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Toxicity in the wellness movement

Myth, fact and privilege in the wellness movement

Toxicity in the wellness movement

The wellness movement has many facets, from the well-known to the truly bizarre. Take ear candling, for example. You could be forgiven for immediately thinking that this entails making candles from ear wax: that was my first reaction, too.

But in fact, ear candling is an alternative medicine practice which involves lighting one end of a candle and placing the other end in the ear canal. This is supposedly beneficial for general health and well-being, yet I have to imagine that it is just as uncomfortable as it sounds.

Other alternative therapies are less controversial. Yoga purportedly can help heal the mind, body, and soul. Many different threads of this movement are woven together in widely varying combinations to achieve the ultimate tapestry – a state of ‘wellness’. Technically speaking, this refers to the condition of being in good physical and mental health. But shouldn’t we all strive for that?

There are other questions to consider. Does this practice merely encourage bettering oneself to an attainable level, or is it a pointless pursuit of sheer perfection and therefore a path to obsession? Furthermore, what is the science behind the various claims of these health-based products? Is this just another example of the excesses of the privileged?

Potential benefits

On the surface, there are many benefits of the wellness movement. From a dietary perspective, encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables can only be a good thing. Certain diets champion foods such as lentils as a healthier source of protein. This would reduce excessive consumption of red meat, which is linked to heart disease and other health concerns.

Even products that some scientists argue have no real positive impact or even negative impacts on the body, such as purified water, could be viewed as healthy – if you bend far enough. You could argue that fancy water might make people more likely to drink their purified water instead of soft drinks, because they prefer it to tap water. The same could be said for ‘organic’ produce: despite conflicting thoughts on whether or not it is superior to regular produce, eating organic greens is surely better than eating no greens at all.

The health-based claims of these examples often have the effect of making people feel safer about their nutritional choices, in turn leading to increased happiness even if no physical changes have occurred. This phenomenon is otherwise known as the placebo effect.

The environment can benefit from aspects of the wellness movement, from factors including reduced use of pesticides, which increases biodiversity; reduced international transportation of food due to consumption of locally grown goods, which assuages climate change; and reduced packaging, which creates less waste.

Food and drink are not the sole areas of interest. Exercise can relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and improve cardiovascular fitness. Plant-based toiletries may be better for sensitive skin, decreasing the risk of infection. Bamboo clothing is advertised as antibacterial and as a form of UV protection.

Many of these wellness products, from organic kale to herbal deodorant, have a common factor: although they may initially be more expensive than their ordinary counterparts, they could save the consumers’ money in the long-term, because their use could improve overall health and therefore lessen the amount spent on medical requirements in countries without free healthcare. This could still hold true if the effect is just placebo: if one feels better, they are less likely to spend money on treatment.

The dark side

A central concern among those opposed to the wellness movement is the risk of obsession. The disorder known as orthorexia is characterized by an obsession with eating only ‘pure’ foods to the point of eventual starvation, as the categories of acceptable foods narrow and narrow. The result is a damaged mental and physical state, which is clearly counter to the wellness movement as a whole.

Obsessions lead to ever-moving goalposts, as people desperately look for a pure lifestyle which does not exist. Furthermore, even if one were to attempt to follow the wellness movement dutifully, this is difficult due to conflicting advice.

Some diets recommend quinoa, yet others villify carbohydrates altogether. Some stores promote organic toothpaste, whilst others deride the idea of putting any manufactured substances at all in one’s body. Contradictions are everywhere.

What we consider healthy may change, but obsession and confusion remain a steadfast, unfortunate byproduct of wellness trends and movements. Coupled with societal pressures around body type and composition, this create a very destructive cocktail.

Furthermore, these contradictions extend to the acceptance and rejection of relevant information. Those who advocate a gluten-free diet often recommend it partially on the basis that ‘the gluten-containing grains we consume today are not the same ones our grandparents or great-grandparents consumed,’ indicating that a return to the diets of recent ancestors is ideal. However, some also dismiss practices that are centuries old, which carry much greater consequences than eating a muffin.

Take vaccination, for example. Previously referred to as inoculation or variolation, deliberate exposure to the smallpox virus has been dated back to tenth century China. More recently, efforts to completely eradicate polio have certainly benefited our grandparents, who likely witnessed many cases of the disease during childhood.

