Category Archives: Winter 2018

Saying hi to hijab

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I first started wearing the hijab, it was hard to wrap my head around it.

I was a shy 11-year-old, fresh off the proverbial boat from Pakistan, and entering the battleground that was sixth grade. I came into school in March, I might add, meaning that cliques had already formed, friendships had been sworn, and alliances had been made by way of pinky promise. I knew I had no hope of making any friends. All I wanted was for someone to take pity on me, invite me to sit with them at lunch, and not laugh when I asked them what ‘pencil crayons’ were.

Instead, thanks to the cloth my mom had forced me to cover my head with, all I got were cold stares, awkward silences, and a girl in my class harassing me to “take it off.”

So I did what every young adult novel would have its heroine do: I started living a double life. I would wear the hijab when I left for school, take it off and stash it in my bag before my first class, and wrap it around my head again before I went home.

It was dishonest, draining, and frightening. I was always on edge, scared of being caught, or worse — being called out. I didn’t know who to turn to. I had no friends at school, my relatives back home were an expensive phone call away, and my mom was a single mother, apartment-hunting so she could give us a roof over our heads that was better than our small, smelly Scarborough apartment.

The paranoia became too much to withstand, so I gave up my double life — which hadn’t garnered me any friends, anyway — and started wearing the hijab full-time. Still, I wasn’t head over heels for it.

A little later, my mother found us a place in Mississauga, and I took this as an opportunity to restart. I was grateful. I decided the hijab was out of my life and off of my head, and nothing could change that.

After two years of not wearing the hijab, I started attending religious classes geared toward young Muslim women. I related closely to my teacher, who used to have a fear of the hijab that echoed mine. She had hated wearing it as a young girl, she told us with humour, because it made her ‘uncool’ and unfit to hang out with the popular girls. But she had had an epiphany that changed her mind — we would all experience that epiphany at one point, she promised us, regardless of whether it would lead us to choose the hijab or take it off.

I was skeptical of her promise until I decided to learn more about the hijab. What I discovered left me pleasantly surprised.

The hijab, also spelled ‘hejab,’ isn’t just a piece of cloth that covers a woman’s head, neck, and chest. It is a concept that denotes modesty, not only through clothing, but through words and actions — and this idea applies to both women and men. It is a physical form of my commitment to my faith, and as I got to know more about the hijab, I suddenly found myself wanting to make that commitment.

The only thing holding me back was the fear that my non-hijabi friends might not accept me. But I reasoned with myself that if my friends abandoned me simply because of a cloth on my head, then they weren’t really friends, were they?

In January 2011, I decided to wear the hijab.

I’d be lying if I said that in the seven years that have since passed, I haven’t once thought about taking it off, because I have. The poor representations of hijab-wearing women in popular culture have caused me to feel ugly, insecure, and to question my decision. This is especially the case when I see how hijabis who aren’t ‘white passing’ are misrepresented in the media as being timid and oppressed.

But then I remind myself that the hijab is more than a piece of cloth to me. Aside from being a sign of my commitment to my faith, for me, the hijab has become a symbol of feminism and resistance in an age when misogyny and Islamophobia are being perpetrated by leaders of nations. 

Not to mention that the hijab literally hides my flaws: it hides my double chin, hairy sideburns, and occasionally oily hair. For these reasons, it’s probably better that I keep it on.

I love the hijab and everything that it stands for. What I don’t love, however, are the questions that it comes with and the lack of instructions on how to answer them.

Some of these questions are reasonable, but many are downright ridiculous. I’ve heard these questions and many more:

Can I see your hair?

If you are a female, sure, but not in public. If you are a male, no.

Do you wear it at home?

It depends. A hijab is supposed to be worn around unfamiliar males, so if there are men other than my father, grandfather, or brothers, then yes.

Do you sleep with it on?

I don’t even sleep with my bra on because that’s too restrictive. Why would I sleep with a hijab on?

Do you shower with it on?

My hijab is not permanently attached to my head. It is a piece of cloth that, like the rest of my clothing, comes off when I shower. Also, a wet hijab feels even worse than a wet sock.

Don’t you feel hot?

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any hijabs that come with cooling technology, so yes, I do feel hot. The heat still pales in comparison to the oppression I face every day in the form of ignorance and Islamophobia.

What’s under there?

The answer to this question has endless possibilities. While it’s usually just hair, there is nothing stopping me from putting all kinds of things under my hijab. What could I put there?

A water bottle? While that would certainly free up hands, a water bottle is prone to leaking, and my hair must only be washed every two days, otherwise it frizzes.

Plants? This would be lovely, except my hijab is too thick and would block it from getting enough sunlight. Also, how would I water the plant without getting my hijab wet?

Dumbbells? Given the numerous excuses I invent to skip the gym, that would certainly be useful and allow me to exercise on the go. However, they could also fall out of my hijab, down my shirt, and maybe break a bone or two. I don’t know if my insurance would cover that.

A blanket? A blanket would be useful given my tendency to nap anywhere, regardless of the time or place. However, a proper blanket would probably make my hijab look too bulky, and I have standards of hijab-wearing to abide by.

Textbooks? Physical textbooks are too heavy for my gym-skipping, low-upper-body-strength self.

Cheat sheets? As a linguistics student with no time to memorize the distinctive features of every sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet, it is tempting to stash cheat sheets in my hijab. However, it would be hard to extract them discreetly, especially without messing up my hijab — and since I would be far too lazy to fix it, that will probably never happen.

Voldemort? The Last Battle of Hogwarts took place in 1998, a year after I was born. Voldemort had no time and no need to possess the head of a Muggle like me — he already had a physical form by then.

I can’t make heads or tails of any of these questions, but I shouldn’t be surprised to hear them in a time when countries and provinces regularly ban the hijab under the guise of removing religious symbols, and hijab-wearing women are constantly attacked. All I can say is that I’m keeping my head — and hijab — up.


