Looking in the mirror, a sense of dissatisfaction ignites a burning desire to reconstruct the shape of our bodies. How can we ever learn to love our bodies when the incessant chatter of our culture demands that we fit into cookie-cutter frames moulded for nobody? We are circles looking to fit into squares, and our curves do not bend the way they are expected to. How do we learn to love the marks and scars that decorate our skin, our insecurities that we pick at?
Through photoshoots and interviews with The Varsity, seven people stepped out of their comfort zones to discuss body image and how they have learned to appreciate their bodies, though this still remains a challenge for some. In this photo essay, they modelled the complexities and nuances of their relationship with the way they look.
As a non-binary biracial person, Thomas Siddall tends to find that their look doesn’t fit in with the communities that they are associated with. Living in between these lines, they have found it difficult to balance and accept their identity and body image.
“Food is something that I have a difficult relationship with because, yes, food is love for me, but food is also stress.”
Before they identified as non-binary, Thomas identified with the gay male community. They explained that the community favoured a certain look: the ‘twink,’ which is slang for a gay white male with a slim build. It was something that Thomas did not feel they embodied.
Thomas is half-Causcasian and half-Chinese, but sees themself as white passing due to their pale complexion — although the white community thinks otherwise. Thomas has found that the two ethnicities and their respective cultures have different standards which they could not meet because of their mixed race.
As a full-time student participating in research while working two full-time jobs, they also characterize their relationship with food as “difficult” because of their stress-eating habits. “I have been overweight my entire life,” Thomas said. “And then my body image issues got worse in first year because my grades tanked [and] my weight went up a whole lot more.”
Not fitting into this gay male stereotypical image and being overwhelmed with their studies, Thomas was conflicted with their idea of desirability, from wanting to be desired to not. “I started to view my body as this kind of, I don’t know — something that wasn’t even mine anymore,” they said.
When they finally asked themself if they wanted to look a certain way, they found that “The answer is no… That’s not something I want to be a part of. And I guess that also forced me to think of questions like gender for myself, and that’s the reason why I really don’t identify as the male gender. I identify as non-binary.”
Currently, Thomas is focused on the next steps: being healthy, breaking out of irregular eating habits, and learning to accept their body as it is.
There are little victories of self-love. Thomas’ favourite body part is their eyes. They look like two eclipses, the black pupils ringed with fiery embers that dissipate into a blue that is the same colour as storm clouds.
“I think often that our bodies are not ours, and we will have a difficult process of learning how to reclaim them,” Thomas said. “And so for anybody who’s going on this journey or is experiencing this, I will be quite honest… everyone experiences [body image] differently… And so, hold stable, talk to someone about it, but it’s going to be a long journey.”
Amara Phillips was born to a Grenadian-German father and a Grenadian-Indian mother. Identifying as Black, she has been judged and bullied because of the colour of her skin.
“I identify as black, but because of my pale complexion, people have often tried to label me as albino, or too white to be black.”
Amara frequently finds herself in situations where people do not view her as she wants to be acknowledged.
“I identify as black, but because of my pale complexion, people have often tried to label me as albino, or too white to be black,” she wrote.
People have difficulty acknowledging who she is, and many people tend to make assumptions on the basis of her race and skin tone. “People tend to attribute my behaviour to my being ‘light skin,’” Amara wrote. “There is a conception that I see myself as better than darker skinned black people, and I hate this conception… It angers me when people make this assumption about me without knowing me or talking to me.”
This prejudice against Amara is mostly due to the North American colonial history that made ‘colourism’ into a societal concept among minorities, especially within Afro-Carribean communities. Colourism is when people treat individuals of the same race differently on the basis of their skin tone. This has been perpetuated by the representation of beauty across media, which subscribes to white, Euro-centric ideals that tend to favour lighter skinned people as the standard for beauty. Those who are darker skinned then face more prejudice, even if they are of the same race.
Amara tries not to let any of the comments influence her personal identity, but nevertheless she is still self-conscious about things like “[expressing herself] or [being] the face of a black student group on campus.”
Amara herself is among the many that judge her image. Although she finds herself lucky to be able to fit the ‘ideal image’ of female beauty, as she’s tall and skinny, she tends to constantly nitpick and worry over certain parts of her body, such as her scars and stretch marks, the size of her chest, or how her body frame makes it difficult to find well-fitted clothing. Amara was also bullied for her acne at a young age, and she’s still constantly self-conscious about it.
Yet despite all the flaws she can find, when asked what her favourite body part is, Amara answered: her whole body, which she has learned to appreciate over time.
Her words on body positivity?
“Perfection doesn’t exist, and I think that body positivity means doing what is best for you,” she wrote. And in the words of her yogi: “If it doesn’t feel good, you’re doing it wrong.”
