Lecturer in sociology in UON’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Dr Julia Coffey’s work includes such diverse research interests as the sociology of health and the body, gender, youth, education and development in academic and corporate environments.
Julia is currently recruiting young people aged 18 to 30 to examine health and self image in relation to study and employment.
Tell us about your background, including what drew you into sociology?
I took up the position at the University of Newcastle in June 2014, and had lived and worked in Melbourne for my whole life until then. I grew up on the Mornington Peninsula, and previously worked at the University of Melbourne. I took Sociology as part of my Arts/Music double degree at Monash University. A sociology subject on youth, gender and social change in particular inspired me. It showed me how our social and cultural environments shape who we are and what we do, and I’ll always be fascinated by that.
You’re currently researching health and self image as part of the Newcastle Youth Studies Group. Can you tell us a little about how that opportunity came about?
My PhD focused on young people’s body work practices and identity, which is basically about the way people present themselves physically through working out, wearing particular clothes, make-up, running, or anything deliberate that people do to show ‘who they are’. That research showed me that wanting to look ‘healthy’ was something most people aspire to, but this is made more complex by unrealistic ideals being misunderstood as ‘healthy’.
I think young people feel a lot of pressure to present a particular appearance, and I’m interested in how health ‘ideals’ fit in with this pressure. For example, most people think women who are slim are ‘ideal’, and men who are muscular are ‘ideal’, and this comes to be seen as ‘healthy’, but health actually comes in varying shapes and sizes rather than a narrow image.
Alongside this, there are many studies of young people that show a connection between mental health issues and the pressures of combining work and study in their twenties. Body image issues are also known to be greatest in the early twenties. A New Staff Grant from the University of Newcastle is assisting me to explore the ways these issues intersect by interviewing young people from Universities and TAFEs in the region.
What’s been the most unexpected aspect of your work so far?
One thing I was really surprised by in my work is that even though many young men described feeling ‘pressure’ around how their bodies looked, they thought this was something that other men didn’t go through as well. Time and time again they would describe it as a ‘woman’s issue’, not something men worry about. I think this is one way we can look at perceptions around gender norms and see how inadequate they often are for understanding what people are actually going through.
What do you hope will be achieved by your research?
I hope that my research will give us a better understanding of how to address body image and health issues for young people. I think it’s important to look at the ways that our understanding of what is normal is a result of our specific social, cultural and historical contexts. These things are constantly changing, so I want to be a part of trying to help things change for the better.
What’s your favourite Newcastle neighbourhood and why?
I love Cook’s Hill for its proximity to cafes, music and beaches.
What do you look forward to doing most in Newcastle in summer?
Swimming in the sea baths.
Heading up to the Hunter Valley for a wine weekend or camping.