Oby: From the campus of Harvard Medical School, this is ThinkResearch, a podcast devoted to the stories behind clinical research. I'm Oby your host. ThinkResearch is brought to you by Harvard Catalyst, Harvard University's Clinical and Translational Science Center, and by NCATS-- the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
What do athletics, body shape, music and dancing have to do with the food choices we make? Join us as we talk with Jhordan Wynne about her research that encompasses early food environments, breastfeeding, and her current working thesis about how parents influence food decisions in their children.
Jhordan is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Hi, Jhordan. Welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us today.
Jhordan Wynne: Thanks for having me. I'm really excited.
Oby: So we're just going to jump right in and talk a little bit about and then some of your research and what's happening in your life now. So if you could start, could you just tell us a bit about yourself?
Jhordan Wynne: I'm Jhordan Wynn. I'm originally from Michigan. Born in Detroit. Graduated from Ann Harbor public schools, where I was a student athlete and musician. My parents were really into making sure that my siblings and I were very well-rounded. I'm the youngest child, so I had lots of role models ahead of me. So my schedule was always very, very busy.
And then for undergrad, I went all the way across the street from my high school to the University of Michigan, where I studied-- I actually double majored in Spanish and international studies, my concentration's in global health and environment. I was part of the residential college. Shout out to the RC. That was a really important era and tool in my life, especially that stage. I was so lost in my undergraduate years, as I think most people are.
I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I did not want to go to med school. But I was really interested in health, so I took on a couple of different opportunities-- internships, doing research that were health-related, and I found I was really interested in that. So after I finished undergrad, I took a year to explore what my non-med school options were, and I ended up applying to schools of public health.
So I went back to University of Michigan for my master's in public health and health education and health behavior. After that, I stayed at the university and worked in my department on a project called the Black Women's Wellness Project, which is a weight management clinical trial that focuses on Black women and-- particularly those who are the caregivers of young children.
And I really enjoyed seeing what research looked like in practice. My mentor noticed that I was really interested in research and asking the questions, and he recommended that I keep going. And that's how I ended up working on my PhD.
Oby: There was a lot in there. You mentioned that you were a student athlete and musician. You talked about knowing you didn't want to go to med school but you wanted to do something in the health space. If you wouldn't mind, talk to us a little bit more about your student athlete career and time. What kind of musician are you? What do you play? Or is it your vocal chords?
Jhordan Wynne: I come from a very musical family. I grew up in a Black Pentecostal Church, Church of God and Christ. So music is very important as part of that culture, especially in Detroit. We've got Motown and we've got the greatest gospel artists of history. So I was always surrounded by it.
My grandmother played piano. My dad sings and plays the piano a little bit. My dad always wanted us to play and have formal training on instruments. So I started off on the violin. Absolutely hated it. It was too high-pitched for me. So I get to middle school, and the orchestra director is like, we have this instrument, it's called a bass. Would anyone like to try it? And my hand shoots up.
I was so eager. I was like, yes, please send me to the other end of the spectrum for strings. Let's go. So of course, I call my dad. I'm like, hey, dad, can you bring the van when you pick me up today? He was like, OK. And I would walk out of school with this giant bass. We did not have the room for it at our house, but I loved it, and so it stayed. So I played the double bass.
And on top of that, I do sing. And since then, I have picked up a couple of other mostly string instruments. I play a little bit of the piano. Not super well, but well enough to teach preschoolers their first introductory this is how a piano works lessons before they go off to fully trained pianists.
It's a good intermediate step especially for parents who are like, I don't know if my kid's going to stick with this. So music is something that I've always enjoyed. It keeps me grounded. But I knew I didn't want to study that formally because I didn't want it to be a stressful thing for me. I always wanted it to be just a nice release.
And so after I did all of the music theory and technical training courses all through high school, I was like, I think we're going to just leave it here. So I played in community ensembles just to stay connected, but that's that. And then I played pretty much-- if the sport existed in my city, I probably played it at some point.
My dad was very adamant that we try all things, and my mom also was really interested in us getting exposed to things that most kids don't have access to if it was available-- horseback riding and archery all the way to traditional basketball, soccer. I love baseball and softball, so I played that for quite a while. But the sport that I guess I focused on, whether it be track and field.