Like a phoenix from the ashes

It’s no revelation that print media is dying. Rather, it’s the subject of most newsroom conversations, and should you forget about the Canadian media’s slow demise — if only briefly — any young journalist would be eager to remind you of it two or three times. Our media landscape, to say nothing of the one down south, has all but abandoned the physical copy of a newspaper in exchange for investments in digital output.

This has been played out through a number of painful cost-cutting methods conducted by major news outlets across the country over the last few years. In January 2016, the Toronto Star closed its printing plant in Vaughan, and it outsourced its print production to potentially increase focus on digital media. In September 2016, Rogers Media announced it would cut Maclean’s magazine from a weekly edition to a monthly edition. Earlier in 2013, The Globe and Mail cut its print edition in Newfoundland and Labrador and then, in November 2017, it extended this rollback to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. The Globe consolidated its Arts section with the News section, mixed Business with Sports, and narrowed the lengths of its pages.

Circulation among all major media outlets has dropped. Even we at The Varsity dropped our weekly circulation from 20,000 to 18,000 copies in 2017.

Here, the Charles Dickens quote no longer applies — it’s definitely not the best of times, and it’s probably the worst of times.

Dave Bidini though — pointedly not a journalist and yet the founder of a recently established local paper — isn’t having the worst of times. In fact, he’s having fun. The guitarist for the disbanded Rheostatics and a bohemian of the downtown core is now the founder of The West End Phoenix, a local monthly newspaper.

You probably haven’t heard of it, and there’s a reason for that: the West End doesn’t exist online. Its business model is antithetical to that of practically any paper in its vicinity. It’s print-only, ad-free, and cannot be found on newsstands but rather by home subscription. In place of articles, its website reads, “Thou shalt not PDF.”

The newly founded paper is not necessarily built to last — the website itself is headed with the quote, “You’re crazy, but good luck” — so it’s unsurprising, then, that when I meet with Bidini in the paper’s office, a bedroom-turned-workplace in the centenarian Gladstone Hotel on the outskirts of Parkdale, he’s knowingly tentative about the paper’s future.

“Honestly, we don’t even know if it’s going to work,” he tells me. “We have certain targets we want to meet — in terms of our subscription, in terms of our funding — [and] we may make it, it may be fantastic, [but] maybe we won’t. But we want to try.”

The paper is Bidini’s brainchild — an idea that came to mind after a visit to Yellowknife in 2015. The city’s local paper, the Yellowknifer, is akin to the purity of media prior to the digital revolution. It prints twice a week, and it is sold on the streets by kids with part-time jobs. It bears minimal online presence, existing only under the name of its parent company, Northern News Service.

When Bidini returned to Toronto from the north, he noticed an unfortunate contrast in the local papers here. “I remember one day The Villager appeared on my porch, and it was huge. But once you open it up, you realize it’s all… wrapped in flyers. All of the editorials have been gouged out — they were all bought by Metroland [Media].”

That’s when he decided to start a paper of his own. “We’re in this catchment in the west end, this amazing place in this amazing city — who’s telling the stories? I thought the opportunity existed to start a community paper that will be telling the stories of people who live here rather than it being a glorified coupon wrap,” he said.

The paper is funded primarily by subscriptions and patron supporters. Neither are cheap — a yearly subscription starts at $56.50, and the base patron donation is $200 — but it has roped in some interested buyers nonetheless. The paper has roughly 1,800 subscribers in the west end of Toronto and approximately 450 subscribers sprinkled across the rest of Canada and the world.

Bidini himself is in a unique position to take such a risk. Prior to his stint in journalism, he was known primarily as the guitarist for Candian indie rock band The Rheostatics. Bidini has since become a staple of the Canadian arts scene — a figure in the same circle as the late Gord Downie, Margaret Atwood, and other notable figures.

This status helped when forming the West End. “I was calling in every fucking favour of people I met in music [and] people I met in publishing,” says Bidini, which is why the list of major patrons on the newspaper’s second page reads like the starting lineup of Canada’s arts scene all-star team. Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, Serena Ryder, Bruce McDonald, and George Stroumboulopoulos are but few of the names listed as “major” and “founding” patrons. The paper also received starting donations from TD Bank, Blundstone Canada, and Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, among others.

So why the aversion to publishing online? “Part of it is romance; part of it is nostalgia for sure,” explains Bidini. “Somebody contacted us the other day and said, ‘I’m looking for the name of the writer who did the story on tunnels for you guys,’ and my wife was like, ‘Isn’t that cool? That they had to write to us rather than find [these] names on the internet?’

Bidini dismisses the notion of the West End being anti-digital, but the obscurity of the product is certainly pointed. In some ways, the paper appears to counteract the rapid change that its geographic surroundings are experiencing. Parkdale, whose previously undesirable market value helped facilitate an influx of artists over the past two decades, is undergoing the familiar process of gentrification.

Implicitly, if not explicitly, the West End — in all its ad-free purity — appears to want to preserve the culture that some may fear is dissipating. As a paper that, for the most part, only locals know about, it lends itself to the preservation of a neighbourhood once unexposed to big business and overpriced condos. It’s not NIMBYism, but the process has stoked a collective need to preserve the old.

“By supporting the paper, you’re supporting the poet and the graphic designer, and the illustrator that lives on your street,” pitches Bidini. If the neighbourhood becomes unaffordable for the artist class, then the poets, graphic designers, and illustrators leave. And when they go, so does the heart of the neighbourhood. It becomes, as Bidini puts it, “less freaky.”

So is the project sustainable? “We’ll see,” says Bidini. “It’s an experiment. And I’d be an idiot to say it’s not a ‘can’t miss’ project.” In a media landscape that’s looking more and more like a battlefield, the success of a leisurely local is nowhere near guaranteed. But for a community trying to preserve a neighbourhood, perhaps there’s a demand.

