Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies

Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies
School of Sociology and Social Policy
Social Sciences Building
Leeds, LS2 9JT

Tel: +44 (0) 113 343 3770
Fax: +44 (0) 113 343 4415


The unseen hazards of researching sugar

by Karen Throsby

A few weeks ago, as part of my ongoing research on the social life of sugar, I set myself the task of watching a series of anti-sugar, and by extension, anti-obesity, documentary films. How do they tell the story of sugar in contemporary society? What evidence do they draw on? What imagery do they use? Who are the authoritative voices of anti-sugar? How do gender, race and class figure in those narratives?

Over just a few days, I watched Cereal Killers, Run on Fat, The Big Fat Fix, What the Health, Fed Up and Carb-Loaded. I watched each one twice; the first viewing was to get a general sense of the film, and during the second, I took detailed notes. It sounds leisurely and entertaining to watch films for research, but by the time I got to What the Health – an anti-sugar, anti-dairy documentary promoting a whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diet – I started to feel inescapably sad at the overwhelming fat-hatred that runs through the films. I took stock and revisited my notes. They recorded over and over again the use of what fat activist, Charlotte Cooper calls the ‘headless fatty’ images – fat, headless torsos, thighs or backsides, often with hands clutching packages of fast food, from which we are supposed to deduce a lifetime of poor choices and devastatingly expensive health problems. A parade of ‘experts’ – predominantly white, male, middle class professionals – proclaim the catastrophe of the fat body, and especially in the case of children. In Fed Up, we meet 12 year old Maggie, who cries in despair and shame because she hasn’t lost any weight. Only her body size matters to the filmmakers, and the commentary ignores how articulate she is, how insightful, or how much fun we see her having in clips of her swimming and kayaking with her friends. These ‘failed’ bodies are contrasted with the ‘good’ bodies of predominantly male athletes whose lean, able-bodied physicality signal the normative self-control of the disciplined subject. None of the films talk about the constraining effects and pressing demands of poverty, or the gendered labour of shopping for and preparing the fresh, whole food they recommended.

The fat-phobia of the films started to weigh heavily on me. The films are hate narratives parading as entertainment and they are stained with contempt for the fat body. I felt poisoned by them, and in spite of my very critical understanding of fatness, I had inadvertently made myself a target of their fat hatred simply by virtue of watching the films. It was dispiriting; a concentrated encounter with the hatred that the visibly fat encounter every day, and one that brought my enthusiasm for my new project temporarily to a grinding halt.

So what’s a researcher to do? Clearly, leaving the films unwatched and unexamined is not an option, so instead, I instigated an anti-sugar film self-care regime. The first step was to abandon my binge-watching strategy and pack away the films; I took a whole week off from watching and instead burrowed my way through a pile of feminist technoscience studies gems that restored my faith in the world and in my research. The second step was to move to a schedule of no more than one film per week; and then finally, to follow each film immediately with a book of such incisive and feminist potency that the fat-phobic stain simply couldn’t withstand its force. The take away lessons from this experience are: (1) pace yourself, especially with potentially upsetting material; and (2) never underestimate the restorative power of feminist literature.

Karen Throsby is researching the sociology of sugar. Read more about the project here:





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My Degree Explained: Gender Studies MA

By Olivia Morris


When I tell people that I’m studying an MA in Gender Studies, I’m typically faced with some pretty poor and misinformed reactions including: “Eh? Gender Studies? Is that just a bunch of women sat around complaining about men?” “Are you going to be able to get a job with that?” “There can’t be that many people on your course…” “Are there any boys who do it?” and so on…

The amount of students on the course offered at the University of Leeds almost doubled from 2015 to 2016 with an additional 12 students taking the MA. There are a variety of people on the course who represent various gender identities, come from all kinds of different backgrounds and cultures, and between us there are more than 19 different languages spoken, including a student who can sign-language.

Students with a masters in gender studies go on to do a wide range of careers including: teaching, working for NGOs, campaigning and activism, further study, journalism, law and many more.

The research, analysis and communication skills that the course provides you with means there are plenty of options for students to go on to do. The course in general provides us with an overview of the gendered inequalities that we face in society both in the past and now, and what we can do to tackle these issues.

So what exactly is a MA in Gender Studies, and why is it becoming more popular? With the help of some fellow students and lecturers, I want to bust a few myths about Gender Studies at Master’s level, explaining what it’s really about and why it’s so important, from those who actually do the course.