So I pole vaulted all through high school, and I threw shotput and discus, ran the 200 meters. Well, I was supposed to run 400 meters, but I always weaseled my way out of that one because I absolutely hate that race. [laughs] But, yeah, so it's printed and vaulted for all of high school.
Oby: Well, now, talk to us a little bit more about even how some of your background-- especially, I know we talked about your athleticism and being a dancer, which you didn't mention. You didn't even mention it.
Jhordan Wynne: I didn't mention it. It's one of those things-- I did it for so long that I just kind of--
Oby: It's just part of who you are?
Jhordan Wynne: Well, it's funny because I don't even consider myself a dancer anymore. But I did ballet for 12 years.
Oby: I don't think that makes you a dancer, but--
Jhordan Wynne: But I started so young that those 12 years kind of didn't count. It was more like seven. And it was at the YMCA, which I had a really great ballet instructor, but I don't remember anything. My body definitely does remember most of it.
But I guess to tie it into my research, one thing I learned from sports, especially pole vaulting and from dance, is that you have to pay attention to your body a lot for performance. And I always found it intriguing to hear how some parents chose to comment on their child's body in response to their athletic performance.
And so for dance, especially for ballet, it's very aesthetic-heavy. Your body is supposed to look a certain way. And in order to achieve that look, some parents will go to great lengths to make sure that their child is hitting those marks. And that goes like not just from having a particular body shape as far as like what your hips look like and your waist looks like, but also to what your body can do-- over stretching, put forcing turnouts, things like that.
Some parents are really into it. My parents, like I said, wanted me to have the experience, and they wanted me to enjoy being active. So I didn't hear any comments from my parents directly about my body as it pertains to my athleticism, ever. But I noticed it from other people's parents.
And I was like, oh, that's so strange. I mean, I think I was maybe in fourth grade. We were doing a recital. This was going to be a contemporary dance class. We were doing a recital to Christina Aguilera's Genie in a Bottle.
Oby: Ah, a classic.
Jhordan Wynne: I Know. It was my first solo. I got selected to be the genie. I was very excited, extremely excited. I've never gotten a solo before.
And in my excitement, I overhear this conversation with one of the other girls in my class and her mom. And her mom really thought she was going to get the solo. And her mom said, well, I don't know if this has anything to do with why you didn't get it, but maybe we need to have you do more salads this week or less junk food because your body did-- or comment about she didn't get the solo because her diet had been off is essentially what I got out of it.
And I was like, what a weird thing to say? And then, of course, I went back to celebrating the fact that I got this solo. And it was one of those-- it's weird what you remember, right? I didn't think about that instance until years, years, years later when I was pole vaulting.
One of my teammates was mentioning that she's very particular about her diet so that she doesn't have to be concerned about weigh-ins for meets. And she's like, my weight never fluctuates more than two pounds. And I'm like, literally, don't pay attention to that.
And my solution to the fact that my weight fluctuated was to train on two different size poles. You can't compete on a full that's underweight because it's dangerous. And so I was like, OK, I'll learn how to vault on a, I think, at the time it was a 130 pole and a 140, or whatever the two--
It was a 10-pound difference because I would just-- I don't know, I never knew what was going to weigh in from one meet to the next. And I was like, well, that's so interesting that her strategy is to manage her weight instead of my strategy was to train to use two different tools. And it brought me back to that little girl and your dance class of how old you are in the fourth grade.
I was like, well, that's so interesting. It never crossed my mind to change what I'm eating to make sure that I'm weighing a certain thing or looking a certain way or my athletic performance. And then all of that went out of the window. I didn't think about it again until I was doing my research.
The first set of research I did was in the Dominican Republic on breastfeeding versus formula feeding, comparing in a rural neighborhood to semi urban neighborhood. And one of the things that kept popping up was moms do what they think is best for their child and also what they think is normal for women in their area. And that's when it came up again of manipulating diet so that bodies look a certain way.
And I was like, oh, I don't know how I was socially open from this type of perception. The early 2000s was like diet fat-heavy. And so I really don't know how I was so oblivious to the fact that that was normal.
Oby: I mean, good for you. What a healthy way to live life.