Despite this, some worried parents insist that more research must be done into long-term effects of vaccines, ignoring research that has already been completed. Alternative medicine may then be cited as a solution, leading to thousands of deaths.

Bigger costs

An element of privilege is inextricably linked to the wellness movement. Although some products could save the consumer money in the long run, by reducing risk of disease and healthcare related costs, objects such as healing crystals and jasmine incense are unquestionably luxuries.

Luxuries typically have another cost besides the obvious. One such example is distressingly evident in Peru and Bolivia, where many citizens can no longer afford quinoa – previously a staple food – due to rising prices as a result of increased worldwide demand.

Quinoa is praised as an excellent source of protein and therefore an alternative to meat. As People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals puts it, “eating quinoa may harm Bolivian farmers, but eating meat harms us all,” citing statistics about environmental damage caused by eating meat.

Would we take the same view if our own access to basic food was similarly affected? I doubt it.

Quinoa isn’t the only popular product with serious blowback. Soy equivalents to dairy products are readily available in many grocery stores and are hailed as an alternative to dairy. In theory, this means that fewer cows are necessary for production, which would lower methane product and greenhouse gas emissions as a whole. Additionally, soy is also touted as a cruelty-free option.

However, even organic soy cultivation is a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon basin.
Deforestation creates problems for local wildlife and can also contribute to climate change. This exemplifies why we must encourage- and where possible, participate in- nutritional and environmental research, enabling a genuinely the development of genuinely better choices.

Living your best life

Finally, many of the movement’s claims are nonsensical. One cannot subsist on a completely sugar-free diet, as the body requires glucose to respire and thus to function. If one returns to the aforementioned ear candling, one could find their eardrums damaged in a costly procedure, as it removes ear wax, a natural form of antibacterial protection. And some promises may be too good to be true.

Forgive my use of anecdotal, and somewhat unpleasant, evidence: regardless of the claim that antibacterial bamboo clothing limits odours, my bamboo socks smell just as much after a day’s use as my regular ones do. I do find them more comfortable, though.

This leads us to our ultimate question: is it worth it? Should one pay, for example, a bamboo manufacturer more for unsubstantiated claims if there are other benefits? In other cases, is the placebo effect really so terrible if it does ameliorate one’s overall state of wellness? Where is the line between selfishness and self-improvement? Can one really be considered ‘improved’ if there are such devastating consequences?

Perhaps a solution could be based on individual wellness movements, which are tailored to personal needs, wants, goals, and standards yet still contain an element of respect for others. One could select their own strand of the tapestry and remove it, rather than becoming tangled in a conflicting mess.

If people were free to follow a diet that they considered both healthy and environmentally friendly based upon their own research, rather than the opinions of different groups, obsession could be limited.

If people followed alternative medicine but still vaccinated their children, the results could still be dire, but there would still be an aspect of personal choice without the risk to the more vulnerable. If one wished to buy a luxury that might increase their happiness such as a yoga mat, with their own hard-earned money, why shouldn’t they?

The wellness movement might function better if it were concerned with making each person ‘better’ instead of the elusive ‘best.’

Ford’s campus free speech policy is not just beneficial — it’s essential

Only through free speech and the willingness to face opposing views can the university remain an institution of innovation

Ford’s campus free speech policy is not just beneficial — it’s essential

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has recently released a directive to postsecondary institutions requiring free-speech policies to be designed, implemented, and enforced across all campuses before September 2019. The premier has threatened provincial funding cuts for institutions who fail to deliver.  

Though Ford may be proving more and more to be the ‘Canadian Donald Trump’ as the days go by, especially after invoking the notwithstanding clause to override a judicial decision, he may have a point.

Over the recent year, right before the start of the spring election cycle, Ontario universities have sparked controversies in relation to the invitation of contentious guest speakers. For instance, Faith Goldy’s scheduled appearance as a speaker at Wilfrid Laurier University ultimately resulted in its president, Deborah MacLatchy, releasing a statement rejecting the values and ideas the speaker brought forward while reiterating the importance of freedom of expression after an outcry from campus students.

At the same university, a teaching assistant, Lindsay Sheppard showed a clip from TVOntario’s The Agenda, in which U of T Professor Jordan Peterson denounced the use of gender-neutral pronouns. This led to a disciplinary meeting with her superiors, which she secretly recorded.