Call Me By Your Name is the love story Moonlight’s Chiron deserved

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast month, I watched Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. I cried the whole way through. The white man sitting next me was only vaguely concerned. My best friend offered to let me Iyanla heave into her bosom, but the theatre seating at the TIFF Bell Lightbox didn’t allow for it, so I powered through. 

My tears weren’t for Timothée Chalamet’s dazzling on-screen transformation into Elio Perlman — a skittish yet precocious virtuoso contending with the age-old queer adolescent dialectic between sensuality and cynicism — even though, really, give the man and his pentagonal facial symmetry an Oscar already. My tears weren’t for Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s stunning cinematography either. As a continental African, my fight or flight response is usually activated when films are set in any country that had a seat at the table at the Berlin Conference — which, if you didn’t know, divided the continent up among European powers. Mukdeeprom, to his everlasting credit, made the 1970’s Italian countryside look like how peaches taste. 

My tears weren’t even for Sufjan Stevens’ original soundtrack compositions, though if I’m being honest, maybe they were just a little bit. Stevens’ “Visions of Gideon” is the dimly lit melancholia anthem that the gays deserve — because queerness is melancholia and rarely fun outside of Twitter — and I’ll be the first one to play it at the bashment.

Truthfully, my tears weren’t for any aspect of the movie. In a very real and existential way, they were for the Black queers who look blue in the moonlight and Chiron, the boy from the Oscar-winning film Moonlight and the Call Me By Your Name was the love story Chiron deserved.

I don’t know if anybody in the greater heterosexual world or the whiter homosexual one knows this, but the Black queer experience is intrinsically in its own stratosphere. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s sociological intersectional theory does a perfect job of explaining this — even though non-Black feminists tried their best to pry it from us. Over my Black queer body. 

Crenshaw proposes that every individual lives within a multiplicity of identities that all simultaneously interact with each other. It challenges selectivism directly, retiring the ‘let’s focus on x before y’ approach of prioritizing oppressions that certain activisms have used when fighting structural oppression. It also seeks to dismiss the myth that the overlap of people’s identities does not contribute to their experience in life.

As Audre Lorde succinctly put it, “There is no hierarchy of oppressions.” It just is what it is. That is to say, the way that Black people’s queerness interacts with the world is heavily informed by our Blackness. It’s an interaction that is woven with loneliness, abrasions, and hesitations, but also lavish joys — all of which form a beautiful tapestry of begrudging yet intentional resistance.

This is why Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is important to the Black queer coming-of-age narrative. It is also why Little, the youngest version of Chiron portrayed so effortlessly by a forlorn Alex Hibbert, is still my screensaver about a year and a half after the film’s release.

A question I love asking other Black gays is, “Which Chiron are you?” This almost works as well as astrology, wallahi, because the answer to the question is the window into the soul of someone’s queer experience.

Chiron, the character we see evolve in a series of three dysphoric segments, is distinct in every iteration of himself. As a young boy, Little is sequestered into a kind of forced introversion. He, like many Black queer children, understands there is something faceless, something different scratching on the surface of his personhood, but he doesn’t quite understand that others can sense it too. Little is the Black queer child who was taught to hate himself, who internalized the uneasiness that children and adults alike projected onto them and into their sense of self. Little is Black, poor, and the son of a crack addict — his story is a manifestation of the kind of childhood that is not your own to live, of fraught but still pulsing parental relationships, of certain traumas that set in your bones before you learn how to spell them.

Chiron, the adolescent version in the trio, becomes an extension of Little, whose unresolved despairs stretch out onto actor Ashton Sanders’ six-foot frame in the second part of the film. Chiron is for the Black queer people whose sullen weariness follows them into adolescence, or conversely, for the Black queer people who discovered their queerness during that time; they feel burdened with a quiet hysteria and self-imposed isolation at the thought of having desires incongruent with the norm. Chiron is for those who laughed awkwardly or a little too heartily at cafeteria gay jokes, for those who learned to only cringe internally at high school lexicons peppered with terms like ‘faggot’ and ‘dyke.’ Chiron is repressed queer sexuality, like the ghost of silent crushes that never came into fruition, the classroom chairs we dreamed of wielding to show our bullies that we could hit back, too.

Maybe Black, the final and briefest instalment of Chiron, functions both as a cautionary tale and pleasant prediction of what Black queer adulthood entails. Maybe Black, like many of us, fought ferociously into adulthood and traded his softness as a result, receding into a caricatured ‘straight’ version of himself. Black shows us what we stand to lose from assimilation into Black cisgendered heteropatriarchy, but he also lets us know that it’s okay to do whatever is ultimately best for our survival.

So, which Chiron are you? No matter your answer, he deserved better. The Black queer experience is far from homogenous, but generally, we tend to navigate our sexuality through the undercurrent of postcolonial violence: poverty, new religions that castigate our queerness, sociopolitical anti-Black phenomena that tether us firmly to a community that doesn’t make space for us at the best of times. The list is infinite.

Call Me By Your Name was beautiful. Caucasian excellence, dare I say? But I refuse to absorb the fantasticality of it all in a vacuum. I cannot do that knowing full well that the Tarell Alvin McCraney-adapted play that became Moonlight was nearly autobiographical, while the author of the original novel Call Me By Your Name, André Aciman, is an alma mater of Harvard University, and his father owned a knitting factory.

I wish that Chiron wasn’t prematurely rendered mute by the ways of the world — that he could articulate his needs in not one, not two, but three languages like Elio. That he too could vacation in northern Italy and be left to traverse the anxieties of burgeoning sexuality in a villa in the countryside. I wish that Chiron didn’t have to parent himself, and I also can’t help but wonder what trajectory his life would’ve taken if he had experienced that rousing, consoling self-acceptance speech given to Elio by his father. What would his path have been like if he too had had a constant and reliable guardian, and not one thrown into and similarly expelled from his life by sheer chance, like Juan. What if Chiron and his lover Kevin weren’t forcibly separated by mass incarceration but by timing and circumstance instead, as were Elio and Oliver?