Francesca Taylor, Student

“In September 2015 I began volunteering for a local women’s charity Support After Rape and Sexual Violence Leeds. It was through delivering frontline women’s services as a helpline volunteer, supporting survivors of sexual violence, that I fully realised the extent of gender discrimination and the necessity for more conversations and studies about gender inequality.

“Flash-forward a year on and I’m studying for my M.A in Gender Studies at Leeds with a view to work for a gender based charity in the future.

“The course offers an in-depth insight into feminist, queer and postcolonial theories (among many others); ways that we might research gender in a sensitive, effective way; and discussions revolve around important relevant examples relating to gender in the changing, technological world in which we live.

“If you are interested in how gender is experienced differently and want to learn from other’s experiences by having important conversations, then I would wholeheartedly recommend studying gender at master’s level.”

Karen Throsby, Associate Professor

“An understanding of gender relations in society has never been more important, locally, nationally and globally. Courses like those at CIGS (Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies), and those run by other feminists across the country, enable students to think critically and reflexively about gender relations in all their complexity, and in ways that enable them to engage politically with the social world.

“These programmes also enable students to form alliances with feminists from around the world that will endure well beyond the degree programme itself.

“In a moment when the future president of the United States can talk unashamedly about sexually assaulting women and still be elected, I can’t think of anything more important than trying to understand gendered power relations and our own complicated relations to them, as well as seeking out points of intervention and resistance.”

Georgie Oi, Student

“I applied to do an MA in Gender Studies because I had been working in the public sector for sometime and wanted to specialise in sectors where a knowledge of gender issues would be useful. For example, working with survivors of domestic violence.

“On a personal note, I have experienced sexism all throughout my life and I wanted to empower myself to challenge this.”

Joyce Yi, Student

“The reason why I choose gender studies is because I’ve seen loads of gender inequality issues in our everyday lives. Some women are suffering from the ideal female gender roles.

“The most horrible thing is that they blame themselves if they do not fit the ideal image of women. Men can also be victims under the typical gender stereotypes. So I’m really curious how those roles and ‘truth’ are established in the society; what things we can do to help ourselves and others to live more freely.”

Current students on the course at Leeds took a wide range of undergraduate courses including English, Theatre, Music, Sociology, History, Psychology, Politics, International Relations and many more.

In a world that is becoming ever more uncertain, it is imperative that the students of today equip themselves with the tools and knowledge to challenge what faces us.


This article first appeared on Kettle on 2nd April 2017.

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Sugar Rush: Science, Obesity and the Social Life of Sugar

by Karen Throsby


After decades of warnings about the perils of dietary fat, in recent years, sugar has stepped into the limelight as the public health bête noir. You can barely open a magazine, newspaper or social media feed these days without encountering dire warnings about the threat to health posed by sugar, or the proffering of programmes to help you quit the white stuff. It’s a concern that resonates at the global level. In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended that we limit free (or added) sugars to 10% of our daily intake – less that the amount contained in a single can of Coke. And in 2016, the WHO called for the global taxation of sugary drinks to tackle obesity and type II diabetes, particularly in relation to children. Health entrepreneurs have hopped on board, and there is a proliferation of anti-sugar popular science texts, low carbohydrate dietary plans and first person and how-to guides to giving up sugar, available for purchase or via subscription access. Giving up sugar has also become a site of charitable fund-raising. For example, in February 2017, the Cancer Research Fund launched “Sugar Free February”, and in March 2017, the British Heart Foundation recruited over 16,000 participants for its sponsored “Dechox” fund-raising initiative.

With the exception of those commercially invested in the sugar industry, there is widespread agreement that the high consumption of sugar, and its almost universal presence in processed and packaged foods (approximately 75% of supermarket stock has added sugar), constitutes a public health issue. However, debates rumble on among scientists, clinicians and policy makers about what counts as sugar (all carbohydrates? Added sugars?), on the feasibility of sugar consumption in moderation (an argument favoured by the sugar industry, perhaps not surprisingly), and the relation of sugar to the familiar dietary enemy, fat. These contestations sit at the intersection of anti-obesity ideology, professional status and the authority of science, and the vested and commercial interests of ‘big sugar’ and its allies, and are central to the ways in which sugar is understood and made meaningful in contemporary society. They are also inextricable from generational, gendered, raced and classed assumptions about who the primary consumers of sugar are, how food habits and tastes are produced and sustained, the meanings of food across different contexts and how changes in food behaviour occur.

