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Moving past the mirror

A ballerina reflects on summer body dysmorphia

Moving past the mirror

As the school year ends, after weeks of gruesome tests and exams, I always feel a rush of relief. But this summertime rush isn’t just the anticipation of fun and freedom. For me, it’s intermixed with intense personal scrutiny and anxiety. Thoughts and plans of travelling, relaxing with friends, or even taking a dip at the beach are easily undermined by my body dysmorphia. 

The warm weather serves as a constant reminder that I must continue to surveil my physical appearance and keep my food consumption under control. As a dancer and highly athletic individual, this dysmorphic self-perception has haunted my life for years. Although I have now learned to better respect and appreciate my physicality, overcoming body dysmorphia hasn’t been easy.

Ballet has been one of the most important parts of my life since grade school. As years passed, I spent countless hours in the dance studio, training and practicing each required movement on the ballet syllabus. I spent years standing in front of towering studio mirrors; I couldn’t help but scrutinize every physical detail of myself. 

As time progressed, I began to develop an unhealthy fixation. I obsessed over the width of my arms and waistline, constantly monitoring my weight. I kept mental images of other dancers’ bodies as a reminder of the physical ideal I wanted to achieve. 

These unhealthy fixations took control over my life. For years, I had developed a daily habit of waking up and heading straight to my mirror to analyze my body, seeking to identify even the slightest change of body weight or muscle tone. I would grip my arms and pinch them, visualizing arms far skinnier than the average healthy weight at my age. 

This physical fixation poured into every part of my life. I was constantly comparing and watching everything my friends ate, mentally keeping track of each food item I consumed, and even believing that those who gave me any dessert portion were plotting to get me fat. 

The narrow physical ideal I had ingrained within me, alongside the pressure of “looking good” for the summer, led me to cut out a variety of important types of food essential to maintaining a healthy body. Meat was practically non-existent in my diet for years, and its absence created further unhealthy effects from my pre-existing anemia. These restrictions led to a series of health issues that may have caused severe repercussions had I not learned to better accept and embrace my body.

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

Thankfully, it has been years since my severe obsession over my body image was at its peak. As time passed, I learned how to deal with internal scrutiny better and I have learned how to shut out the voice inside my head suggesting I am not enough. Throughout my personal journey of learning to love my body, several things helped keep me on track. 

For one, I realized my body is worth much, much more than solely its physical appearance. Every day we are confronted with images and advertisements presenting ideas that suggest the aesthetic appearance of our bodies is the most important quality about them. We put so much emphasis on the body’s surface: paying enormous amounts of attention to the glow of our skin, the thinness of our waistline, and the bulkiness of our muscles. However, our bodies are so much more than their external appearances. 

Paying attention to how you feel about your body during certain activities is key. Instead of spending time scrutinizing my perceived physical flaws, I instead encouraged myself to discover activities that made me feel best with my physical self. Focusing on activities and hobbies that emphasize how great you feel, rather than look, is a vital step forward. 

The media has powerful control over our perception of self and body image. Mass media has confronted us with billboards, advertisements, and magazines depicting extremely narrow ideals of beauty that are unrealistic and harmful to one’s self-esteem.

Images presented to us through the media have been modified in ways tailored to suit a company’s commercial interests: models and actors staged in advertisements aim to sell the desire to achieve a certain look through purchasing the company’s products. In images, women and men alike have had their bodies photoshopped, faces and skin airbrushed, and are accompanied by a team of stylists and makeup artists. These images persuade us to achieve looks that are unrealistic. 

Comparing yourself negatively to others will only contribute to your unhappiness. I know it is difficult to acknowledge this and change your mindset; it can be hard when we are confronted with images of the same stereotypes and beauty ideals. However, these comparisons are extremely detrimental to our self-esteem. 

Comparing our looks and physicality to others is simply a cry of self-hatred; there will always be someone in our eyes that looks more physically fit, more curvy, or more skinny. That does not mean our own body is worth anything less; by comparing ourselves to others, we don’t acknowledge the beauty of our own bodies and all of the amazing things they are capable of. We are all unique in many ways and should take pride in what our own physicality has to offer.

As temperatures rise and warm weather sets in, I encourage those struggling with body dysmorphia not to beat yourself up over the numbers you see on the scale, not to worry about the extra ice-cream cone you want to consume, and to wear that top you think looks good on you. Summer is a time where one should experience life fully and enjoy every moment possible; try not to let negative thoughts towards your body prevent you from these wonderful experiences. 

What Varsity Blues athletes eat: Sandakie Ekanayake

Rugby athlete Sandakie Ekanayake reveals what fuels her busy schedule

What Varsity Blues athletes eat: Sandakie Ekanayake

Food equates to energy in an athlete’s world. Sandakie Ekanayake crafts her diet so that she can balance her athletic endeavours as a lock for the Varsity Blues women’s rugby team and a member of the Pom Team.

