When it comes to pageants, Canadians just don’t understand them the way our neighbours to the south do. Perhaps it’s because of TV series like “Toddlers & Tiaras” and the many others that showcase them in a negative light, or maybe it’s due to our Canadian way of thinking where we value a person for more than just their beauty. We tend to view them as an antiquated way of measuring women against one another in a superficial way and in the age of Trump and Weinstein, people are finally coming to the realization that this way of thinking is better left in the past. Few know this feeling better than Chelsea Bird.
Chelsea grew up in Saskatoon, moving to Edmonton when she was twenty to finish her drama degree after going to the University of Saskatchewan. After doing some travelling and taking some time away from school working as a bartender on Whyte Ave, she decided to pursue a different path. Once she heard about the radio and TV broadcasting program at NAIT she knew that this was where she wanted to build her career.
As the majority of her colleagues would attest to, it’s standard practice when starting your career in broadcasting to move to a ‘small market’ to learn the ropes. Luckily for Chelsea, she took a chance doing the graveyard shift on CISN Radio right out of school and after six months, was offered the afternoon drive. Needless to say, she jumped at the opportunity and began her path up a steep learning curve, cutting her teeth in the most competitive radio market in Canada.
After nearly three years, a new calling came for her. 104.9 Virgin Radio came knocking and offered her the morning show and the opportunity to get some exposure on CTV. She made the switch and has been there for the last three years, as one half of the Ian and Chelsea Morning Show.
For Chelsea, her pageant days feels like a lifetime ago. She began competing after being scouted and was quite sceptical about the whole thing. It wasn’t until she decided to start training for Miss Universe Canada, that she realized that the women that she was competing against weren’t just beautiful women. They had double degrees, had started charities, had overcome adversity as they pursued their careers and dreams. It forced her to push herself towards a whole new level of goal setting that she feels that she wouldn’t have sought had it not been for pageants.
“That is the aspect of pageants that I wish people understood,” she says. “That these women aren’t just being judged on their looks. It’s more about your personality and your drive and your accomplishments than people understand. And that’s what I really benefited from.”
Chelsea also saw that there were tremendous opportunities to travel, and that’s what kept her competing. She represented Canada in Colombia at an international pageant and had opportunities to go to China and Thailand. However, at the end of the day, she always felt that they were “beauty pageants” which had a superficial side to them that she wishes pageant promoters would get rid of. Miss America is doing away with the bikini part of their competition and she applauds the move. In 2018, the idea of comparing women to one another based on their looks is absurd. If the competition is truly about more than looks, then let’s prove it with our actions and actually make it about more than looks.
The stigma that goes along with pageants and similar shows where beauty is determined by the contestant’s weight and body shape may have changed recently but the effects experienced by past participants and the negative view of them due to this has stuck and will take a while for people’s view of them to change. Former contestants talk about the many health challenges as a result of their participation in pageants. Everything from physical illnesses to mental health issues including depression and eating disorders are not uncommon. However, in many cases these illnesses are often already part of the persons makeup and were made worse by the drive for perfection that is required to be at the top.
“A lot of people are quick to assume that because of my pageant experience, that’s why I had an eating disorder,” says Chelsea.
In her case, bulimia was something she struggled with for about six years. Largely based on maintaining control while other aspects of her life seemed not to be, it was the manifestation of a larger unhappiness that revealed itself in the form of binging and purging.
“It’s a lot like an addiction. It becomes a habit and a crutch, and soon, you don’t know any other existence than a sick one,” she says. “Eating disorders are a perfect storm of several factors and I would have had one regardless of my pageant experience.”
Chelsea sought help and credits her own hard work and determination to be where she is today with her health. There were several, long periods of time where she thought she would live with the disease forever, and that’s no longer the case.
“I have moments where my mind veers to those dark places, yes - but it doesn’t have control over me anymore by any stretch,” she says.