The current rush to position sugar as what anti-sugar researcher and popular nutritional science writer, Robert Lustig, describes as the “Darth Vader of the Empire” is the focus of my new project, entitled “Sugar Rush: Science, Obesity and the Social Life of Sugar”. The research, which is supported by a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship, will begin from the question: “What are the social meanings and practices of sugar in the context of the ‘war on obesity’? I plan to explore this by gathering together an assemblage of discourses and materialities through which sugar is made meaningful, and through which the social life of sugar is enacted. This accumulated archive will include: policy documents, parliamentary statements; professional medical association statements; published scientific research; popular texts; websites; media reports and other sources that both reflect and produce the contemporary social meanings of, attachments to, and repudiations of sugar. I hope that the subsequent analysis will facilitate a greater understanding of the ways in which sugar is operating as node through which our anxieties about food, health and bodies are made meaningful.

My interest here is not to determine the ‘truths’ of sugar or to dictate what people should or should not eat. Instead, I want to use the rush to sugar to explore the intersection of key sites of social inquiry including: scientific knowledge production, validation and popular appropriation; the role of generation, gender, race an class in the production of embodied citizenship; the politics of food, particularly in the context of austerity; and the contemporary panics around health and body size.

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Rosemary Lucy Hill publishes new book: Gender, Metal and the Media: Women Fans and the Gendered Experience of Music

Gender, Metal and the Media by Rosemary Lucy Hill

Gender, Metal and the Media by Rosemary Lucy Hill

By Rosemary Lucy Hill



Women fans of popular culture are often derided or overlooked – and music is no exception. But academic work about music fans does not tend to think about the ways in which women music fans might experience their musical engagements differently to men – in part because of the derision. In fact, when it comes to rock music, a lot of work about fans does not think very hard about pleasure in music at all; it tends to use a framework of subcultural theory which means that consumer practices like attending concerts and buying records are prioritised. Music itself, and enjoyment of it, gets left out.

As I grew up enjoying rock and metal music, I struggled to negotiate the stereotypes of women fans. And I felt left out by the culture: in the media women were either ignored or the butt of jokes that furthered male bonding. These things had an impact on my fandom, making for a more obviously gendered terrain to negotiate as a fan, especially when around other fans. And as a feminist I was pretty cross about these things, which I identified as being rooted in sexist assumptions about women.

This is the starting point for my new book: Gender, Metal and the Media: Women Fans and the Gendered Experience of Music (Palgrave). I examine how stereotypes of women are reproduced in the metal media. This means looking at how women are mythologised as fans and as groupies whilst men take the stage. It means understanding how the gendered roles of fan and musician are naturalised, resulting in a common sense idea that women shouldn’t be on the stage at all. But all this happens within another mythologised value: the metal media propagates the idea that the culture is one of equality, and that it doesn’t matter what sex, race, sexuality or nationality you are, as long as you love the music.

These stereotypes of women as groupies and of metal as a realm of equality impact upon women’s fandom in particular ways. The myth of the groupie means that women’s fandom is always suspect: we are assumed to be more interested in the musician that the music. Women’s passionate engagement with the music is ignored, as if we can have no serious interest in listening. Women fans feel angry about this sexist portrayal. But we also feel inhibited when it comes to talking about any sexy thoughts about musicians that go along with our listening pleasure, because these might be seen to diminish our status as fans. But why should music fandom only be about listening? When we see bands perform it would be odd not to think of the musicians as playing a key role in creating the experience of our musical engagement; why, then, take only select aspects of that pleasure and treat them seriously, but not others? We vitally need to rethink how we understand musical pleasure. And we need to grasp how some elements reproduce sexist arguments that diminish women’s fandom.

Music has multiple meanings for people – there are as many different interpretations of the same song as there are listeners. Some of these meanings are explicitly informed by the listener’s gender, for instance when a particular band become a great accompaniment for doing housework. More domestic labour is still done by women than men and so the significance of choosing music to help get through the cleaning highlights how gender shapes our musical experiences. But not all experiences. Music has the power to help us move beyond those specifically gendered experiences – I spoke to one woman for whom listening to her favourite bands enabled her to forget the boring chore of ironing, even as she was in the process of doing it. Music has a transcendent quality, helping us to think creatively, to leave the gendering of our subjectivities behind temporarily.

