Great Ydeas: Where are they now with Gemma Killen

15 February 2017

Great Ydeas is YWCA Canberra’s small grants program, providing up to $2,000 to women to help kickstart a great idea for a business, community development project, or to support professional development or education and training opportunities. Applications for the 2017 Great Ydeas program will open on February 20, and to celebrate, we’ll be featuring some of our amazing past recipients over the next few weeks to highlight what can be achieved through the program.

Gemma Killen is a 2016 Great Ydeas Grant recipient, and a PhD candidate at the Australian National University. Gemma was invited to present at the 7th Biennial Appearance Matters conference at the University of Western England, and used the grant to travel to London. Here, she talks about how the grant enabled her to further her research on how young, queer women use the Internet to understand and speak about their bodies. 

My Great Ydeas Grant enabled me to attend the 7th Biennial Appearance Matters conference, hosted by the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of Western England. According to their website, the Centre for Appearance Research is ‘the world’s largest research group focusing on the role of appearance and body image in people’s lives’.

The conference took place in London in June and was a convergence of multidisciplinary researchers interested in a range of topics related to appearance. Research focused on body image, visible differences, appearance altering surgery, cultural and media influences on appearance, as well as body positive educational programs and innovative ways to research appearance concerns.

I attended the conference as a PhD candidate from the Australian National University. My own research is about queer women’s body image and the ways that we might use the Internet to foster positive feelings about our bodies. My research suggests that online community building can, in some cases, help young women build resilience against body dissatisfaction.

I am particularly interested in queer women and body image because although the feminist commentary on women’s body esteem has been insightful, very little has been written about the specificities of queer women’s relationships with their bodies. Arguably, this is because queer women are presumed to internalise the same beauty standards as heterosexual women or, conversely, because they are assumed to be immune from body image concerns.

I think the situation is much more complex than either of these standpoints suggests, especially given that queer women have a significant history of being referred to in unflattering aesthetic terms such as ‘plain’, ‘mannish’ or as ‘freaks’. Indeed, the tendency to call women lesbians when they don’t adhere to social norms about feminine appearance and desirability speaks to the ways in which lessons about body shape and size are tied up in lessons about heteronormativity.

The Internet has become a significant resource for young queer people to find information about sex, education, bullying, and mental health. It is also one of the most significant ways that young queer people – who can experience high levels of isolation – can connect with one another and build communities.

In terms of building resilience against body image, the Internet is helpful in that it allows a space for critiquing social norms about bodies, as well as for sharing images of bodies that might not be seen in mainstream media. My project looks at how online community building and discussion might help build positive experiences of body image.

The Appearance Matters conference was my first opportunity to share the early results of my research. The funds provided by the Great Ydeas Grant helped to pay for my flights to London, transport within London and covered the cost of conference registration. Without the help of Great Ydeas, I would have missed out on the invaluable experience of sharing my work with other academics as well as the opportunity to learn about the different approaches others are taking to similar topics.

One of my favourite sessions of the conference focussed on research into the ‘Fitspiration’ and ‘Yummy Mummy’ trends on Instagram – where pictures of perfectly toned bodies are posted alongside quotes about ‘living healthily’ and losing weight. The research here suggested that these sorts of images do very little to inspire fitness or an active lifestyle.

Another great session demonstrated how the researcher asked her participants to edit popular culture images so as to construct more positive and inclusive social messages. This, and several other sessions, demonstrated a substantive range of possible methodologies with which to approach body image.

As an aspiring academic, attending conferences is an essential experience and a central part of my education.  Being able to attend the largest appearance related conference in the world has definitely maximised the potential of my career.

Great Ydeas has definitely enriched my research by allowing me to engage with other academics at the conference, and it is my hope that eventually my research will also help young women to have important conversations about how to deal with negative body image.

Applications for the 2017 Great Ydeas Small Grants program will open on Monday 20 February. Keep an eye out on our website and social media for more information on how to apply.

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