From friendship to a study of masculinity, love and body image
- January 12, 2022
- Sandy Wenger, UCI anthropology Ph.D. candidate, reflects on her research and unconventional journey through graduate school
Sandy Wenger, a seventh year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at UCI, studies how queer men in Malaysia both struggle with, and creatively challenge, societal ideas about love, masculinity, and the body. Nearing the end of her graduate journey, Wenger credits her strong friendship with her interlocutors as her motivation to begin her dissertation project. As she puts it, to do good research and sustain an interest in something through graduate school, “you need to find something that matters to you.”
Building long-term relationships with a community
Before moving to the U.S. to begin her Ph.D., Wenger lived and worked in Malaysia as an assistant professor teaching intercultural communication. During this time, she often met friends who were queer and invited her along to meet other gay men. She soon learned that her friends considered themselves “Bears” - gay men with large and hairy bodies - and subverted the normative idea that gay men ought to have lean and “fit” bodies.
Despite being a woman and an outsider to the queer male subculture, she recalls feeling at home with her new friends right away. After months of hanging out with her, one of the men joked that she had become “one of the boys.” This camaraderie and friendship forms the basis of her dissertation research for the Ph.D.
“One of the reasons we got along so well is because they struggle with their body...And that’s something I can relate to, you know, being a fat woman,” she says. “For instance, if I go and buy food (at the supermarket), people will comment and critique what I purchase. Sometimes in a positive way and sometimes negatively." This was an experience she shared with the men she worked with for her research.
Over ten years of knowing the men, their concerns have increasingly focused on how to find and maintain romantic relationships as people with large bodies. “That’s one of the things they really struggle with...in relationships when their partner starts policing certain body practices,” she says.
Careful and sensitive ethnographer
During her fieldwork for the dissertation, Wenger’s conversations with the men often touched on highly personal yet universal issues--how do you find love, how do you find a partner who will be accepting of your body, and what are desirable ways to be masculine despite not fitting into the norms of Malaysian society or the mainstream gay culture? These conversations required interlocutors to trust the researcher with their stories.
Keith Murphy, professor and one of her advisors in the Department of Anthropology, underscores the importance of her careful research. “Sandy’s an extremely talented ethnographer and sensitive writer. She conveys the stories of the guys she works with in a kind of intimate register that only comes from a long-term commitment to a community that loves her back,” he says. “It’s striking the degree to which Sandy is able to depict the reality of the guys’ everyday lives and relationships in ways that makes me want to meet them, shake their hands, laugh alongside them, and sometimes even give them a hug. I can’t say I’ve ever read any other ethnographic work that’s invoked that kind of reaction in me.”
From a working-class family
Coming from a working-class family in rural Germany, Wenger’s academic journey has been unconventional. During her undergraduate training in English studies, a professor encouraged her to get her master’s and sparked an interest in higher education. To follow her interest in research as a working-class scholar meant she often needed to work multiple jobs throughout her education, ranging from work as a nanny, a cook, and a security guard to a German language teacher.
While at UCI, she has won the Christian Werner fellowship twice, awarded by the School of Social Sciences in recognition of academic merit. She reflects that these fellowships help working class scholars and international students like her - for whom visa restrictions make it hard to find funding support - by giving them much needed financial resources to write the dissertation.
Although originally drawn to the UCI faculty working in her areas of interest, Wenger was especially excited about the wide variety of work she would gain exposure to within the department. These include topics ranging from political and legal research to ethnographic fiction and visual representation.
Respectful relationships and friendships with both faculty and graduate students have been defining features of her time in the program.
“It was very important to me to have collegial and supportive students in the graduate program,” she says, and that is exactly what she found at UCI.
As many of her peers attest, “Sandy contributes immensely to the positive culture of the department.” She has been a part of diverse initiatives within the Department of Anthropology: addressed graduate student concerns as a Departmental Graduate Student Representative, mentored undergraduate students through the Graduate-Undergraduate Mentorship Program, and as an organizer of Working Title, a workshop run by graduate students to provide feedback on ethnographic writing.
Wenger’s research showed her that there is an urgent need for mental health support specific to the concerns of queer communities. After the Ph.D., she plans to address these needs by training to become a mental health professional who can provide care for queer persons.
-Oviya Govindan for UCI Social Sciences