Hard rock and metal are culturally coded as masculine, and they are notoriously male dominated. A lot of research identifies where the culture is sexist too. But this is not the whole story. Indeed, rock and metal exist in our sexist societies so it is no surprise to find sexism here too. More surprising is that for a lot of women fans, our participation in metal events (concerts, festivals and clubs) means entering a space in which we are less likely to be the targets of men’s unwanted sexual advances and harassments than at mainstream events. This means that metal can be a space in which women can find some freedom from constricting gender roles and oppressive sexism. Of course, it is not entirely free, but we can say that it is free-er. That myth of equality clearly plays a part here, helping people to act in ways that are not organised by prejudice. But sexual equality is not yet a reality, and that myth of equality needs work if it is to become reality.

Musical experiences (both private and social) are therefore shaped by gendered divisions and expectations. And yet hard rock and metal fandom can provide spaces in which women can temporarily forget the gendered limitations placed upon them. ‘Metal fan’ it can be an identity through which to resist gender strictures. These subtle conclusions show how examining women’s experiences in male dominated culture reveal some of the contradictions of femininity, of equality, of feminism – and of gender as a division of people into two groups. It reveals the oppressive nature of the ordinariness of sexism and of the strictures of femininity. It speaks of the need for alternatives for women in order to live our lives as we wish.


The book is available from Palgrave. Use the code PM16THIRTY until 31st December 2016 for a 30% discount. http://www.palgrave.com/gb/book/9781137554406

Rosemary will be talking about the book on Thinking Allowed on 21st December 2016.


A note on the research underpinning the book.

The research was conducted at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York. It was self-funded. Methods include a case study of semiotic analysis of a music magazine in the early 2000s, and interviews with women fans living in England. The research was conducted in line with feminist ontology and epistemology. In particular the book engages with theories about women’s involvement in popular music and research about hard rock and metal.

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Safe Spaces and the politics of vulnerability

By Chris Waugh

Image credit: the author

Image credit: the author

In her recent essay, “Bouncing Back: Vulnerability and Resistance in Time of Resilience,” Sarah Bracke identifies a clash between what she calls the “Look I Overcame” narrative and a culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces on University campuses. For Bracke, the former epitomises an enforced character trait of resilience within neoliberalism. Subjects are expected to be resilient to the harsh threats and dangers of life, to respond with overcoming rather than vulnerability, and thus those subjects who are not perceived as resilient – those who call for safe spaces, for example – are denigrated and belittled.

As both an activist and a social movement researcher, the concept of safe spaces has long interested me. My research focuses on gender discrimination and sexual violence within socialist movements, many of which are ideologically hostile to gendered ideas of vulnerability. Safe spaces, in some ways, are an attempt to explore this vulnerability. So I’d like to consider in this blog post the role of safe spaces, and why, in my opinion, they are vital spaces for the politics of vulnerability.

Safe spaces. Who’d have them? A fair number of students unions and leftist campaigns would, but the list of people who wouldn’t includes, in no particular order, Stephen Fry, the Guardian, and Theresa May. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone willing to speak for safe spaces, but the list of people to speak against them is long and acerbic in their condemnation. If you knew nothing about them, you’d think that safe spaces were some sort of ungodly bogeyman responsible for all evil in the world; Theresa May brands safe spaces as “self censorship” and even went as far as to blame them for potential problems in the UK economy. More commonly, we hear the claim that safe spaces impinge on freedom of speech, and are the product of “molly coddled” or “snowflake” students who want to live in a bubble, isolated from the sober realities of the world. It’s funny, really; one of the principles of free speech, as I understand it, is that you try to understand your opponent’s rationale, and it seems in the majority of cases, the free speech advocates haven’t bothered to do this with safe spaces. So, now, let’s speak for safe spaces, and why, in my opinion, they are a sometimes clumsy, but vital part of enriched public discussion and political participation.