As most rugby games take place in the afternoon, Ekanayake’s main focus before a game is breakfast. Tea is a must in the morning for Ekanayake, game day or not, and is the beginning of her daily routine. Ekanayake says that her morning nutritional focus is on carbs, protein, and fats. She likes to begin the day with breakfast foods like eggs and bacon or sausages.

As a commuter, Ekanayake’s quick on the go snack is peanut butter and jelly. The blend of protein and carbs is important to her diet.

Following her mantra of balance, dinner the night before the game is just as important. Consuming carbs is key, so Ekanayake sticks to rice or pasta. Her biggest stress though is to stay hydrated.

Staying hydrated is crucial for an athlete’s body, and so is getting protein before a game. Prior to the start of a game, she tries to consume simple carbs like a protein bar.

Her eating habits aren’t too regimented, but she does her best to stay constant in season and off season by eating healthy year round.

Like many of us, Ekanayake has a sweet tooth and her cheats are sweets. She believes it’s important to have a healthy relationship with food.

Because of her increased training and field time, “the biggest thing [in season] is just eating more frequently and eating more food,” Ekanayake says.

According to Ekanayake, she is “not too strict in season” as the main importance for her “is simply eating more food so that [she’s] eating enough to replenish what’s being used up.”

“It’s easy to lose energy when you’re doing that much work,” she adds.

From lifts, to practice, and always being on the go, “Staying hydrated and staying fueled is not as easy as you would think… given the schedule of being a student athlete and you having other commitments on the side as well,” Ekanayake admits.

One thing that can severely alter a diet is recovering from an injury. Ekanayake speaks to this as she recovers from a recent back injury.

“It’s very hard to change your diet after injury,” Ekanayake says. “I was still eating like a high performance athlete even though I didn’t need anywhere near the same amount of energy.”

While she admits that it’s “easy to fall off the wagon here,” she says that she tries to avoid inflammatory foods as she recovers.

Being adequately fueled, maintaining a healthy routine, and knowing which foods provide essential vitamins and protein is crucial to Ekanayake’s success not only on the field, but also in the classroom.

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.’

Health and fitness survival guide

Fitting it all in as we head back to a busy school schedule

Health and fitness survival guide

As the new school year approaches, the challenge of juggling fitness, personal life, and academics loom large.

This article will provide you with a guide in hopes of balancing all three. If you want to change up your own routine for other things, such as different fitness classes, there are plenty that are offered at the university.

For example, if you have always been itching to try that dance class or take up yoga, head on over to any of the three gyms on campus, where free fitness classes are offered daily.

From learning how to dance the salsa to high-intensity interval training, there’s something for everyone.

From the start, the most important piece of advice is to go at your own pace. Don’t fall into the trap of peer pressure or attempt to work out at levels that you’re not accustomed to. Consider your own action plan holistically. A strategy that I’d recommend is to journal the goals you want to accomplish.

The biggest problem is trying to compare yourself to others. You might feel like you are wired to do so, but it’s absolutely critical to disregard this mindset. One of the most effective ways to combat this feeling is by limiting the amount of social media usage. Your life is unique from everyone else’s.

Sometimes, you won’t feel like working out, but you should stick to it, because it’s the right thing to do. As the old adage goes, showing up is half the battle. Times like these, when you initially don’t feel like going to the gym, the resulting physical activity could end up helping you relax and rethink things.

Pushing through the negative mindsets that may occur is critical in terms of making progress, for whatever your own goals may be. Cultivate your discipline and motivation.

The motivations behind improving your own fitness and working out may change, but the discipline is the bedrock of successful fitness journey, from personal experience.

I learned through my own journey to let go of my ego. I used to think that I could do this all by myself, with no help at all. Why would anyone else know about my own situation?

This turned into a toxic mindset that impeded my own progress for a while. When I asked for help, by asking other gym goers what I believed to be the most basic questions for a beginner, I learned more from others, since I came from a place of humility, with a genuine desire to learn. This attitude we can all achieve, not just for our fitness journeys, but for our lives in general.

To complement the journey, there are plenty of affordable places around campus that can offer a healthy bite to eat.

I would recommend any place that lists the number of calories that each item or meal contains, so you know exactly how much you are putting into your body.  Essence for Life Organics can fill your needs if you would like to go down the organic route.

While it isn’t on campus, Kensington Market has lots of eateries and shops that can easily fit someone on a student’s budget. These include fruit markets, where healthy options are abundant.

Challenging your body challenges your mind. Unlike your career, you can assume absolute control over your domain. While it may seem daunting, just outlining a simple plan will go a long way in making it a successful year.