Photo of Helen Malson

Helen Malson



Training Location(s):

PhD, University College London (1995)

BSc, University of Sussex (1987)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Monash University (2022–present)

University of the West of England, Bristol (2005–2022)

Western Sydney University (1999–2005)

University of East London (1996–1999)

Psychology’s Feminist Voices Oral History Interview:

Career Focus:

Eating disorders, including treatment and prevention issues; gender; culture; qualitative methods; critical discourse analysis; feminist poststructuralism


From an early age, Helen Malson noticed the gendered norms and restrictions imposed upon girls and women. Having become acquainted with 1970s and early 1980s feminist perspectives through reading newspapers like The Guardian, Malson was curious to understand the problematization of 'having a female body’. These formative musings provided important intellectual fodder when Malson entered undergraduate studies at Sussex University, where she majored in Human Sciences, developed and directed by the late Dr Gerry Webster who was both an intellectual inspiration and a lifelong friend. She was inspired by the program’s unique interdisciplinary emphasis; in addition to training in the biological sciences, she was introduced to a myriad of subject areas across the humanities and social sciences including philosophies of science, European philosophy and literature, philosophies of Marxism, clinical psychology, feminist psychoanalytic theory, structural and economic anthropologies as well as modules in psychology.

Among these areas, Malson was particularly inspired by Lacanian and feminist psychoanalytic theories that offered profound theorisations of the ways in which embodied gendered subjectivities and gender inequalities are produced. These theoretical insights would prove pivotal in framing her emergent interest in eating disorders. As she remarked: “… it was during a seminar about Sylvia Plath—and I don’t know quite how all the thoughts came together, but it occurred to me that women’s distress, which had been theorised in a lot of psychoanalytic work in terms of hysteria, might be understood today in terms of anorexia”.

To these ends, Malson began her PhD in psychology under the assumption that psychology would share the same interdisciplinary sensibility that she had encountered during her undergraduate studies. Unfortunately, her error here became quickly apparent! Malson was puzzled by psychology’s concern with its disciplinary boundaries and its preoccupation with appearing ‘scientific’. With her background in biological sciences - where practical classes and tutorials might involve, for instance, mass spectroscopy or the biophysics of intra- and intercellular electrical conductivity in neurones – disciplinary claims about the scientific rigour and legitimacy, for example, of questionnaires, seemed somewhat spurious: “… you seriously call this a science? It’s just a questionnaire”.

However, Malson’s enthusiasm quickly revived, first when Dr Barbara Lloyd offered her an ongoing opportunity to discuss psychoanalytic theory and, second, when she was introduced to Foucauldian perspectives and discovered discourse analysis which in the late 1980s were still quite new and radical and which enabled her to develop a more transdisciplinary thesis that also incorporated Lacanian and feminist psychoanalytic theory. For her doctoral research, Malson produced a Foucauldian genealogy of anorexia as an object of medical discourse, followed by a discourse analysis of interviews with women who self-identified as having experienced anorexia. After completing her PhD, Malson was eager to develop her research in the applied contexts of treatment and collaboration with experts by lived experience - a focus she has retained since then.

Until late 2023, Malson was Co-Director of Eating Disorders Health Integration Team (EDHIT), funded by Bristol Health Partners, where she worked in collaboration with a team of people with lived experience, academics, clinicians, and voluntary sector workers, in a range of activities including supporting developments in local and regional eating disorder services, creating research projects informed by service user perspectives and organizing public events that raise awareness about eating disorders. Of this work, Malson underscores the importance of foregrounding the voices of those with lived experiences: “… these views have often been dismissed as ‘the eating disorder talking’ so it’s important that we counter that”. For Malson, feminist qualitative inquiry provides the necessary methodological, theoretical and political scaffolding for articulating these perspectives. She is particularly pleased that her work with EDHIT has enabled her to be involved in more immediately practically-oriented projects as well as resulting in academic publications – for example, leading in developing a new health care policy for primary care for people with eating disorders and collaborating on the development of an Eating Disorders Support App.

While Malson has still also enjoys publishing, she underscores the difficulties entailed in publishing feminist research on eating disorders in a field where feminist perspectives are systematically marginalised, often leading feminist researcher to publish in a wide range of non-eating-disorder-focused journals which in turn makes it difficult to gauge impact: “You never know if anyone [who works in eating disorder services] is going to read it, do you?” Malson’s recent collaboration with LaMarre, Levine and Holmes, producing a two-part article on feminist perspectives on eating disorders, published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, perhaps suggests that this situation may be improving.

As a background to this research, Malson talks about the Psychology of Women and Equalities Section (POWES) of the British Psychological Society (BPS) as providing a strong sense of feminist community. She was first introduced to the POWES conference by her graduate supervisor, Dr Jane Ussher, and has held a number of different positions in the intervening years, including Secretary and Chair. It was through POWES that Malson cemented friendships with a network of feminist psychologists including mentors such as Anne Woollett who offered pragmatic guidance on navigating the “boys’ club” of academia.

These influences, among others, have played an important role in Malson’s own supervisory approach. Fondly reflecting upon some of the successes of former students, Malson remarked “… just seeing someone flourish like that, I really enjoy [that]”.

When asked what advice she has for feminists entering psychology, Malson suggests: “Oh, think, carefully. Are you sure? … get some allies, make sure you’re networked… and protect your time. I still have trouble saying no to things and obviously it’s a sort of gendered issue which a lot of the time I think works against us”. This is surely prudent advice for emerging scholars grappling with escalating pressure in the academy to ‘publish or perish’.

By Danielle Christie (2022)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works

Malson, H. (1998/forthcoming Classic Edition) The Thin Woman: Feminism, Post-Structuralism And The Social Psychology Of Anorexia Nervosa. Routledge: London.

LaMarre, A., Levine, M., Holmes, S. & Malson, H. (2022). An open invitation to productive conversations about feminism and the spectrum of eating disorders (part 1): Basic principles of feminist approaches. Journal of Eating Disorders 10(1), 1–12.

LaMarre, A., Levine, M., Holmes, S. & Malson, H. (2022). An open invitation to productive conversations about feminism and the spectrum of eating disorders (part 2): Potential contributions to the science of diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Journal of Eating Disorders 10(1), 1–12.

Malson, H., Tischner, I., Hertzig, H., Kitney, D., Phillips, C., Norweg, S., & Oldham-Cooper, R. (2022). Key stakeholder perspectives on primary care for young people with an eating disorder: A qualitative study. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 32(2), 288–301.

Lucey, C., & Malson, H. (2021). How do women make sense of their experiences with pornography? A thematic analysis. Psychology of Women and Equalities Review, 4(2), 31–42.

Holmes, S., Malson, H., & Semlyen, J. (2021). Regulating ‘untrustworthy patients’: Constructions of ‘trust’ and ‘distrust’ in accounts of inpatient treatment for anorexia. Feminism and Psychology, 31(1), 41–61.

Malson, H., & Golf, V. (2019). Deconstructing princess empowerment: A discourse analytic commentary on media representations of royal fashion. Psychology of Women and Equalities Review, 2(1), 58–63.

Malson, H. & Burns, M. (Eds.) (2009). Critical Feminist Approaches to Eating Dis/orders. Routledge: London.