At its best, Ford’s policy initiative upholds free speech without any repercussions. At its worst, the disarmament of the university administrators’ ability to restrict free speech, or allow for its restriction, is the price to pay in order to uphold the value of free speech on campuses.

Free speech is necessary because it ensures that our never- perfect ideas are always open to criticism. We are imperfect beings with imperfect knowledge. In order to improve ourselves and truly learn, we need to face what is unfamiliar.

Universities, as academic institutions, need to be extensions of the value of free speech. Professors and students alike need to be willing and able to accept a challenge to their own beliefs and this mandate ensures just that. If done correctly, Ford’s mandate will make university a place open to even the most offensive ideas, exposing our values and education to the criticism and development they deserve and need. Only when we are willing to accept criticism can we be sure that we remain an institution of innovation.

There has been an increasing trend of news articles describing younger generations as overly sensitive and fragile. While this is likely a blatantly overgeneralized and uneducated view, the very fact that people are seeing younger generations in this light is something to be noted. It is difficult for businesses, policy makers, and the general public to take young people seriously if we allow this belief to float around as a result of videos and articles highlighting the reality that some young people on campuses do not want to listen to the views of others on the grounds that such views are offensive.

The only way we students can build trust with the rest of society is if we show that the university environment is about open and critical discussion-making instead of insecurity from views that might challenge ours. Our ideas and research should be based on discovery and reasoning not blind groupthink.

When universities contest with anti-free speech forces, there are often grave consequences. On a small scale, we get the disruption that erupted at the Peterson rally by the Sidney Smith Building in 2016, leaving the student body angry and divided. History — through the 1970 Kent State protest, the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests — shows that an assault on free speech can be fatal for students.

So what do we do when this mandate comes into action? We discuss it, argue about it, and criticize it. Even this policy that promotes free speech deserves its fair share of criticism.

Indeed, Ford’s mandate may be imperfect in its integrity — including the question of who defines and enforces ‘good’ free speech policy. Despite certain imperfections, a free speech policy is not only beneficial it’s necessary.

The policy’s imperfections are not grounds for trashing the policy entirely, but instead are grounds for improvements with the fundamental idea of free speech in mind. Ultimately, nothing comes before the freedom of expression.

Abeir Liton is a second-year Human Geography and Political Science student at St. Michael’s College.

Napas Thein is a second-year Public Policy and Political Science student at New College.

A students’ guide to the municipal elections

Confusion remains over Premier Doug Ford’s decision to cut size of Toronto City Council, notwithstanding clause

A students’ guide to the municipal elections

Municipalities across Ontario will be holding elections for mayors, local councillors, and school board trustees on October 22. However, the elections have been muddled in the wake of Premier Doug Ford’s plan to cut down the size of Toronto City Council, as well as his decision to cancel various other elections. To help you sort through the news, The Varsity has created a guide to help students vote.


Students in Toronto will have 35 choices for mayor, including incumbent John Tory. Other notable candidates include former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, safe streets advocate Sarah Climenhaga, “people’s” lawyer Saron Gebresellassi, and far-right commentator Faith Goldy.

The elections for city councillors are less straightforward.

In November 2016, City Council approved a recommendation to increase the number of Toronto wards from 44 to 47 for the 2018 municipal elections. This recommendation was part of a three-year review, which concluded that Toronto needed to increase representation to keep up with its growing population.

In July 2018, Ford introduced unprecedented legislation to cut the size of the city council from 47 wards down to 25 in order to match federal and provincial ridings.

Speaking to reporters after the story broke, Ford said, “People tell me that we have too many politicians making it harder to get things done, making it harder to get things built, making it harder to deal with the real problems we face.”

“It’s clear that the size of government is just too large.”

In the aftermath of Ford’s announcement, critics immediately voiced their opposition to the plan, in particular denouncing the lack of consultation. Ford’s plan was brought to court, where, on September 10, a Superior Court justice struck down the bill as unconstitutional.

However, hours later, Ford made another surprise announcement, saying that he plans to use the notwithstanding clause from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is a part of the Constitution.

The clause allows the legislature to override parts of the Charter in cases where the courts might be interfering with the elected government’s decisions.

