Proud2Bme | Dear KJ: How Can Recovery be Helped or Hindered by Academia?

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Dear KJ: How Can Recovery be Helped or Hindered by Academia?

"Dear KJ" is a weekly advice column by Dr. Kjerstin "KJ" Gruys, sociologist, author and body image activist.  She holds a Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on the politics of appearance and is the author of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body By Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery Press, 2012). Her work and writing have been featured by Good Morning America, 20/20The Colbert Report, USA Today, People, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, NPR's "Tell Me More" and "On Air with Ryan Seacrest," among others. Find her at kjerstingruys.com.

As a budding sociologist, I was wondering how recovery can be both helped and hindered by the world of academia? 

What a great question! I’ve given a lot of consideration to this over the years. Here’s a sprinkling of thoughts:

First, I just want to point out that, regardless of where a person works, having an amazing and happy job is usually good for one’s mental health, while having an awful and miserable job is usually bad for one’s mental health. Like any career, working in academia can be amazing, but, depending on the circumstances, it can also be awful, so it would be unfair for me to generalize about academia as a whole.

Further, the “world of academia” is pretty big, and my experiences as a feminist sociologist working in certain institutions might not translate to the experiences of academics in other fields or institutions. Now that we’ve gotten the disclaimer out of the way, here’s what I can say from my own experiences:

Working in academia has been waaaay better for recovery than my first career. I used to work in the fashion industry, and the pressure to be stylish, thin and attractive was pretty high. I was constantly worried about gaining weight. I’ve felt much less of this pressure in academia, which, for me, has been very pro-recovery. Yes, woman academics still have to contend with plenty of sexist double standards related to appearance, but I think this is less intense in academia than in most fields.

My experiences with academia as an undergraduate student played a crucial and mostly positive role in my ED recovery. Taking sociology, social psychology and gender studies courses in college helped me see that my eating disorder wasn’t just a personal failure, but a cultural problem. I went from feeling helpless to feeling angry. In my case, feeling anger instead of fear and shame was a huge turning point that motivated my recovery. That said, I can’t imagine having the same life-changing experience if I hadn’t been exposed to the specific academic fields of gender studies, sociology and social psychology.

Knowledge, as they say, is power. At first I was a consumer of knowledge. I read a lot of books and articles, and I attended lectures. But soon I had the opportunity to become a creator of knowledge, by conducting my own research for my undergraduate senior thesis. I designed a study to answer questions that I was personally curious about, but once I’d answered these questions for myself, I realized it might help other people if I shared what I’d learned.

At this point, academia had not only helped me shift my emotional state, but had started shifting my identity from that of victim to that of activist. From psychological research we know that one’s identity is a powerful force in shaping beliefs and behavior; simply, we like our identity, beliefs and behaviors to be consistent. In my case, this meant that once I identified as an activist and academic, I gained some psychological protection in the direction of recovery.

But let’s not forget that knowledge can be a mixed bag. For one thing, recovering from an eating disorder while also spending all of your time at work thinking about and writing about eating disorders can be psychologically exhausting. It can start to feel like your entire life—both personal and professional—revolves around the world of eating disorders. Further, depending on your mindset or place in recovery, doing research about “beauty bias”—such as the pervasiveness of weight discrimination—can be discouraging rather than empowering. I mean, let’s face it, sometimes it seems like changing our bodies might be easier than changing the world!

But whenever that thought crosses my mind, I remind myself of all the research showing that one does not need to be beautiful or thin in order to find success, love and happiness. Statistically speaking, beauty has only a negligible impact on overall happiness. For example, in one study, study participants were asked questions about their levels of happiness while, unbeknownst to them, their looks were being rated on a one-to-five scale by a research team (yes, this is kind of creepy, but let’s leave the methodological conversation for another day!).

Participants rated in the top 15% in terms of beauty were roughly 10% happier than those in the bottom 10%. Now, a 10% increase in happiness may seem pretty meaningful (I’d take it!), but let’s be careful to remember that this means that the most stunningly beautiful people—the breathtaking outliers—are only 10% happier than the most profoundly unattractive. Happiness, it turns out, depends on things like healthy self-esteem, “positive social relationships” and having “a sense of meaning and purpose.”

Getting back to the original question of how life in academia can either hinder or help one’s recovery… in my specific case, the relationship has been clear: identifying as an academic has been healthy for my self-image, the “academy” of like-minded colleagues has given me some of my most “positive social relationships,” and my research, writing and activism energize me with meaning and purpose. 
 

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