On Nov. 15, McMaster Health Sciences, in conjunction with contributions from Canadian women’s health advocate May Cohen, organized a double research lecture featuring the research of Marina Morrow and Don McCreary. Held at McMaster Innovation Park, the two lectures revolved on the relationship between gender and mental health, which addressed issues ranging from the historical discourses on female mental health to the current trends of male body image.
The conference began with Marina Morrow, an associate professor of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, who presented a lecture entitled “Women’s Mental Health: Beyond Gender Matter” which discussed mental health as a gendered construct.
As the crux of her argument, Morrow discussed the notion of “intersectionality,” a theoretical lens that acknowledges the systemic processes by which mental health is constituted through gender, sexuality, race, class and ability. Morrow proposed that the intersectional approach effectively enables feminist thought to expose inequities within the health system, acknowledge the diverse contexts of women’s lives, and deconstruct the relations of power with regulatory bodies such as policymaking.
Intersectionality is “an emerging research and policy paradigm which seeks to reveal the complex interactions among multiple social categories,” said Morrow.
In exemplifying mental health as “gendered”, Morrow provided case study examples on suicide and diagnostic practices. One such story she spoke on was Amanda Todd, the fifteen-year-old high school student from British Columbia who was bullied to the point of depression and later suicide. Morrow articulated how Todd’s death reflects larger social structures at play in her therapy, that is, how health inequity is part of a “whole social gestalt.”
With diagnostic practices, Morrow argued how the women are main targets of the pharmaceutical industry for anti-anxiety and sleeping pills and bridges this trend to historical notions of women as “irrational and potentially hysteric” in contrast to men. In addressing the importance of her research, Morrow stated her intention in having this conversation is to “illuminate social and structural factors that influence the mental health and well-being of women and men.”
Morrow concluded her talk in calling for a social justice framework, a “gender and sex based analysis” on mental health and thinking about new ways to address policy change.
Don McCreary, adjunct professor of Psychology at Brock University spoke on the current research on male body image.
His presentation “Current Research in Boys’ and Men’s Body Image” commented on the erroneous presumption that men and boys are more satisfied with their bodies than females. His findings from numerous research studies suggested the complex many men possess to achieve a “muscular ideal” which he made clear as a culturally constructed ideal. McCreary terms the psychological disposition “muscular dysmorphia,” referring to one’s belief that they are smaller and skinnier than they actually are.
In contrast to the typical female psyche dealing with being ‘over’ weight, McCreary discussed how males are conditioned with a drive for physical bulk or muscularity. He went on to propose a correlative parallel between muscularity and masculinity whereby men who are ‘bigger’ view themselves as more ‘manly.’
Another study conducted by McCreary and his colleague Stanley Sadava brought to light the idea that underweight women and overweight men view themselves as healthier than if they were overweight or underweight respectively.
The conference concluded with an acknowledgement of the culturally constructed ideals defining gender. Although muscular dysmorphia is not acknowledged by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. McCreary stated he believes the condition to have significant ties obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In the concluding part of the lecture, McCreary emphasized how masculine muscularity, albeit a “cultural ideal,” possesses the potential for very real psychological effects on the male psyche.
Morrow and McCreary are still continuing their research in unpacking ideas of mental health and gender.