In order for this to work, Ford has come up with an entirely new bill, since the clause cannot be applied retroactively. Although the Tories attempted to push revised Bill 31 through on Saturday, resistance to discussion meant that talks will resume at 12:01 am on Monday.

As this is an ongoing development, it remains unclear whether the municipal elections will go forward with 47 or 25 wards.

Under the 44-ward system, the St. George campus is currently represented by Joe Cressy of Ward 20 Trinity—Spadina on the west side and Kristyn Wong-Tam of Ward 27 Toronto Centre—Rosedale on the east side.

If elections proceed with 47 wards, UTSG will continue to be split in two: the east side as a part of Ward 24 and the west side as a part of Ward 25.

Running in Ward 24 would be Cressy, alongside Michael Barcelos, Michael Borrelli, Marc Cormier, Pedro Marques, and Andrew Massey.

The listed candidates for the new Ward 25 under the 47-ward system are Chris Moise, who joined the court battle against Ford’s council-cutting legislation, as well as John Jeffery, Dan King, Ryan Lester, Kyle McNally, Jules Monteyne, Nicki Ward, Kevin Wiener, and Rob Wolvin.

However, if elections proceed under the 25-ward model, UTSG would be brought together under one ward, University—Rosedale. At this stage, City Clerk Ulli Watkiss is still operating under the 47-ward model until Ford finalizes his use of the notwithstanding clause, although Watkiss has warned that reorganizing a fair election is close to becoming a logistical impossibility.

There is no official list of candidates yet, however, a number of people have already announced their intentions to run.

Incumbent Ward 19 Trinity—Spadina councillor Mike Layton has announced that he would run in University—Rosedale. Cressy has said that he would compete in the neighbouring ward of Spadina—Fort York. Wong-Tam would compete in Toronto Centre.

“After discussions with members of the community and much personal reflection, I have decided that IF Ford is successful, and we are forced to run in a 25 seat race, I will be running to represent the ward of University-Rosedale,” Layton wrote in a statement on September 14.

“I grew up in the Annex and have lived in the Little Italy, Chinatown, and Christie Pitts neighbourhoods my entire adult life. The issues facing this community hit close to home, and are issues I have worked closely on for many years.”

No specific voting places have been released as of September 16. According to the City of Toronto website, “Currently the 2018 Voting places are under review.”


Scarborough campus will continue to be contained in one ward in both models. It’s currently represented by Jim Hart of Ward 44 Scarborough East, a former city staffer who was appointed in 2017 following the death of Ron Moeser. Hart is not running in the October 22 election.

Candidates registered under the 47-ward model are Corneliu Chisu, the former MP for Pickering—Scarborough East, who was defeated for re-election; Jennifer McKelvie, a failed candidate in the 2014 election and a former member of the UTSC Campus Council; Paul Cookson; Daniel Cubellis; Reza Khoshdel; Dave Madder; Christopher Riley; Joseph Thomas; and Emery Warner.

If Ford is successful with the notwithstanding clause, the ward will be simply named Ward 47. Under the 25-ward system, it will align with the boundaries of Scarborough—Rouge Park.

As with the downtown wards, the locations of the polls haven’t been specified yet.


Mississauga will not be affected by the Ford government’s plans, as it is a separate municipality. Elections for mayor, councillors, and school board trustees will be held on October 22, in line with the Toronto municipal elections.

UTM, like UTSC, is contained in a single ward, Ward 8.

Incumbent Bonnie Crombie, who took over the chief executive position from longtime Mayor Hazel McCallion, is running for re-election against Kevin J. Johnston, who was charged in 2017 by Peel Region police for allegedly promoting a hate crime.

There are six people running for councillor in Ward 8. Matt Mahoney, the incumbent, is running for re-election. The other candidates are Grzegorz Nowacki, Amadeus Blazys, Adam Etwell, Tariq Ali Shah, and Abdul Azeem Baig.

Students in Mississauga can take part in advance voting from October 5–6 at Mississauga Civic Centre, and October 13–14 at all community centres, and elementary and secondary schools in the Ward 8 area.

On Election Day, UTM students have access to various voting locations near campus. St. Mark Separate School, South Common Community Centre, Holy Name of Mary College School, Erindale Secondary School, Oakridge Public School, St. Margaret of Scotland Elementary School, and St. Clare Separate School in Mississauga all offer polling booths close to their classrooms.