Oct. 23, 2023

Why Shelly Russell-Mayhew’s research on eating disorders and weight stigma makes a difference

Recipient of 2023 Killam Research Excellence Award organizes her work under 3 ‘communities of practice’ coming together to become better
Shelly Russell-Mayhew
Courtesy Shelly Russell-Mayhew

Dr. Shelly Russell-Mayhew, PhD’03, associate dean of research at Werklund School of Education, aims for her practice to serve a purpose beyond academic pursuit, saying that what’s important to her isn’t “research for research’s sake, but for research to make a difference.” 

Her contributions have been nothing short of remarkable. Renowned globally for her expertise on eating disorders, obesity, and weight bias, she is also a prominent figure in promoting well-being within educational environments, influencing practice and policy in Canada and abroad. Her Body Image Research Lab, with its collaborative, transdisciplinary approach, has created dozens of teams working together to both advance knowledge and create impact. 

Russell-Mayhew's exceptional work and dedication have earned her the prestigious 2023 Killam Research Excellence Award, a testament to her outstanding contributions to academia, education, and social sciences. 

Communities of practice

Given its broad scope, Russell-Mayhew has organized her research program under three distinct “communities of practice.” The first of these, the Weight Bias Research Teams, adopts a social justice perspective in combating weight stigma across multiple fields, with a particular focus on health care. Within this framework, she co-authored landmark weight bias and behavioural interventions chapters in the 2020 Canadian Guidelines for the Management and Prevention of Obesity.  

“We look at: How do we train professionals around weight bias? How do we reduce weight bias in the health-care system?” explains Russell-Mayhew. “We know that people who live in large bodies might actually avoid going to medical appointments for fear being told that they need to lose weight for every problem they have.” 

Next is the Body Image Research Lab, the platform for Russell-Mayhew’s work with postdoctoral scholars and doctoral students that employs a unique “nested” model in which the former contribute to the supervision of the latter, who in turn contribute to the supervision of master’s students.

Russell-Mayhew says the philosophy behind this system is about eschewing the inherently competitive nature of graduate school in favour of collaboration, community and a healthy learning environment. 

“I think we get the best out of ourselves and others if we are collaborative. So really, what I tried to do is create an environment in my lab where it's normative to share your work, to comment on other’s work, and to build each other up,” she explains.

“My career has been successful because I stand on the shoulders of those before me. My mentors helped lift me up. So, I want to create an environment where it's not about being better than the other person. It's about how together do we become better.” 

This holistic approach informs the entirety of Russell-Mayhew's practice. Take the third and final prong of her research, Teachers of Tomorrow, a collaboration with Ever Active Schools, a non-profit organization that helps schools to implement comprehensive school health (CSH) approaches to well-being in the school community.  

“It's about: How do you utilize partnerships and all stakeholders? How do you create social and physical spaces? How do you look at curriculum? How do you do all of these things to create a context where it's more likely that students and teachers and other stakeholders in the school can thrive?” she asks.

“If we want to have a more sustainable way of helping students reach their maximum potential, we need a framework that isn't just about programs or about content, but about how to structure a school in such a way that that everybody thrives.” 

Spreading the word on well-being

Teacher training is key to implementing CSH. Russell-Mayhew says it’s critical that educators understand the role that their own well-being plays in fostering a healthy student environment. The PodClass: Conversations on School Health, a podcast that Teachers of Tomorrow co-created with Ever Active Schools, has proven to be an effective tool in getting the word out. Featuring interviews with health, education, and wellness professionals, the series’ 44 episodes have reached listeners across 72 countries with nearly 40,000 downloads worldwide. 

At UCalgary, a subset of the PodClass is used in conjunction with EDUC 551: Comprehensive School Health and Wellness, a mandatory course for all Bachelor of Education students that is the first of its kind in Canada and which is based on Teachers of Tomorrow’s research work. 

All of which makes it surprising that Russell-Mayhew says she was, well, surprised at being named the recipient of this year’s Killam Research Excellence Award. True to form, though, she hopes the honour serves as a springboard for further recognition of the accomplishments of the Werklund academic community. 

“I think for someone in education to be acknowledged with a Killam hopefully sets the stage for educational research being more seen across campus,” she says. “My hope would be that this kind of prestigious acknowledgement will pave the way for other Werklund researchers who are also making a difference.” 

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