I have all the questions and none of the answers.

What I’m trying to say is that my Black queer tears yearn, in continuum, for a reality in which others like me can contend with our queerness in relative peace like Elio Perlman — where trauma, violence, and rejection aren’t badges of honour. Call Me By Your Name is the coming-of-age tale every Black queer adult should have had, and more pressingly, the love story Chiron deserved. 


Content warning: descriptions of sexual violence


An Introduction:

There is a joyful hubbub that engulfs
Delhi’s streets; the city has become a
character within herself. With reckless
drivers and careless pedestrians,
negotiations and buyers, strays —
scattered — weaving themselves
between the wheels of rickshaws
that rest, impatiently, for commuters.
A fine dust settles over the market
stalls offering embroidery, bangles and
all things clay.

The colourful charisma cannot paint
over the murky underbelly of her inhabitants.


The Boy and the Girl:

She drops the marble; I see it fall
and roll around the uneven ground.

(I think) she is pretty.

I pick it up. I like the way it feels as I trace
it back and forth over the grooves indented
in my hand. I offer it to her. Assured she will
take the unblemished sphere that gingerly
balances on the flat of my palm. A gesture.
Friendship. Something good. But she looks
frightened? And now, a fistful of sand
accompanied by rocks, are in my eyes,
mouth…this time the earth barely scratches
my skin before my forehead bloodies
the uncaring dirt.

The metro, ablaze with luminous lighting,
overlooks the hand that grazes the arched spine.


The Girl and the Man:

There is no hesitation as his hands
explore the crevices of my body.

(I feel) no kindness in his grip.

His breath is uncomfortable against the
cusp where my neck meets my shoulder
blades. He grasps my breasts, and there is
an unrelenting pressure as I squint at the
sun strewing its warmth across my cheek.
His hand is pressed against my jaw and he
pushes himself into me. Now, his moans are
quick and frequent, a disarray of need. But

he disregards my howls, the way I weep.

Tormented | Tortured | Terrified
and he finishes.

  touchable in all ways but one.  


The Old Men and the Young Boys:

Excitable words tripping over their tongues in
earnest haste to taunt and jeer just like their Bhaiyas.

(Don’t they know) we’ve seen it all before.

Crisp cut shirts tucked into shorts that
show off the battered kneecaps of cricket
players, footballers, an affluent father and
a beautiful mother. We’ve sat, along this
roadside and endured the abuse that
disguises the false bravado that tumbles from
their mouths. We see the scuffed shoes, kicking
stones towards our bare feet. Now, we sit, in
the hot Delhi heat and witness the ingrained
fear that clouds the judgment of these
highly educated boys.

Cars weave in and out of the traffic, stopping, only once,
for a cow that stands in amongst a mound of plastic bags.


An Ending:

The damp smog disbands and allows the moon, submerged in
light, to hover above the wide pathway leading to India Gate.

Delhi withdraws and her people return home to prepare their
evening meal but there are a few who remain, untouched.

A faint breeze waltzes across the city.
Monsoon season is starting.

My tattoos, my stories

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]attoos have always interested me. Growing up, I was fascinated by the colours and designs that covered peoples’ bodies. I began to see myself in each person I saw with tattoos, be it on television or in pictures, as I dreamed that one day I would have my own to show off. The image I had of myself, the version I wanted to present to the world, was brooding and quiet — a mysterious guy in the corner who was dangerous yet attractive.

Admittedly, the first time I saw a tattoo in person, I thought it was stupid. My friend’s older brother had a ‘1-Up’ symbol from the Super Mario Bros. games on his forearm. But now, years later, I’ve come to realize that I probably shouldn’t judge him for it.

I contemplated getting tattoos for at least five years before finally deciding to get one on my left forearm and one on my right tricep at the same time shortly after turning 18.

Looking back three years later, I didn’t quite achieve the aesthetic I was going for. I have the tattoos, but at age 21, I’m only brooding and quiet 10 per cent of the time. I’m generally loud, smiley, and downright flamboyant. Not exactly the way I thought I would end up, but my tattoos have become a part of my story and literally part of who I am physically.

“Make it mean something”

The first time I told my mother I wanted tattoos, she laughed and told me I could go to the tattoo parlour when I no longer lived under her roof. “Fair,” I recall my 13-year-old self saying. This became our routine: me asking if I could get tattoos, and her giving the same response.

My parents separated when I was 14; my father and I didn’t get along. When they separated, I decided it would be a great idea to exploit this strained relationship and try to manipulate my mother into letting me get a tattoo. I told her that my father, who wasn’t around, would let me get a tattoo and pay for it.

“Go for it,” she replied, toying with me because she knew there was no way I’d do anything with my father. She was right.

I dropped the subject for a couple of years. Close to my 18th birthday, I asked my mum again, expecting the same answer I had received years prior. “Make it mean something,” she said.

As I had grown older, I guess she figured I had enough life experience to choose something that I’d want to look at 50 years down the road. I thought long and hard about what I wanted and decided on two symbols that I felt were representative of me.


Sitting in a parlour, trying not to scream

I was standing outside of a tattoo parlour in my hometown, just steps away from where I’d taken swimming lessons as a kid. I felt this was my coming-of-age moment, and I was unable to resist the urge to juxtapose kid-me to adult-me.

I headed into the parlour with my designs in hand and met with Phil, the artist who did my tattoos. We talked about the designs and what they meant to me, and he stenciled them onto my skin. He had to redo the one on my right tricep, a symbol called an awen, which means ‘poetic inspiration,’ because he had stenciled it upside-down thinking it was supposed to represent an explosion. That would’ve been cool, but I’m still glad I caught it in the mirror before we got started. The tattoo on my left forearm is an Aquarius symbol, two zig-zagging lines meant to symbolize waves.

