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A new view of body image : a school-based participatory action research project with young Aboriginal women



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Research continues to suggest that young women experience body image concerns; nevertheless, the majority of this body image research has focused on white women, and the experiences of young Aboriginal women have typically been overlooked. When research has included Aboriginal women, it has generally been quantitative in nature (e.g., Gittelsohn et al., 1996; Marchessault, 2004; Story et al., 1995) and has highlighted body dissatisfaction that is equal to and even greater than that experienced by white women. Despite the alarming statistics suggesting that body image concerns are common among Aboriginal women, few researchers have engaged young Aboriginal women in qualitative research projects that seek to highlight their unique experiences. My previous research with young Aboriginal women (i.e., Fleming et al., 2006; McHugh & Kowalski, in press) are some of the first Canadian studies to have an exclusive focus on Aboriginal women’s body image experiences. This research suggested that young Aboriginal women’s body image experiences may not be as negative as previous quantitative research has suggested, but highlighted the need to work with young women to develop strategies for positively managing body image experiences. Therefore, the purpose of this research was to engage in a collaborative, school-based participatory action research (PAR) project in partnership with a local high school to provide young women, primarily young Aboriginal women, with an opportunity to manage their body image experiences in an effective manner. Students, teachers, and staff of Nutana Collegiate participated in this project, which took place over a 10-month period from September 2006 to June 2007. All Nutana school members were welcomed to participate and many took part in the various action initiatives that were developed. A group of seven young Aboriginal women formed a core group of participants who were primarily responsible for the development and implementation of most action initiatives. A five phase PAR model, which was based on the work of Stringer and Genat (2004), was proposed as the methodological framework for this project. However, given the emergent and dynamic nature of PAR processes, and the unique features of the school community, the manner in which the project actually unfolded was quite different from the original plan. This project ultimately had two phases, the Relationship Building Phase and the Action Phase. In an effort to develop relationships with school community members, during the Relationship Building phase I engaged in the three general processes of: familiarization, making connections, and giving back to the school. My commitment to these processes supported my initial goal to develop trusting relationships with community members, which subsequently formed a strong foundation for the development of effective and successful action initiatives. Eight action initiatives, which were represented by three themes, were developed and implemented as part of the Action phase. The three themes were: (1) Promoting Positive Body Image Experiences, (2) Self-Expression, and (3) Creating Awareness. The development and implementation of action at various levels (i.e., individual, school, provincial, and national) was the most significant outcome of this research. The success and relevance of the various action initiatives was demonstrated by the words of the participants, the overall support of various school members, and the commitment of the core group to the goals of this PAR project. Although there were methodological challenges and considerations that needed to be navigated throughout this PAR project, findings from this research suggest that universities and local high schools can and should work together to develop school-based body image programs for young Aboriginal women. As well, and maybe most importantly, this research highlights the strength of using PAR methodologies when engaging young Aboriginal women in body image research.



participatory action research, Aboriginal women, body image



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Kinesiology


College of Kinesiology


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