June 12, 2024

Thriving, not just surviving: Scholar unravels body and eating relationships among sexual and gender minority young adults

Werklund School postdoc Kheana Barbeau shifts the narrative from focus on risk to focus on resilience
Werklund School postdoc Kheana Barbeau
Kheana Barbeau earned a SSHRC Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship for their research. Courtesy Kheana Barbeau

Werklund School of Education postdoctoral scholar Dr. Kheana Barbeau, PhD, is examining how identity-related experiences shape sexual and gender minority (SGM) individuals’ relationships with their body, food and physical activity through a strength-based and intersectional framework 

According to Barbeau, SGM youth and adults are disproportionately impacted by body dissatisfaction and health inequities, including eating disorders and physical inactivity. Stigma related to sexual orientation, gender and weight have been shown to contribute to negative body attitudes and unhealthy weight management practices. So much so, that the risk faced by this community is double that of their cisgender and heterosexual peers.

“The challenge is two-fold — the first being reducing disparities in eating disorders and maladaptive weight-controlling behaviours, like dieting and overexercising, among SGM young adults, and the second being to reduce these disparities through strength-based levers and even moving beyond disparity to support thriving.”

Individual and communal strengths

Approaching this work from a strength-based lens is essential for Barbeau as the traditional risk-focused narrative in research serves to minimize and overlook known strengths found within SGM populations.

“Relations with the body, eating and physical activity are complex, individualized, and fluid over time,” they explain. “A deficit-based framework is highly reductive and can breed hopelessness. It also ignores all of the strengths a person and their community call upon to support them in altering a relationship with their body over time. 

“Ignoring strengths not only stunts knowledge production in research but also in services and policy, which also trickles down to how a given individual in the community feels about their own capacity to experience flourishing even within oppressive systems.”

Examples of individual and communal strengths include self-compassion, queer spaces that support non-competitive forms of physical activity, resistance of stigma and fatphobia, intuitive eating and exercise, nature, and weight neutrality.

Moving away from a risk-fixated framework also helps people to prosper.

“Strength-based levers will, in a very integrated way, reduce risk, but more importantly, support thriving at the same time.”

A transformational moment

Based in Ottawa, Barbeau provides peer support for individuals dealing with eating disorders and has been researching body image in relation to health behaviour engagement for the past seven years. Despite this extensive experience, they say hearing the stories of SGM individuals has been eye-opening and laid the groundwork for their postdoctoral research.  

“I think what I've learned so far from the interviews I've conducted is that when a person starts to step into their identity, it allows them to grow a new relationship with their body and how to nourish it through activity and eating.”

Barbeau adds that this “restart” enables a person to critically analyze everything they have internalized about their body and what it means to be “healthy,” which helps the transition to a more positive relationship.

“Stepping into a person’s gender and/or sexual orientation identity seems to be a transformational moment of unlearning and relearning.” 

That said, they caution that this positive transformation can be foiled by interpersonal systems and other major life transitions, like pregnancy or gender-affirming therapy.

“If family members are not supporting the identity that they're stepping into, for example, it can hinder all of the other positive transformations that are happening, which include those new positive relationships with the body and eating. 

“A lot of folks also experience other forms of stigma in the medical setting, which recreates preoccupation with the body and reactivates problematic belief systems about bodies and diet culture, in addition to reminding them that they don’t have autonomy over their bodies like other people do. 

“There’s a lot of frustration on how the medical system is a gatekeeper of their own happiness and achieving their goals whether that’s related to gender identity and expression or otherwise, like access to fertility treatment.”

Award-winning research

Barbeau was recently awarded a 2023-2024 SSHRC Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship for the project. They say the win means a lot to them personally and sends a message to the SGM population.   

“It's really an honour to represent Canada as a leader within this area of research and it is really encouraging that people believe that this should be one of the main focuses of Canadian research. Putting this at the forefront is a really big win for the 2SLGBTQIA+ community,” says Barbeau.

"I would like to extend my congratulations to Dr. Barbeau on their SSHRC Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship,” says Dr. Katrina Milaney, PhD, associate vice-president (research).  

"Dr. Barbeau’s work is examining a very important topic and is focused on strength-based and action-focused results that have the potential to inform the national dialogue and future responses for young people with multiple identities and diverse experiences. This recognition is an outstanding accomplishment, and I look forward to their achievements in this important area of research as a Banting Postdoctoral Researcher.”

Creating change

Barbeau’s research is not just about understanding the challenges confronting the SGM community, but also about creating change. Fittingly, when the two-year project is completed, they will turn to the study participants for insight into how best to share the findings with the public. 

In addition, they plan to connect with community organizations, including the Centre for Sexuality and school boards across the province.

"I think that schools and education systems are the ideal vehicle for transforming how people relate to their bodies and harness habits with eating and physical activity,” they say.

Long-term plans include using the study results to develop a national strength-based strategy that will inform co-ordinated programming and policies.

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