For 15 years, Jazmine Raine was misdiagnosed with anxiety instead of colitis and Crohn’s disease, and as a result, they didn’t receive the proper treatment for these conditions until they were in their late twenties. This misdiagnosis resulted in a whirlwind of events that made Jazmine’s journey to peace and acceptance with their body one with many turbulences.
“Sometimes I can’t fathom that I’m in this body.”
As a result of the misdiagnosis and mistreatment, Jazmine found it painful to eat, and the accompanying reluctance to eat developed into an eating disorder.
“Eating disorders are beasts… you really start to identify with your illness,” Jazmine said when talking about their experience going through eating disorder programs. “You can want so badly to feel better, but it becomes such a huge part of your identity in this real mudslide that it almost feels impossible.”
The feeling of constant pain also made it difficult for them to accept their body.
“I wasn’t feeling great because… my stomach always felt sick,” Jazmine said, “which I kind of accepted as a part of my life, and it kind of put me at war with my body.”
Jazmine also experiences gender dysphoria, which is when one feels that their sex and gender do not match. “Sometimes I can’t fathom that I’m in this body, and having to learn how to love my body in a way that has nothing to do with gender,” they said. “The way that I look doesn’t have anything to do with the way that I feel… and having to kind of make friends with that and make peace with that is something that is, some days, really, really challenging.”
After finally getting properly diagnosed, Jazmine has started to feel better about themself, including their gender identity.
“Now with a diagnosis and proper care… I understand that there’s something to be done. It’s hopeful. I [have] started to feel better,” they said.
Through Jazmine’s experiences as a non-binary and trans person, they realized that there are certain physical stereotypes in these identities which can be associated with how much someone will respect their gender orientation.
“I don’t really think that non-binary has an image,” Jazmine said, but they get a lot of suggestions on “how to look more trans or how to look more binary.” For instance, Jazmine is frequently told to wear less makeup.
Jazmine finds themself trying to dress and appear a certain way for different people and different situations. For example, when bartending, they dress slightly more femme for safety purposes. Based on their personal experience, they realized that they received more violence from men when they dressed androgynous or challenged men’s expectations of what a female bartender should look like than when they dressed to fit the stereotype.
Other times, Jazmine has used their physical appearance to make a statement.
“It seems like an act of rebellion for me to a lot of the exclusion and transphobia within the queer community and a lot of the femme phobia in the trans community,” they said. “So for me, the act of having long hair is an act of resistance… I can be this transbody and still look like a cis person. That doesn’t invalidate my trans experience.”
Jazmine’s experience with their body and identity has only been improving. Their favourite body parts are their hands because they find them strong and capable.
However, Jazmine still wants to remind people that it’s okay to have off days. “I think being gentle with yourself and being soft with yourself is the most important… and to hold space for days when you feel like crap.”
As the youngest daughter in a Chinese immigrant family, much of Joy Fan’s perception of her body is affected by the cultural context that surrounds her, alongside her close relationship with her mother.
“People would be like, ‘you have a mustache,’… I had darker upper lip facial hair. Which now looking back, I was five — how dark could this facial hair have been?”
At a young age, Joy was ridiculed for having slightly darker and more visible upper lip facial hair. In retrospect, Joy found the bullying quite funny, but for the entirety of her elementary school experience, this genetic feature was a frequent point of mockery amongst her peers.
Although she has outgrown most of those comments, Joy still finds it difficult to accept hair outside her eyebrows and the hair on her head. “You develop these negative associations with these things that aren’t negative at all,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with having hair on your body, but then because you’ve had this one experience with it, you just see it as a bad thing.”
When Joy was struggling with her image, her mother encouraged her to not care about how she looked and to grow a thick skin instead. Her mother’s support was shown through tough love: “Asian parents have a really weird way of showing love,” she said. “My mom would say to me growing up… ‘you’re average looking, but that’s okay”… because she was trying to say, ‘don’t put so much weight on your looks, here are more important things [to worry about].’”
Joy found it hard to accept this support because she realized that, in the Caucasian community, her mother’s response was not the norm, which caused her to question her mother’s affection. This culturally conflicting relationship between her and her mother made it difficult to accept her body image at times.
Joy was also constantly complimented for her thinness among her family and friends. She found a glint of self-confidence in this, but it became something she relied on.
“It wasn’t like, when I saw my body I liked [what I saw], but it was that I am aware that this is good because other people tell me it’s good. So I [felt] like I have to be able to maintain this,” she said.
Joy feared the expiry date of this physical trait, so when she went through puberty and started to gain weight, she started to eat less. Over time, her appetite began to decrease.
Joy still gets comments on her slim physique, which most people attribute to her fast metabolism. She finds this partially true, but she wants to remind people that aside from genetics, she frequently misses meals due to her busy schedule. There is this mirage of how people perceive her body, and she finds it difficult for people to understand and accept her body the way that she does.