Jhordan Wynne: Yeah. And I mean, I don't want to say that my body image was totally perfect. I definitely received more than my fair share of scrutiny for the way my body looks. But as far as what I had internalized and what actions I needed to take to combat that stigma or stereotyping or biases, it never connected for me to change what I was eating.
For me, food was like you should enjoy food. It should taste good, and it should be healthy like. Of course, I thought food should be healthy. But it literally never equated to me that you do this to make minor or very structured changes to your body shape. I could understand at that age, like, maybe if you needed to do a significant weight change of like, 50 pounds, I could understand how changing your diet would help for that. That, I understood.
I could not understand why we would be paying attention to do that. It's really interesting. And after my experience in the Dominican Republic-- and I'm working with infants at this point. So I was surprised that we were paying attention to weight changes for infants. And I was more surprised-- as part of my master's internship, I went to Santiago, Chile and did research at the University of Chile's Institute for Nutrition and Food technology, working, again, with moms and infants.
And I was asking about decisions to breastfeed versus using formula and then the duration of doing whichever one before, introducing solid foods. And the cohort of women that we were working with were part of a larger study that was looking at infant obesity, which was a fascinating concept to me. I was like, I didn't know infants could be obese. Like, you haven't lived long enough. What's all this about?
Jhordan Wynne: And it was more about-- I think the title of that project was misleading, really just trying to understand growth trajectory differences between infants that are breastfed versus formula fed and what the behaviors are all those different types of feedings like, how that might impact growth trajectory throughout childhood into adolescence.
So it was less about the infants being obese and more about the changes in the body and how you train your body to understand hunger, satiety, and all that from an early age and how that might be related to obesity in childhood, adolescence, adulthood. But the same thing kept growing up. Moms really wanted to do what they thought was best for their kids, but also what they thought was normal.
And a lot of people were preoccupied about how other people would perceive their mothering. So they wanted their children to look like. What's the product of good mothering was. And I was like, oh, this is so interesting. When I was working with the Black Women's Wellness Project, these things came up, and we actually had a whole session as part of that intervention dedicated to body image for Black women and what it looks like to have little representation, no representation in the media for what Black beauty and excellence looks like, for what healthy Black bodies look like, for what the sacrifices that may happen to fulfilling your own standard of beauty when you are in a caregiving position, things like that.
And so that resurfaced the same themes that keep coming up over and over. Moms wants to do what's best for their kids. They want to do what's normal, but also there are all these other factors from society that are influencing these decisions. And so I was like, this is so fascinating.
Jhordan Wynne: What's happening here? That's kind of how I got into the body image space, just having these memories back to my childhood, adolescence, young adulthood about how body image is an important contributor to decisions when it comes to creating yourself, feeding your children. I was like, let me take a closer, more explicit look at this to see if there's anything that can shine a light on what's happening here. So that's what I work on now.
Oby: Absolutely. That is incredible in so many different ways. It makes me think of a lot of different things. As you're talking, I think of even what does normal mean?
Jhordan Wynne: That is the question.
Oby: And like culturally, I'm from Georgia and now live in Massachusetts. And even the cultures of what your body can look like in these two different states, I have found to be profoundly-- there's just so different. And I've lived in Massachusetts for 20 plus years at this point. And it's still-- I find it so fascinating.
I'm like, wow, this is a different body than I understood growing up and that was the normal that I understood. So I'm like so interested and fascinated by your work.
Jhordan Wynne: Yeah, it's fascinating. And like you said, from one state to the next, it can be so different. I grew up in Michigan, which is the Midwest. So in some respects, there are certain types of bodies that are acceptable there that are not acceptable in the New England, East Coast.
And I don't really understand why, other than there must be some historical roots in-- the Midwest is very rural. So I think having a larger than stick-thin body was acceptable is acceptable in a lot of spaces because that was normal. You worked the land, so your bodies are very strong, very muscular.
We eat a lot of dairy because that's where you get a lot of protein. So historically, I think there's a little bit of forgiveness for some of that. But with media and television and all of that, there's also this almost universal shift where what used to be a normal is no longer desirable. So if you look like how everybody else looks, it's not bad, but it's not what we're striving for, and therefore you need to work harder, right?
And it's so interesting. But out here, I feel like, one, I became much more aware of what my body looked like when I moved here because it's just more prevalent. I think there are more messages about what bodies look like than-- even in Michigan, I thought it was a lot in Michigan. So I'm like, man, I kind of miss that.