According to a recent study 1.5% of Canadian women aged 15-24 have an eating disorder. This may not seem like a startling statistic until you dig deeper into the research and see that the number of adolescent girls who engage in weight-loss behaviours (29% of grade 10 girls) or perceive themselves as fat (40% for that same demographic) show the beginnings at that young age of what often turns into an eating disorder as an adult. With events like pageants, magazines and social media showing what an “ideal body type” looks like, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that the demographic who spends the greatest amount of time watching those sources would feel this way.
Women are taught to have a love-hate relationship with food in ways that are difficult to recognize. Media has taught them to watch what they eat and that it’s better to look good and be popular than to find happiness from within and accept who you are in ways that go far beyond the number on the scale or the size of your waist. The slogan of “a minute on the lips beats a lifetime on the hips” is still a Google trend after typing in the first three words of that saying.
One positive thing to note is that it does appear that people’s opinions of “self-love” are changing. More and more, we are seeing people sharing images on social media of their “imperfections”. It helps that the celebrities that teens and young women look up to are leading by example with this. It also helps that media is starting to take note and are running ad campaigns more often with women of all shapes and sizes and promoting a “you’re perfect the way you are” mentality. Even with all this however, advertisements often still prey on the lack of self-confidence many young women have by showing images that for many are simply unattainable regardless of how hard they work out or how little they eat.
Chelsea feels hopeful though knowing that if she can come from rock bottom where she was throwing up blood on a daily basis and thinking that bulimia would kill her, that anyone can change their outlook towards food and body image. She credits the use of online support groups that helped her maintain anonymity in seeking help. Eating disorders are built around shame and secrecy so telling someone to ‘tell someone’ or ‘reach out’ is a big ask for them. For her, being able to have a support network that ‘reached in’ was a lot more comfortable.
“It doesn’t get better overnight,” she says. “You’ll relapse and pick up the pieces again and again, but you can and will get better. For good.”
Today, physical fitness is something that Chelsea enjoys for the endorphins and not just for her appearance. With Edmonton’s long winters, it’s tough to get outdoors all the time and hitting the gym day in and day out for many can become boring.
“I’ll go in the winter months because I need to keep my body active, but fitness for me is an overall lifestyle thing that ties in with my mind, too. I like to lose myself on my bike in the river valley trails for hours or go for a long walk to clear my head. It’s all about balance for me,” she says.
She puts herself on the fitness spectrum somewhere between a couch potato and a gym rat. Rather than setting rules for herself about how often she exercises or the type of food she eats, she simply focusses on what feels right. By tuning in and listening to what her body needs, she is able to make healthy choices.
“People hear that and go: “if I listened to my body I’d eat McDonald’s every day”, and panic. Yeah-you might...for a few days, but when you really tune in, you realize that’s NOT actually what you want. And when you allow yourself to have what’s ‘forbidden’, the excitement really dissipates, and the freedom begins,” she says.
This lifestyle of health and wellness carries over to the support she offers to her favourite charity – the MS Society. Chelsea has been working with the MS Society for four years taking part in their annual bike tour, MC’ing their golf tournament and singing their praises to everyone she meets. The disease hits close to home for her as her mother was diagnosed with MS when she was twelve and with Alberta having the highest rates of MS worldwide, it’s a disease she is committed to helping find a cure for.
Although a relatively recent transplant to YEG, she has fallen in love with the community here. For years Edmontonians have bonded by griping about everything wrong with the city and the lack of things to do. For Chelsea, she sees Edmonton with a fresh set of eyes seeing all that is happening in the city in a new light.
There’s so much happening in Edmonton today, and there are so many creative minds that are building this city up into something to be extremely proud of. There’s so much young influence making Edmonton a vibrant and thriving place to be that it’s exciting to think about where we’re collectively going to continue to take it. From public art to technology to architecture and entertainment, it’s all happening right now in YEG.
“I f*cking LOVE Edmonton,” she says. “I feel like we’ve finally reached a point where complaining about Edmonton makes you a loser now. Now? No way. At least, I don’t want to hear it hahaha.”
By TJ Sadler