I expected pain. I expected to be incredibly uncomfortable, but when Phil started on my first tattoo, it wasn’t that bad. I got cocky thinking everybody who had ever complained about getting a tattoo was a baby and that I was impervious to pain. Boy, was I wrong.

As he moved to the inner part of my arm, a jolt of pain seemed to run through my entire body and left me seeing stars — I thought I was going to pass out. I got nauseous and had to take a break. Everyone was telling jokes to keep me laughing.

Three hours later, I was finally a tattooed man. I felt on top of the world. Sitting in the chair was awful, but afterward was indescribable. There was something about being prodded with a series of tiny needles thousands of times that left me invigorated. I could have climbed a mountain if it weren’t for the bruising on my arms leaving me essentially helpless. I’ve never had a high like that since, so I understand why people might get addicted to tattoos.

I went home and showed my mother the new additions to my body once I was allowed to take my bandages off. Tattoos had become our inside joke, and my mother, not one to get emotional, simply told me that I had better not regret either of them. I don’t.

Body positivity

Ask any of my older relatives and they will tell you that tattoos are for sailors and criminals. It took a long time to convince my mother that having tattoos wouldn’t affect my family’s perception of me. I wasn’t allowed to wear short-sleeved shirts around my grandparents for about a year for fear of judgement.

My tattoos are an outward expression of who I am. I felt awkward having to hide them — a part of myself that I not only wanted to share with the world in action but display on my body for all to see. As a teen, I wasn’t especially confident in myself; I was anxious, lonely by choice, and I allowed my insecurities to control my life. Looking back, my tattoos were my way of reclaiming myself, making my body my own, and showing off.

I’m not ashamed of my tattoos, and neither is my family. It’s a bit of a joke now — they often poke fun at my Aquarius tattoo, because to them it was obvious that I would have gotten such a ‘basic’ tattoo and that I embody all the personality traits of an Aquarius, whatever that means, but that’s okay, I love them anyways. Maybe someday I’ll convince my mother to get a tattoo with me. Maybe.

Every time I experience something meaningful, I want to honour it by putting it on my body. Some of my tattoo ideas are basic, like getting a diamond on my chest. Some are downright stupid, like getting a pizza slice on my forearm.

No matter what they are, though, I want my tattoos to say: ‘I am who I am, and that’s pretty cool.’

Offline, online, physical, invisible

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] grew up in a time when movies, computers, and phones were becoming increasingly advanced, portable, and small. When I was in middle school, my teachers and school administrators were caught in an ethical dilemma: should they or should they not ban mobile phones in the classroom? When they realized it was nearly impossible to outright ban phones, they tried to integrate their presence into lessons, turning phones into learning tools instead of distractions.

One such way this pedagogical policy has manifested itself — which, for me, failed to occur during high school years — is the provision of all textbooks online through school-provided laptops and tablets. This is meant to reduce relative cost and space for students while simultaneously allowing them to learn through a more familiar medium than previous generations before them had.

Although this paperless future has not wholly manifested at U of T, it is evidently on its way, judging by an increasing reliance on online textbooks and articles. This reduces both cost and space for students.

What are the implications of the current trajectory that we’re on? From paperless education to seemingly paperless careers, how do we meaningfully remain connected to the world on a physical level?

For instance, would someone from 30 years ago with no experience of current technologies recognize a classroom or café on campus filled with laptops, cellphones, and other devices? Likely not.

However, our society has in many ways not fundamentally transformed. The phenomenon of having physical objects connected to the internet — dubbed the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) — plays an enormous role in its popularity and ubiquity. Our attachment to tangible objects is at the core of the IoT.

The IoT has an enormous disruptive potential, which is only just beginning to be recognized. According to Forbes, the potential for total connectivity can help us focus on becoming the most accomplished versions of ourselves. Oftentimes, the IoT has been envisioned as a sort of coming-of-age of artificial intelligence, with concepts such as smart fridges, which can predict one’s shopping habits and order food based on their data, among other things.

There is a great potential for the IoT on university campuses, which is just beginning to be explored as well. Arizona State University (ASU), for example, uses the IoT at its stadium to determine whether faucets at its facility are left running after a game. This simple use of the technology helps the university reduce its waste. Further, ASU is also exploring how to inform students remotely on things like real-time parking availability and estimated restroom wait times. It’s easy to see this applied to more substantial endeavours, such as more efficient time management, energy efficiency, and improved health and wellness.

Our professors at U of T should be mindful that, although there are certainly many innovations yet to come, the IoT is here. While there are some professors who cling to the notion that dictating laptop bans are the best way to ensure that students gain a meaningful experience, this generation and the ones after us will be increasingly connected to the IoT. Instead of denying this reality, we should integrate it into our lives positively.

As of now, the IoT has not yet been fully integrated — but when it is, let’s be prepared to embrace it.

Mae Jemison!

Mae Jemison is an engineer and the first Black female astronaut. Born in 1956, she was part of the team aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, which launched in 1992. After her career with NASA, she became a postsecondary professor who taught science to future generations.


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I think about my relationship with makeup, I see it in flashes.

There’s me, wearing green eyeliner in middle school — on my lower lash line, no less. I’m researching the best concealers for dark circles, courtesy of midterms. I’m waiting in line to buy $50 foundation to cover up acne scars. I’m being told by a smiley salesperson that this lipstick will change my life.

As I suspect is the case for many, if not most, women, makeup has been a constant in my life. Chances are, it’s a relationship that begins young, and one that possibly never ends.

Maybe you start by experimenting. You somehow acquire a shimmery lip gloss, and you put it on in the bathroom and like the way it looks. Over time, it escalates. You buy more and more products, which spill into more and more drawers.

You’re repeatedly told that this is time and money well spent. With makeup, you can cover up blemishes and emphasize your best features. Trends like strategic highlighting and contouring can even make you look like a different person. Can anyone really argue that makeup doesn’t make you look better?