But my dad is from Alabama, and my mom's family is from Louisiana. So I grew up in various other household in the north. So I was already receiving very conflicting messages between my home environment and my school, about what my body was supposed to look like.
And I was a very thin child. I was very tall, but I was muscular. And so for my family, I would be praised for having hips, or I'd be praised for having some meat on my bones. Whereas, all my cousins, they didn't get any meat on their bones until they hit puberty.
But then at school or at some dance in particular, I was chubby, or which the word chubby drives me crazy because what does that even mean? And what does it mean to who's the speaker? So I grew up thinking my body was one way, and then you go and look at photos and you're like, wait, what? Like, I could talk about body image for hours.
It blows my mind because it's so subjective. And it's weird because I can't think of any instance where having conversation about someone's body is positive. The whole existence of body image feels very damaging. But you can't-- it's not going anywhere. So one of the things I'm interested in is like how do we make it a little bit better? I don't-- I haven't figured it out.
Oby: Right. A million more questions.
Jhordan Wynne: But it's so strange from one city to the next what the expectations were-- were so different. And then you can get a pass for what your body looks like if you had certain talents or gifts. Because I actively participated in sports, me being muscular was like good.
But if I happen to be muscular, but I wasn't like an avid athlete, then someone would be like why do you look so masculine? I never figured out what the rules are or why they exist or who they apply to. But they are they're very real and very tangible.
And everybody I've ever talked to about body image is like, yeah, yeah, that's so true. And I'm like, OK, so we all know that something really messed up is happening here, but we don't know how to stop it or change it because it's so ingrained, and there's just so many different conflicting cultures and opinions that we all live in.
Oby: I know we started to talk about your research, but if you want to just stay and talk about exactly what you're researching. And then talk to us about how you want it to be used and thought of.
Jhordan Wynne: Yeah, so my research explicitly is on trying to see if there are any patterns for body image in adolescents that are related to the way their parents choose to feed them, or the parenting that they have around food. So, for example, if a parent is really strict about what or when their children eat, is that connected with certain types of body image, thoughts, internalization, or any of the outcomes that can happen from having a negative body image or a positive body image? So for negative body image, maybe that's a type of disordered eating.
And then I'm also interested in looking at how body image in mothers in particular might influence the way they choose to feed their child. So if I have a particular image of myself, does that change or influence the way I am choosing to parent my children when it comes to food?
So if I feel my body is inadequate or my body is the standard or my body is good enough, but maybe not the standard, does that change how I choose to talk about food, or what which foods I choose to present to my child? So those are the things that I'm researching.
And people always ask like, this is super interesting, but what do we do with this? Honestly, my goal is to really understand if there are any types of patterns in body image for ourselves that influence eating behaviors or parenting around food behaviors? We already know how certain food parenting behaviors and how eating behaviors relate to individual health, long term-- the way you eat and how that might affect your propensity for chronic diseases and things like that.
So if we can figure out, well, if a parent is doing this behavior that leads to this type of eating pattern, which is connected to this type of emotional wellness, then we might be able to push in clinical spaces or in social spaces for folks to be more mindful about the messages they put out about health. So this feels a little convoluted sometimes when I say it.
But when you walk into a doctor's office, you see images about healthy eating. Oftentimes, those images show people who are thin and who appear to be athletic. So there is a certain standard image or body ideal that represents health and healthy eating. And that's from children, adolescents, adults. You see it across older adults, the full age spectrum.
But when you go into a clinical setting, and there's any messaging about diet, there's usually one image that represents how you know you're eating a healthy diet, right? It often excludes people of color. It often excludes men, for I don't know what reason. We just ignore the fact that men exist when it comes to diet sometimes.
So if we can figure out like, OK, there are certain messages about body image that we are connecting with foods that are leading to adverse health outcomes or desirable health outcomes, maybe we can lean into these desirable outcomes, or maybe we can figure out how to prevent these adverse health outcomes. We're constantly talking to people about their weight because we assume that people in larger bodies are not eating healthily.
And you're telling them you need a better diet without ever, one, thinking about what their diet actually is, if you're not going to assess it; two, thinking about how do they feel when they eat? What pressure comes with making food choices?
