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Interview with Senior Lecturer Nova Deighton-Smith

Nova Deighton-Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and is also the Local Research Ethics Chair for the Psychology department. Find out about her work and experience at Leeds School of Social Sciences. Note: Originally printed in the PsyCen Newsletter (2019-2020, Volume 1, Issue 2.)

Nova Deighton Smith Interview

First of all, what drew you to psychology?

There are probably only a few that know that I used to be a Financial Adviser selling pensions, investments and mortgages. But my maternity leave came just as the world experienced 9/11 and the subsequent stock market crash. I returned only to be faced with horrendous sales targets that were completely unrealistic unless I was willing to travel and work across a 7-day week.

I decided to remain a full-time mum but took an Access course to Health and Social Sciences in the evenings. It was then that I studied a Psychology module and became interested in learning more about human behaviour. Within a year, I was a full-time student at Leeds Metropolitan (as it was back then) and was lucky enough to be accepted onto the PhD studentship once I completed my degree.

Second, what is the research question that drives your current work?

I had always been interested in body image having had my two children. I remember writing a Health Psychology essay in my final year about the psychosocial factors related to eating disorders during pregnancy and was shocked to realise the prevalence of pregnancy-related EDs. It was then that I developed an interest in the link between body image concerns and health behaviours.

I’d always been aware that our appearance is judged by stringent, societal expectations; notably now for women, we see a globalised preference for not only a thin body, but a fit and toned one. This ideal is one that is actively promoted by the media, unachievable for most, but is more pervasive than ever, given the rise of social media and image-focused networking sites.

Pregnancy of course, is a time when a woman’s body deviates from this norm, albeit in a very naturally occurring way. Changes during pregnancy and postpartum period can be welcomed for some but whether they are or not, they take place within a society that places great emphasis on how we look.

I therefore wanted to understand how women’s thoughts and feelings towards their appearance during pregnancy influenced their emotional wellbeing and physical health behaviours. I still work with dissertation and MRes students in this area and have expanded my previous work to examine the role of exercise, social support and healthcare provision.

Third, what kind of methods/techniques do you use to answer that question?

I am definitely in the mixed-methods camp! I honestly believe that my PhD would not have been as meaningful had I only relied on one methodology. The quantitative component of my PhD was underpinned by a comprehensive, theoretical framework of body image development but it was particularly important to me to explore how women constructed meaning in relation to the appearance and health messages they were exposed to, to account for the practice of certain health behaviours.

More importantly interviews allowed for complete freedom of expression and the opportunity to bring together women's subjective understandings of first-time pregnancy. By using a sequential design, I was able to develop and use themes from earlier studies to inform the inclusion of later variables for quantitative examination across a larger sample. I think this allowed me to deliver a more contextual account of the complex nature of pregnancy-related body image, psychological, and physical health.

I have more recently been working on a research project with colleagues to explore the messages attached to social media hashtags and the implications they have for body image and health behaviours. We conducted a mixed-methods content and thematic analysis to examine the appearance and health messages attached to #fitspiration (amalgamation of fitness and inspiration). The content analysis allowed us to assess the prevalence of appearance-focused imagery whilst the thematic analysis provided the opportunity to understand the implicit messages embedded within #fitspiration posts and how the text was used to inspire fitness. In combination, we showed how the images and text within #fitspiration posts on Instagram are both appearance potent and objectifying; whereby the ‘fit’ body was positioned as sexually attractive and exercise was presented as a means to achieving this, overlooking health benefits.

If you had any and all necessary resources, describe the first study you would tackle.

When it comes to my pregnancy-related research, it’s so important that women be made to feel at ease regarding appearance-related matters during pregnancy, on the understanding that pregnancy messages in the media can be both inconsistent and highly unrealistic. It's crucial that this be a matter that is prioritised and raised within maternity healthcare provision, so that women can be directed towards consistent, accurate information (whilst acknowledging their freedom of choice) so they can be given the confidence to accept and care for their bodies during pregnancy and in the postpartum period.

The postpartum period is particularly a time of vulnerability for women when they often lose contact with health professionals and are often left to manage and cope with their own emotions. This is one of the reasons why there has been such a emphasis by charities and organisations to improve clinical training and postnatal checks. I would love to run a body-image intervention specifically adapted for pregnant women, but delivered by trained health professionals. This would track them into the postpartum in order to provide them with the antenatal and postnatal support they feel they are missing. Of course a control group would allows us to assess the effectiveness of this.

What is an LREC and what does the role entail?

An LREC is a Local Research Ethics Coordinator. Each department and/or school has a number of LRECs who are responsible for evaluating the ethical practices proposed within research projects. These are reviewed in conjunction with BPS code of conducts and University regulations.

In Psychology, we have four LRECs: Maxine, Katy, Jason Round and myself as Chair. We are responsible for reviewing both staff and student projects. As you can imagine, the research projects we review are very varied and given the nature of psychological research, often carry greater ethical implications than perhaps some other disciplines, which are more desk-based.

In my role, I am expected to review applications and make decisions based upon the two reviews that are conducted. I also deliver ethics lectures across most courses, teaching students about BPS principles, internet-based research which has become more popular than ever, and instructions on how to submit their application.

What are your goals as the current Psychology LREC?

I am currently working with course directors to ensure that ethics is embedded at induction-stage and within early research methods modules so that they have a solid understanding of what is expected of them by the time they come to conduct their own research. Ethics really is a team effort in Psychology given the numbers of applications we receive; from the students, postgrads and supervisors to the fantastic review team and Julie. We will also be taking Psychology ethics online this year so in honesty, my only goal for this year is to support a smooth transition!

How long have you been at Leeds Beckett and what have your different roles been?

I have been teaching students since starting my GTA/PhD Studentship back in 2009, however was lucky enough to get an SL post in 2013. In that time I have worked as an Admissions tutor and LREC Chair.

What do you like best about working at Leeds Beckett?

Without a doubt, my colleagues. I consider myself to be really lucky to have such supportive colleagues around me. When I'm sat marking late at night or working a weekend to get a lecture finished, it really does help to know that I am not alone and that there are others out there who totally understand what this job entails. That really helps me to keep going.

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