From beauty secrets to commercialization

There’s a revealing scene in the pilot of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new show The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, which takes place in the 1950s, in which Midge — played by Rachel Brosnahan, who’s since won an Emmy for the role — and her husband, Joel, are going to bed.

Midge lies very still, waiting until Joel falls asleep. Then, she jumps out of bed, and heads to the bathroom. Only then does she put her hair in curlers, remove her lipstick and false eyelashes, and slather on cold cream.

In the morning, before the alarm goes off, she wakes and rushes to the bathroom again. She carefully washes her face, unwinds the curlers, applies her makeup, and heads back to bed, where she stretches and pretends to yawn as if just waking up.

It’s clear from other instances in the show that Midge is someone who cares very much about appearance. But here, the viewer understands that it’s not enough for her to present her best self to the world. She is ashamed of the work she must do to feel pretty. There is no one, not even her husband, around whom she can be her truest self.

This attitude, one of beauty as secret, could not be further from that of today. Social media, especially Instagram, has created space for the meticulous audiovisual documentation of all things cosmetic. Hair being cut, hair being dyed, eyebrows being waxed or threaded — hours of footage and thousands of pictures are available at the click of a hashtag.

Since its humble beginnings as a simple way to share photos, Instagram has become increasingly commercialized, and the beauty sphere is no exception. Established brands have begun to seek out collaborations with makeup ‘influencers.’ When Kim Kardashian West was gearing up to launch her new cosmetics line, KKW Beauty, she made the rounds on Instagram and YouTube, surrendering to the brushes of users like Desi Perkins and NikkieTutorials.

The rise of Instagram as a common area for the beauty-obsessed has led to the prevalence of ‘Instagram makeup’ or ‘Instagram face,’ which refers to a generally recognizable look — that of the razor sharp eyebrows, overly contoured and highlighted features, matte lips, and more. “Is Instagram Makeup Making Us All Beauty Clones?” pondered a Cut headline in 2016.

Women and makeup

For women, wearing makeup serves a variety of purposes. Fourth-year student and former Sephora employee Katrina Li said that makeup boosts confidence and helps you feel prepared to face the world. Though the beauty industry often attempts to lean into this psychological motivator, branding itself as an agent of female empowerment, it tends to mask its inherent commercial intentions.

Li told me that she was initially drawn to the environment created by Sephora’s female staff. But while it appeared that the brand was actively practicing female empowerment in its stores, she realized this was something of a front when she began to interact more with the corporate side of the company. The higher rungs of the organization were still, typically, male.

“This is… women in their field, excelling, doing their best,” said Li. “But then when I saw that they weren’t necessarily excelling because the top positions were still held by men… it kind of loses the magic a little.”

Li said that since she stopped working at Sephora, her attitude toward makeup has completely shifted. She was previously mandated to wear a full face of makeup every time she showed up to work — employees were provided a list of the minimum amount of products they had to wear. When wearing makeup was treated as a requirement and used to refer customers to potential ‘life-changing’ products, it lost some of its appeal.

Li no longer wears a full face everyday, and she instead focuses more on her skin. When she does wear makeup for a night out or special occasion, it’s still hard to feel completely secure. As soon as she’s done with the routine, she is worried the look will somehow be ruined: “I look stunning, but what if this lipstick smudges?”

“No matter what, as a woman, you’re just constantly stressed and anxious about your looks, so it doesn’t matter what you look like,” said Li.

Carol Eugene Park, also a fourth-year student, has had both similar feelings about wearing makeup to improve confidence and similar experiences with the downsides of wearing makeup.

Last year, Park wrote a piece for The Varsity about her experience trying to fit into the Korean community while defying its typical beauty standards. “I was made to feel like an outcast,” wrote Park, describing how embracing her tan skin and curves had alienated her from her peers.

Park told me that she first began wearing makeup in secret, since her father forbade it until she entered university. She would apply her makeup on the walk to the school, then immediately head to the bathroom before class to fix any mistakes.

Park was insecure about her monolids and the way her eyes appeared in pictures. She explained that when she was growing up, she felt that Asian features were not accepted as beautiful. Makeup allowed her to adhere more strictly to western beauty standards, helping her to feel pretty.

She also said that she feels more respected and more confident when she wears makeup. Statistical evidence supports the phenomenon where women who wear makeup are perceived differently; a 2011 study by researchers from Harvard University and Boston University found that women who wear more makeup are perceived as more attractive, likeable, competent, and trustworthy.

The benefits of wearing makeup aren’t limited to the intangible. In 2011, Daniel S. Hamermesh, a Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin, released his book Beauty Pays, which demonstrated that more attractive people actually earn more money than others. “We as customers, employers, and fellow employees prefer to be around good-looking people and are willing to pay for the privilege,” said Hamermesh in an interview.

On days when I don’t wear makeup, I don’t usually feel any anxiety about it. When I do, I try to tell myself that I should be able to exist in the world, that I should be able to be seen by others, without trying to make myself more ‘presentable.’

But now, part of me is forced to wonder if I would command more respect, more attention — simply put, more benefit — if I did.

I am not alone in this feeling. Nearly half of American women surveyed in 2012 felt either unattractive, self-conscious, or “naked” when not wearing makeup. But perhaps that is beginning to change.

Celebrating skincare

Slowly but surely, the overdrawn looks of Instagram makeup have begun to cede space to another industry on the rise: skincare.

Skincare is celebrated for reasons that are distinguished from makeup. The general notion of caring for or protecting your skin gives the pursuit of flawless skin a quasi-medicinal reputation, as opposed to using makeup to cover up its flaws, which could be seen as avoiding insecurities.

Of course, skincare is not a new phenomenon either. Like makeup, it has a long history, one that dates back millennia. Ancient Egyptians connected it to religious purity; Ayurveda, an Indian form of alternative medicine, prescribed plants for their anti-aging properties; Babylonians stored ointments and cosmetics in carved seashells.

