On January 28, the Isabel Bader stage was transformed. The iconic red carpet was rolled out for TEDxUofT — a student-run youth organization — as it held its annual conference. This year’s theme was “Catalyst.” The event consisted of talented speakers sparking conversations about research and inspirational experiences. 

How environmental factors affect body image

The first speaker was Victoria Gracie, a body positivity activist. She shared her personal experiences as a person with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), and how it led her to The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). She now serves as the co-chair of a CAMH research advisory committee on BDD and anorexia nervosa. 

She used her own powerful story as a former ballerina to discuss BDD. Approximately 1.7–2.9 per cent of the world’s population and more than five million individuals in the United States alone struggle with BDD daily. 

Gracie delved into the history of body image in her compelling TEDx talk. While it may seem that the pressure to conform to certain body ideals is a recent phenomenon tied to influencers on platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, Gracie pointed out that this is not the case. 

Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health condition in which a person spends a considerable amount of time worrying about their appearance and body image. Often, when a certain psychiatric condition is in the public eye, scientists will dedicate a subfield of study to address its prevalence. This is why “military psychology” and even “ergonomic psychiatry” exist. However, despite the widespread nature of body image disorders, Gracie explained that there is currently not sufficient study dedicated to “body image psychiatry.” 

Gracie emphasized the importance of addressing this gap in research. Scientists observed differences in brain activity in individuals who suffer from BDD and similar disorders. People with BDD experience different emotions and have an altered perception of faces because individuals with BDD perceive visual information differently than those without BDD.

Furthermore, disorders associated with body image and self-perception, such as eating disorders, are often associated with psychiatric conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder. So, there is undoubtedly a psychiatric component to these afflictions. Gracie’s research aims to identify the environmental factors that contribute to these disorders to work to improve the lives of people with BDD. 

On the importance of giving students attention

Another notable speaker was Jessica Lim, co-president of both UNICEF U of T and U of T’s Psychology Student Association. She focused on another psychiatric concept: attention and its transformative power. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines attention as a state in which our cognitive resources are focused and ready to respond to stimuli. Lim suggested that receiving attention from others can spark curiosity and lead individuals to modify their behaviour. 

Although the ideas Lim discussed may be applied to several settings, she focused on the importance of students receiving attention within a classroom. Specifically, she illustrated how teachers can provide sufficient attention to their students by sharing her experiences as an elementary school English teacher in South Korea. 

The first anecdote Lim shared was of a seven-year-old student who was disruptive to her class. Upon inquiring about this boy’s home life, she discovered he was not receiving enough attention due to family difficulties. Lim tried to give him more attention in the classroom — for example, she observed his interest in drawing and implemented this into the school curriculum by having students draw over letters of the alphabet. Consequently, the boy’s behaviour improved in the classroom and at home. He was redirected from destructive habits by receiving much-needed attention. 

While this story is certainly idealistic, it is also incredibly unrealistic to focus on every student in this way. Lim addressed this by using a second, broader example. Lim also noticed that her students loved to sing but did not know the words to several childhood classics, such as “Let It Go” from Frozen. She paid attention to this shared interest and had her students learn song lyrics. As a result, the students’ confidence and engagement in the class improved along with their language proficiency. 

Practicing kindness while pursuing academia

Bill Ju, a professor in U of T’s Department of Human Biology, started his presentation by encouraging us in the audience to engage with the people next to us, which resulted in a cascade of smiles in the room. In his talk, he emphasized that educators are often entrenched in the academic world, forgetting a crucial part of preparing students for the real world. 

Beyond textbooks and exams, he encourages the spread of values between students, with kindness taking the spotlight — something we should all be passing on whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. 

Professor Ju explains that when we encounter someone who is stressed, we also get stressed by their influence, which negatively affects our moods. Similarly, spreading kindness to the next person could positively affect them. Rather than maintaining a poker face, choosing to share a smile with the person beside us creates a more positive atmosphere, which he believes we should maintain within the academic environment. 

Despite students being stressed and engaged in constant competition, making an effort to share lunch with someone new, offering a smile to a classmate, or even giving a spontaneous high-five to a passerby down the hallway can significantly brighten someone’s day.

Professor Bill Ju teaches us that small acts of kindness make us seem more approachable to people who don’t know us. He envisions making a change for the world that involves integrating kindness into the educational landscape. 

About the mental component of physical health

After an intermission, Dr. Sarah Lidstone took the stage, challenging dualism — the theory that the body and the brain are distinct and separate. She started with an interesting activity that got us moving one of our legs and keeping the other on the ground. She concluded the activity by highlighting that even though only one of our legs was in motion, both were essential for coordinating balance. Dr. Lidstone debriefed that the purpose of the activity was to unlearn the notion that the mind and our physical self are disconnected. 

Dr. Lidstone is a neurologist specializing in movement disorders and an assistant professor at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine. She aimed to investigate the impact of assistance from experts in neurology, psychiatry, and physiotherapy on patients with movement disorders to gain multiple perspectives on a patient’s experiences. 

She presented video clips depicting patients before and after receiving treatment from these specialists, highlighting their progress in recovery. Dr. Lidstone emphasized the importance of the interconnections between the mind, body, and brain and how their physical improvement was directly linked to their mental state. 

Dr. Lidstone also raised a pointed critique of the healthcare field, specifically toward how healthcare workers frequently brush aside patients’ complaints about their mental well-being, as they are seen as problems that another person can’t physically see. However, she emphasized that integrating mental and physical health is crucial to enhancing motor control.

The conference was overall quite enlightening. Gracie and Lim both skillfully pulled from their personal experiences to inspire change. They are actively propelling forward research that may address important social issues. By viewing situations through a scientific lens, they were able to use empirical studies to enrich the lives of many, acting as catalysts for sparking conversations. Professor Ju spoke about the relevance of being kind to students and future educators, and Dr. Lidstone spoke about treating your brain and body as a whole and learning that they are in constant communication.