Let’s begin with a few distinctions. People have a tendency to elide “safe spaces” with “no platform” policies. While these are correlated, they are not the same. “No platform” (a refusal to permit someone a public stage or forum) as a political concept originates from the anti-fascist movement, as a way of preventing the dissemination of racist ideas. This in itself is not a concept which is divorced from wider societal expectations – we do, after all, have a legally enshrined concept of racial hate speech, and provision within law to take away the liberty of those who racially abuse others. Since the 1980s, no platforming has spread to prevent those who advocate hate or violence to marginalised groups from gaining a platform, and there’s a separate debate to be had about that and the concept in general. Safe spaces, on the other hand, arose from the LGBT movement. It was, in essence, a policy proposal to allow LGBT students in particular to find “spaces” (whether these be physical spaces such as rooms in a university building, or metaphorical spaces like a social movement) where they could escape from homophobia and transphobia. This is principled on, for example, encouragement to modify language, to think before you speak, to never presume experience on another person’s behalf, and to be reflexive and supportive. From there, the concept of safe spaces has grown to be incorporated by feminist movements, BME movements, leftist organisations, and beyond. I, for example, attend an alcohol support group which isn’t remotely connected to any university environment, where we are reminded that within that space of a church hall in South Leeds for one hour every fortnight, we are in a safe space, a space where we can talk about our addictions, where we will not be judged for them, and where we must not judge others. At least in principle, safe spaces are based on the idea of consideration and solidarity. What’s so wrong about that?

Part of the criticism of safe spaces is that people who want them do not want to engage with the difficult issues of life, and instead live in fantasy. This is a rather simplified way of looking at things. It has been argued that safe spaces are an excuse for individuals to wallow in their own vulnerability. This buys into a dichotomy, articulated by Bracke, that vulnerability is opposed to resilience, with the latter being an essential virtue of neoliberal subjectivity, and the former being a barrier to resistance. However, as Judith Butler has argued, this binary is not quite so simple. Vulnerability can empower agents and  become a catalyst for resistance in certain contexts.   If anything, people use safe spaces as a method of engaging with difficult issues, often to do with deeply personal topics such as discrimination, rape, ostracism and so on, in a different way. Feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser argues that we tend to think that there is only one “public sphere” which we are all part of, and this is fundamentally incorrect. While there is a “public sphere” each individual and group forms their own “counterpublics” where the rest of the actors in the public sphere are not, necessarily, welcome – your home, for example, is a counterpublic in this sense. Fraser argues that social movements, feminist organisations and the like, function as counterpublics for people with some shared political aim or experience of discrimination. These counterpublics, however, are not separatist organisations but spaces for recuperation, a place where individuals and groups can think about how best to face the issues in the public sphere. Within certain forms of psychiatry, there is a similar concept of the therapeutic community. This is a place, or group, outside of the usual therapeutic setting (i.e, the hospital or the counselling service) where individuals may find some sort of escape from the issues which affect them in daily life. This may be a gym, a community group, or even family. These communities are not separatist, but, rather like safe spaces, are positioned as a place of temporary withdrawal, and recuperation. Fraser writes:

Perhaps the most striking example is the late-twentieth century U.S. feminist subaltern counterpublic, with its variegated array of journals, bookstores, publishing companies, film and video distribution networks, lecture series, research centers, academic programs, conferences, conventions, festivals, and local meeting places. In this public sphere, feminist women have invented new terms for describing social reality, including “sexism,” “the double shift,” “sexual harassment,” and “marital, date, and acquaintance rape.” Armed with such language, we have recast our needs and identities, thereby reducing, although not eliminating, the extent of our disadvantage in official public sphere.

Safe spaces, in this sense, allow for groups to come up with new tools for political engagement in the public sphere, new strategies of resistance. Consider, based on Fraser’s example, how our public discourse is vastly improved for the fact that we have concepts of sexism and so on.  Are safe spaces perfect in implementation? No. Rather like political correctness, they are a clumsy, but ultimately well meaning attempt to build a more inclusive society. What’s so bad about that?

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CIGS student rewrites the balance on sport reporting

by Olivia Morris (MA Gender Studies)englandnewzealandscrum2016-copy_0

Women’s sport is massively underreported in national print press, and the percentage of female writers publishing articles on sport is even lower. I wrote a match report on the England V New Zealand rugby game played on Saturday 19th November at Harlequins Stoop for Kettle. The aim of the article is to provide a detailed report of the game as well as an insight into my experience of attending it.

As a rugby player myself, I find it frustrating that men’s rugby is defined as just ‘rugby’ whereas female teams are always ‘women’s rugby’ e.g. England Rugby and England Women’s Rugby (as is with most sports). Instead, I have titled the two teams either by their country or how they are better known in the rugby world as the “Red Roses” (England) and the “Black Ferns” (New Zealand).

You can read the full match report here:


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CIGS gets a new blog page

CIGS now has a blog page! We will be adding new posts about the research being undertaken by CIGS staff and PhD students.

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