Joy’s favourite body part is her Adam’s apple. “This is a weird thing that I’ve really learned to appreciate… I associated my facial hair with this masculine part of me, and I hate it because I’m a girl. But then [I’m] able to appreciate this little Adam’s apple, even though it is clearly a more masculine thing.”
When asked about body positivity, Joy recommended the tactic she used: look at your naked body more often. Learn to love and appreciate it.
Through an educational assessment, Alisha Rao was told at a young age that she had an above-average sense of confidence, a quality that allowed her to more easily deal with the racial tensions and bullying that she experienced during her youth in Oakville. With this quality following her into her adult years, Alisha has always loved her body the way it was, but the immunity of her confidence was tested when she started university.
“It almost felt like my feelings [weren’t] valid. Like I’m not allowed to be frustrated that I’m skinny because maybe it’s the ideal in a lot of ways.”
As a petite, confident girl of Indian background who never doubted herself, Alisha found that the overwhelming stress of university caused her to lose a significant amount of weight, and she started to lose her self-esteem and found it hard to look at her reflection.
“I’ve always been really confident in my body and never really upset at what I looked at,” Alisha said. “But that was the only instance where I actually did feel that kind of frustration. And I weighed myself, and I wouldn’t be happy… it felt so alien to me.”
During her recovery, she started to question the validity of her thoughts. Because Alisha was losing weight instead of gaining it, she wasn’t sure if she was allowed to feel bad about her image because of societal norms and pressures.
“It almost felt like my feelings [weren’t] valid. Like I’m not allowed to be frustrated that I’m skinny because maybe it’s the ideal in a lot of ways,” she said.
Normally, Alisha didn’t think much of her boney frame, but after the weight loss, she became more conscious of the comments that others made about her physique. Even as much as a year after she lost the weight, Alisha still worries that she may encounter the same experience again, which is also linked to her mental well-being.
“I still haven’t weighed myself since [the weight loss] because I don’t want this to make me feel like I’m not okay,” she said. “If I ever looked at [my weight] and maybe it was subconscious or not, I would be looking to gain… and maybe part of me still desires that.”
This year has been better than the last, and Alisha is slowly getting back on her feet. Her favourite part of her body is her bicep, which shows her strength. Ultimately, she wants people to know that all insecurities are valid.
“I don’t want anyone to feel [that] if you’re self-conscious about anything to feel it’s invalid, regardless of your weight [or] body type,” she said.
Born in Halifax to a Brazilian family and raised in both Calgary and California, Victoria Silva has experienced many different social and cultural body standards that contradict one another, and they have all contributed to how she understands her body image.
“I often viewed [my body] as a functional thing.”
Victoria is an athlete, playing numerous sports, and her active background made her perceive her body in the context of her athletic capabilities and performance. “I often viewed [my body] as a functional thing,” she said.
Despite the revealing beach volleyball uniform and her agitated eczema from sweat and heat, Victoria blocked out any insecurities or anxieties about her appearance by focusing her energy on her performance on the sport that put her body on display.
“I have a tendency… where I’ll focus on something else so that I don’t have to necessarily think about my body or how other people view it,” she said.
This ‘compartmentalizing’ tactic didn’t always work for Victoria though, especially outside of sports.
She spoke about how having a naturally large bust at a young age led to people viewing her in contrasting perspectives of maternity and sexualization. Among her friends, she was the mom, not just because of her personality but also because of her appearance, especially when she wore loose-fitting shirts. She tried to wear tight clothing to avoid the comments about her looking like a “mom,” which she never found flattering, but it also prompted sexualization. Among male strangers, she constantly received inappropriate comments as a teenager.
“It’s like [a] paradox,” Victoria said. “It was a whole slew of factors that made it very uncomfortable for me to be living in the body that I [had].”
In her family and culture, there is also a disparity in beauty standards. Being of Brazillian descent, women are expected to be curvaceous, whereas growing up in North America, women are expected to be tall and skinny.
“It was always very tricky for me to navigate… how I want to be perceived,” she said. “If I fit the body ideal of one country… I don’t fit the body ideal of another.”
As she has grown into the idea of self-love, grappling with this has also meant confronting what has been holding her back. “Being confident and being insecure aren’t mutually exclusive. I am the most confident with myself, my body, my life [that] I have ever been, and I still have insecurities.”
In time, Victoria has learned to appreciate her body. Her favourite body part is her eyes. She’s also growing to value her body for its strength and what it can do.
“For me, it’s very much like: how do I feel when I go up a set of stairs, how do I feel when I put on my favourite dress?” she said.
“I just want to feel strong.”
Photos by Dina Dong