The 23-year-old beauty pageant queen from Moose Jaw, Sask. is about to compete for the Miss Universe title in the Philippines, where she’s using her platform to speak out against critics who’ve bashed her 135-pound, 5’9″ tall figure.
The body shaming began last June after she won Miss Universe Canada in Toronto. She says the criticism was mostly on Instagram and Facebook.
“I had just run my first marathon so I was fit, I was in shape. And all the comments after I won were that I was fat, overweight,” Bearchell recalled Wednesday from her hotel in Manila.
“There were some people who said, ‘oh my gosh, is she pregnant?’ It was just unbelievable.”
People close to her urged her to lose weight, as well. They told her she had “everything it took to win the title” — the only thing standing in her way was her body.
“The standards society has for women is unacceptable and I will not stand by it.”
It’s similar to what Miss Iceland recently went through. As Global News reported in October, organizers of the Miss Grand International pageant told the 20-year-old to drop some weight. So she dropped out.
Bearchell thinks this body shaming sends a horrible message to young women who look up to her and read the comments on her Instagram posts.
So she took to Instagram last week to stress the importance of self-worth and self-love over weight.
‘I was running my body down’
It’s a shift in mentality from the pressure she used to put on herself.
Even though she’s always tried to prioritize health and fitness (she was a dancer for 13 years, and has a certification in yoga and SPIN), Bearchell admits there were times she used to restrict what she ate to hit a certain number on the scale.
She explains she was always the kid who “could eat whatever she wanted” without gaining weight. As she got older, her metabolism slowed down.
“So there were some days where I’d have a protein bar and I’d have half at one point, half at another point. And do hot yoga twice, go for a run. I was running my body down. I was miserable, exhausted.”
Pageant directors used to be tough on her weight, too. One even reportedly forced her to be photographed on a scale in an apparent attempt to shame her to shed pounds. She was also once told she wouldn’t place in a pageant if she didn’t slim down.
Looking back at it all, Bearchell says even when she thought she had the “pageant body,” she was never happy with herself because there was always something more she felt she could change.
She’s come to embrace that not only do our bodies change — which is “OK, and normal” — but everyone’s built differently. The exact same diet and workout regimen can yield completely different results for two women. Plus your weight doesn’t necessarily translate to how healthy and fit you are, she argues.
“For me, beauty [now] means being confident with who you are.”
She knows it’s something women of all ages struggle with. It’s taken her 53-year-old mother three decades to adopt the self-love perspective. Despite being an aerobics instructor and a tiny woman, she too “always felt there was something more she could do to look better,” Bearchell says.
Only now is she “starting to accept who she is,” in part because of how her daughter has responded to body shamers.
“She’s inspired me throughout my life so now I’m doing the same hopefully for her.”
Bearchell herself has drawn strength from figures like Ashley Graham, who last year became the first plus-size model to land the cover for Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition.
Graham is set to host this year’s Miss Universe pageant, which will take place Jan. 30.
The contestants have spent the past couple weeks touring the country and meeting with young women who are apparently “crazy” about the pageant.
“People know my first name, my favourite food, where I go to school,” Bearchell gushed. “People are parading in the streets with their own sashes on and pretend crowns. They have flags of every country. So it’s been far beyond what I’ve ever expected.”
She insists the “giving back” component is what drew her to pageantry at the age of 16, when she won the title of Miss Teen Saskatchewan.
Profits from the Watered Down Apparel company she co-founded help provide clean water to projects in Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia and Haiti. Her titles have also given her the opportunity to build a school in Kenya.
“It’s more than just a beauty pageant.”
— With files from Marilisa Racco and Thomas Piller, Global News