Regardless, while skincare is nothing new, it is fair to say that it is currently enjoying a swell of popular appeal that has been only been accelerated by the internet and social media. Sales of prestige skincare in the US reached $5.6 billion in 2017, a nine per cent increase over the preceding year.

Women are no longer limited to the dubious advice of magazines and drugstore salespeople to glean knowledge about improving their skin. Sources like the subreddit r/SkincareAddiction have democratized the information process, allowing women to communicate more freely on issues related to skincare. Finally, here is a place where the science and secrets of skincare can be revealed, where women can understand the effects of pH balance, moisturizers, and acids on skin.

r/SkincareAddiction now has over 400,000 subscribers, a number that has grown rapidly in the last year. It is full of advice on treating conditions from ordinary acne to skin conditions like rosacea and eczema, and it even has its own vernacular. YMMV: your mileage may vary, meant to caution users that what works for one may not work for another. HG: holy grail, meant to refer to a must-have product.

A number of companies have risen to capitalize on skincare’s popularity, including the Toronto-based DECIEM, founded in 2013. To call the company’s growth since then rapid would be an understatement. It now has nine lines, with three more on the way, and offices in multiple continents.

The Ordinary is among DECIEM’s most popular lines. When it began selling through Sephora in December 2017, the entire supply was sold out within a week. The business strategy behind The Ordinary is simple: offer pure versions of traditionally marked up and diluted products at bargain prices.

DECIEM is perfectly poised to exploit the democratization of skincare. Its scientifically labeled formulations appeal to consumers looking to utilize the knowledge they have gained from forums like r/SkincareAddiction, and it is cheap enough to justify purchasing multiple products at once.

But buying multiple products for cheap is not the intended endpoint. DECIEM refers to The Ordinary as its “gateway” brand, the primer before customers move on to its more prestigious and more expensive lines.

Alongside DECIEM is Glossier, whose branding relies heavily on palettes of millennial pink and racially diverse models. The models have dewy skin, light blush, slightly tinted eyebrows. They’re supposed to look ‘barefaced,’ but as Li pointed out, they’re all already beautiful.

It may seem like Glossier promotes a natural, minimalistic approach to beauty, one without traditional markers of a ‘full face,’ like a bold lip colour, or full contour and highlight. The reality is that Glossier is not attempting to erase these beauty standards; it is attempting to replace them.

On Glossier’s website, there is a video of none other than its CEO, Emily Weiss, demonstrating how to use one of the brand’s products with the most cultish following, the Milky Jelly Cleanser, of which a 177 millilitre bottle retails for $22.

At first, Weiss appears barefaced, showing the viewer how she uses the cleanser on wet skin in the morning. Later, the video cuts to her with makeup on. To demonstrate how gentle it is, she rubs the cleanser over her closed eyelids, dark eyeshadow and mascara smearing all over her face.

Taking makeup off is usually an isolated activity, one that accompanies the transition from public to private. Not only does Weiss make this private ritual available for public consumption, it’s the publicity itself that is meant to entice its audience to use her brand.

Like Instagram makeup, this represents a profound shift in the public attitude toward beauty: your hard work shouldn’t be a secret.

Self-care or skin-deep?

As is often the case with industries in which women comprise the majority of consumers, skincare has begun to receive its own backlash, being dismissed as shallow — literally skin-deep.

Writing for The Outline in an article entitled “The Skincare Con,” Krithika Varagur argues that the ‘New Skincare’ boils down to consumerism, a quest to acquire and display precious ingredients, to demonstrate to others that you are improving yourself.

“Perfect skin is unattainable because it doesn’t exist,” writes Varagur. “The idea that we should both have it and want it is a waste of our time and money.”

Varagur is correct to point out that the modern skincare obsession often has an consumerist bent. Among the various types of posts on r/SkincareAddiction, for example, is the ‘shelfie,’ meant to display the products a user has accumulated in some aesthetically pleasing way.

Those shelfie-posters who have shelled out for prestigious brands like Drunk Elephant or Sunday Riley receive reactions of awe and jealousy. For reference, a 30 millilitre bottle of the ‘luxury’ Marula oil costs $90 at Drunk Elephant, compared to $9.90 at The Ordinary.

Varagur and other opponents of New Skincare are also quick to dismiss it as a method of what is now popularly known as ‘self-care.’ But for many women, this seems to be the main objective.

“Skin care, at its best, is about taking care of yourself,” writes Rachel Krause of Refinery29, “not about a massive industrial scheme working to bamboozle an entire society of vain, unsuspecting wannabe Dorian Grays into emptying their wallets at the prospect of perfect skin.”

In an interview with Vulture, actress and host of the beauty podcast Glowing Up Esther Povitsky made this point explicit. “Ultimately, I know that most skin-care products are not going to change my life,” said Povitsky.  “I’m not bothered by people thinking skin care and makeup are stupid. They just don’t understand.”

In The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino connects the recent growth of the beauty industry to the current tumultuous political climate. There’s “something perversely, unexpectedly hopeful about skin care in today’s political context,” writes Tolentino. She goes on to reference Audre Lorde, who in 1988 wrote, “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

My instinct is to be skeptical that Lorde would place sheet masking into this same category of political warfare. But the truth is that how you choose to execute self-preservation is, by nature, an individual choice.

Your skin is a kind of armour. It is your choice to beautify it, to tame it, or to heal it. “Sweatpants, hair tied, chillin’ with no makeup on / That’s when you’re the prettiest, I hope that you don’t take it wrong,” raps Drake in “Best I Ever Had.”

If this is truly the case, it would certainly be convenient, especially for our current skincare moment. But should we be punished if it’s not?

Circumventing stigma

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hanks to good health and pure luck, I have had little reason to go to the doctor for more than a regular annual checkup. However, since I only interact with medical professionals about once a year, I have cultivated a deep mistrust of them. The reluctance on my part to accept even the simplest of advice comes from a lack of meaningful relationships with any of my doctors.