So maybe their diet is perfect, but it comes with an emotional distresses because their plate is being highly restricted, or they feel guilty every time they eat something that's not what's supposed to be in air quotes "on their plate." So that's creating stress, and that might be leading to other issues that might be causing retention of excess weight because you're stressed.
So if we can figure out what other things that are not just the calories in, calories out, or nutrients in, waste out type of mentality, we might be able to get some leverage when it comes to communication for how do we remove weight stigma, weight bias from our clinical messages about healthy diet, about what healthy bodies look like, how healthy bodies are fuels, how bodies who are in need of health should be fueled.
I'm really interested in seeing if we can take this very social phenomenon and connect it back to health, maybe that will be inspiring to folks in policy, or even just like changing our social norms about how to start conversations with parents about their children's health in a way that is more cognisant to the fact that children have feelings and emotions. And we need to be aware of their wellness at all life stages. And parents have feelings and emotions, and we need to be aware of their wellness at all stages. So it's kind of why in the so what of why I'm looking into something that feels so, so narrow to attack a really big goal.
Oby: I mean, honestly, I could talk to you for a day about this stuff. I just think there's so much packed into the researcher doing. And even to your point that you feel like it's a narrow thing to then impact a much, much larger thing that has so much influence, dare I say, a chokehold over a lot of people's-- different areas of people's lives. I mean, that's--
Jhordan Wynne: It's true. I mean, everybody has to eat.
Jhordan Wynne: When I think about a lot of chronic disease prevention things-- physical activity, we get a full spectrum of physical activity for lots of reasons. You don't like it versus you like it. You are physically able to do it versus you're physically not able to do it. You live in an environment that has the resources for you to do it. You don't live in an environment that has the resources to do it.
So a lot of that is like, maybe you doing it, maybe you don't. But everybody has to eat. If you don't eat, you will not be alive for very long.
Jhordan Wynne: Everybody has to eat. And therefore, everybody is making choices about food. And some people are in a space where they can make choices about food solely based on what they enjoy, solely based on what their cultural norms. And some people are making choices based off of what someone else has told them they should be eating.
Like, children who don't have a lot of autonomy over their food, food is presented to them. They're not going and buying their own groceries. And now, some children do get great experiences where they get to go along with their guardian to make some of those decisions. But that's pretty rare in most spaces.
And then you have folks who are being told what to eat not because someone is forcing them, but because there are all these social messages that are saying healthy looks like a salad; healthy looks like this portion size; healthy looks like this without consideration to what their bodies actually need, what is culturally relevant to them, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
The food is so interesting to me because everybody has to eat. And we talk about it so much. And we have done such a great job of making something that should be so intuitive so complicated.
Jhordan Wynne: I wish I could experience the day where you're just like, I'm hungry, I will eat. We don't get that anymore. Everything is so scrutinized whether you want it to be or not. And whether people are actually talking about what you're eating or not, you might feel like that.
I don't know. I feel like a lot of people had the elementary, middle school, high school experience of walking to a cafeteria with home food and looking around to see if what's in their lunch pail is the same as everyone else's. Does it smell the same? Does it smell too strong? Are there spices in it that people are going to be like, what is that, or why does it look that way? What does it smell like? And why does it have that funny name?
The amount of times my parents would send me to school with whatever we had for dinner for lunch in a thermos, and you just heat it up and eat it. And people were like, what is that? I'm like, this is jambalaya. It's really delicious.
I've never heard of it, it's probably gross. [laughs] Or like, there's sausage in that. That's not healthy. You can't get to break, you know? And I think it would be really nice if we could just get to a place where food becomes just second nature. We're eating because we're hungry.
And what I'm choosing to eat makes sense to me because that's what's relevant to my culture to meet where I am geographically. And other people's comments about my food or "can I have that recipe" full stop, you know?
Oby: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. We will have you back. We need to know where this goes. We need to know what happens.
Jhordan Wynne: I need to know where this goes. [laughs] It's such a passion project for me, and I feel really fortunate to be able to pursue such a niche interest as part of my career. So I will definitely be glad to share any and everything that I find out as I can move along.
Oby: Well, thank you so much again for being here. We appreciate it.
Jhordan Wynne: Thanks for having me.
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