarchies of gender. He explained how constructs that position genders as binary (i.e. either male or female) are unhelpful and don’t capture the experiences of many young people. Indeed, Ward noted that in focus groups, interpretive phemenological analysis indicated that relational peer support is important for aiding non-binary young people’s navigation of their gender identity.

Professor Katherine Johnson (University of Brighton) also works with non-binary and transgender people. As she explains, within both research and general discussion of non-normative experiences, there is no defined agreement on how gender should be conceptualised. The tensions within transgender linguistic choices (e.g. pronoun use) mean that research often remains regulated by heteronormative norms. To combat this, Johnson uses participatory visual, creative methods in her research. Participants, typically young people in gender identity community groups, are provided with craft and arts materials, which they are encouraged to use to ‘tell their story’. These methods have proven to be insightful and enlightening, offering young people an alternative method to articulate their experiences. Community groups, Johnson concludes, are a 'vital piece of the jigsaw', enabling peer support and guidance in gender and sexuality navigation.

Creative methodologies

Research into the psychology of women and equalities often tackles some difficult, meaty questions. These questions may not be answerable with traditional, metric-based research methodologies. Throughout the conference there was a range of both qualitative and quantitative innovative methods on show, all of which had a quest for meaning making and understanding at their core.

Epitomising the potential creativity of research approaches, Rowan Sandle (Leeds Beckett University) drew parallels between her PhD work on the effects of austerity on wellbeing with… slime mould. Slime mould, a polyphyletic fungi-esque organism, (or, more simply, 'messy goo'), can function as a single organism or as a group. With much scientific speculation into its origins, categorisation, and species, Sandle explains that the mould is a perfect metaphor for her research process. We can choose to enquire about its form and history, or we can 'wonder with it' rather than 'marvel from a distance'. It’s complicated and difficult to categorise. In her research, Sandle conducts ‘photo walks’, whereby participants join her in a walk around local areas, taking photos and discussing their subject choices. Like the slime mould, her participants’ photographs become stronger and a ‘richer picture’ when joined together. The ‘data’ of her research, therefore, becomes more than just the artefacts of the photowalks or focus group transcripts. It is a “whole process”, Sandle explains; like the slime mould, messy, complicated, and tricky to define.

In true POWES style, Paula Singleton (Leeds Beckett University) led a creative workshop that aimed to leave a feminist mark on Barbie – with her heteronormative, skinny, White ideals of femininity and body image. Armed with scraps of material, Sharpies, feathers, and sequins, we stuck, sewed and scribbled our own interpretations of femininity onto the dolls… turning Barbie into our very own ‘feminist superhero’.

Following a similar creative-based approach to research, Andrea LaMarre (University of Guelph) uses digital story-telling as a methodology in practice. Digital story-telling, whereby participants are encouraged to make digital videos that capture their experiences, is an 'artful and reflective approach', explains LaMarre. To date, she has used this methodology within two unique participant groups. Firstly, participants with experience of eating disorders were invited to create digital stories as part of the research. LaMarre also used digital story-telling in pregnant participants who have experience of weight stigma. This unique methodology allows participants to create 'embodied, fleshy accounts' of their story. This level of identification with one’s experiences may not be as easily achieved with traditional, less imaginative methods of research. Both the process and product of digital story-telling allows participants and researchers to get to 'the crux of the story'. It also facilitates a close and intimate connection with the experience, allowing for more thorough analyses of psychological events and feelings.

Tanya Beetham (University of Northampton) also acknowledges the complexity of lived experiences through her use of narrative methodologies. Beetham offered a glimpse into her PhD narrative research on childhood domestic abuse. She explains that the way that the ‘self’ is narrated offers insight into underlying thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Interestingly, Beetham also acknowledged how her own position as a researcher and interviewer in the context of interviews can alter the ‘lens’ through which meaning is made. It is important, therefore, to consider the multiple modalities of communication in narrative research. Moreover, the position of the researcher alters how this communication is understood. Beetham closed by highlighting how reflexivity in research is important, and how it may foster resilience in the context of domestic abuse.

To conclude, the POWES conference discussed all aspects of women’s lives; from childhood, adolescence, mothering, and aging. Beyond the presentations outlined here were fascinating and stimulating conversations about ‘feminism in the academy’, Athena SWAN, the #metoo movement, birthing, and online identities. In line with Professor Raisborough’s take-home message, a sense of 'critical optimism' ran through every presentation and workshop of the conference. Solutions, ideas, and ways to move forward from inequality were all at the heart of the annual three-day feminist psychology summer camp. I left with a sense of hopefulness, inspired by the creative and critical methodologies and approaches to research.

- Madeleine Pownall is a recent graduate of the University of Lincoln.

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