As I get older, I find it more difficult to see a doctor and not feel personally attacked when they tell me to live my life differently.  Whether they say to exercise frequently or drink more water, I scoff and roll my eyes, thinking it’s not that important.

Because there isn’t trust between my doctors and me, I continue with a reluctance to be open and listen to what they have to say. This is a cause for concern for many reasons, the largest of which is the understanding that if I ever develop a mental illness, circumventing the stigma around that illness would be extremely difficult to approach and admit given my distrust of doctors. 

The stigma around mental health is exactly what Professor Thomas Ungar has dedicated his life to defeating. Ungar is the Psychiatrist-in-Chief at St. Michael’s Hospital and an associate professor in U of T’s Department of Psychiatry, where he says he’s become a “bit of an anti-stigma scholar,” having published several articles on mental health equity.

For Ungar, there need to be both attitudinal shifts and structural shifts in how we approach mental health. Throughout our interview, he equated mental health ailments to physical ailments to demonstrate why there shouldn’t be a stigma when a mental health specialist provides you with a diagnosis.

But what if you’re already skeptical of doctors in general?

“You should have the same degree of skepticism as you would your cardiologist or your neurologist or any other diagnosis,” said Ungar. “I wouldn’t be more or less. That’s my issue: why do we think [differently]?” 

For many people, considering mental illness as just as important as physical illness is the first step to combating it. Bobbie Kerr, a former U of T student, was recently diagnosed with bulimia. Kerr told me that she has always had a strained relationship with food, which reached its peak when she was 16 and lost 45 pounds in three months. Kerr said she never really saw her relationship with food as a disorder.

Kerr’s bulimia diagnosis actually stemmed from a physical ailment. At the beginning of the fall semester, she went to see a specialist because she was having difficulty sleeping at night. During an extensive general assessment with a U of T psychologist, they touched upon Kerr’s relationship with food and wound up spending a good portion of the appointment discussing it. It was through these appointments that Kerr eventually received her diagnosis.

Kerr said that during her third appointment, her psychologist said that her eating disorder was severe and had an immense impact on her overall mental health.

“After hearing this, I wasn’t quite sure how to process it,” said Kerr. “I knew that it was something I struggled with on a daily basis, but at the same time, I also felt that I wasn’t a danger to myself and that I wasn’t harming my body like I had in previous years.”

Kerr said that her psychologist never explicitly said that she was a danger to herself, but rather that if she let the illness go untreated, it could lead to that severity. Either way, Kerr was shocked, and she said that it took her a week or so to accept the idea from her doctor that this was something that needed to be addressed.

Ungar said that a patient’s reluctance to accept a mental health diagnosis is due to a misunderstanding of what that diagnosis means. “What’s behind that is probably the misconception on the patient’s side, that it’s somehow a reflection of them as a person.”

He added that it is important to separate the illness from your view of yourself. “I tell them it’s not their fault, it’s nothing they’ve done wrong, but they’re not weak, it’s not that they’re not smart, it’s a health condition like any other,” he said.

Kerr said that she has always supported feminism and body positivity, but that while she understood the severity of eating disorders, she never thought that she would be “that girl” who had one.

During the worst bouts of her eating disorder, when she was about 16 or so, Kerr said that she received a lot of positive reinforcement from her parents because no one at the time considered it to be a disorder. She added that to this day, she excludes her parents from any discussions she has about her eating disorder.

However, despite the initial shock and reluctance she felt after receiving her diagnosis, she does not currently feel debilitated by her eating disorder, though she recognizes the fact that it is still something that should be addressed.

Claire Abbott, a second-year student at U of T, also has a history of mental illness. Abott was 13 when she mentioned to her mother that she was not feeling like herself. She said that at the time, she did not know much about mental illness and was inclined to speak to someone who would have a better idea of what was going on.

The doctors diagnosed Abbott with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. She was prescribed medication for her illnesses. However, the medication failed to work properly. She was experiencing manic episodes and pushed her doctors to try different methods of addressing her illnesses.

The challenges that Abbott faced with her illnesses reached a point where she was becoming suicidal. While simultaneously having mononucleosis, a virus with flu-like symptoms, it was increasingly difficult for her mother to take proper care of her at home, resulting in her hospitalization.

During that time, Abbott said, her doctors realized that she also had bipolar tendencies. With this diagnosis, they were able to prescribe her medicine to address that illness, which then started her recovery.

Abbott has been off her antidepressant medication for over a year. She sees a psychologist about once a year and a therapist every two months or so. She said that she is in a much better place with her illness and does not tie it too closely to her perception of herself.

“I was lucky to never be in a position where I felt extremely ashamed of my mental illness so it didn’t negatively impact my perception of myself in that sense, but on an individual level sometimes it [was] hard to grapple with the fact that I used to need antipsychotic medication to live a normal life,” said Abbott.

Today, Abbott is very vocal about her experience and encourages others to circumvent the stigma surrounding mental illness and seek help.

Abbott also stressed that due to her own issue finding the right medication, there is nothing wrong with “being skeptical of the diagnosis that you’re given. There’s so much we still don’t know about the brain, and nothing is black and white.”

She said that you should definitely trust your doctors, but that it is okay to do your own research and to speak up if you feel like your medication is not doing what it’s supposed to do.

Ungar called this being an “active participant.” He said that he loves when his patients do their own research, because it allows for a much more informed conversation.

“It’s their decision; it’s their health. I’m just here to recommend and encourage and I want to see them do as well as they can. And I’m very open to debate and discussion,” said Ungar.

Having trust in your doctor does not mean that you have to take everything they say word for word. You know your body, and properly educating yourself will lead to an overall greater understanding of what needs to be treated.

At the end of the day, medical professionals are people who have gone to school for a long time to help determine diagnoses and treatments so that you can live a long and happy life. Reminding yourself of this each time you step into a doctor’s office might give you the courage to accept diagnoses and treatments with a much more open mind so that you can begin the journey of recovery, whatever the ailment.