By: Siera Bearchell, Miss Universe Canada 2016

Most leaders carry a sense of confidence. Confidence commands attention.  Confidence persuades opinions.  Confidence makes us believe in what people say.

If our body image impacts our confidence and our confidence impacts our leadership abilities, then surely body image is directly related to leadership.

I want to share my story of struggling with negative body image, in hopes of inspiring women to feel confident in their skin and be the leaders they were born to be.

I got into pageantry with the desire to give back. I competed for Miss Teen Saskatchewan after my family and I lost our home in a house fire, and I started volunteering with the Red Cross as a thank you for their help. I won Miss Teen Saskatchewan and went on to win Miss Teen Canada-World.

At the time, I was the girl who could eat whatever I wanted and it didn’t impact my appearance. Since I wasn't worrying about my body, I could focus on the incredible leadership opportunities I was given. My experience with pageantry was extremely positive, so I made it my goal to one day represent Canada at Miss Universe.

Up until this point, I prioritized my health before my beauty. Because of this, I could focus on the things a young woman should focus on... school, friends, family and my goals.

It was when I started to sacrifice my health to try and attain a particular beauty standard that I began to lose control.

In 2013, I decided to compete for Miss Universe Canada, with dreams of winning and a willingness to do whatever it took.

I was told in order to win, I had to lose weight. They said “the skinnier the better.”

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I started cutting back on my food intake and increasing my workout time.

I struggled to make it through my workouts because I was starving my body of what it needed. 

My diet basically consisted of egg whites, spinach, apples, coffee and some protein bars.

On one particular run, I set out to do 10km (6 miles).  After about 2 km (1.3 miles), I stopped, sat on the edge of a grassy hill and started to cry. Something I had once loved to do became a punishment that I struggled to complete.

Regardless of my sadness on the inside, I lost the weight and looked the part on the outside. I competed at Miss Universe Canada and placed 1st Runner-Up.  In hindsight, this was a blessing.

I lost the competition after losing my sense of leadership and sense of self.

I told myself that if I were to compete for the title again one day, I would do it my way, as the leader I knew I was.

Three years later, I had completed two years of law school and was training for my first full marathon and decided to compete for the title of Miss Universe Canada again.

Fellow contestants and pageant critics called me fat, overweight, lazy, under-prepared and even asked if I was pregnant. 

Despite the criticism, I won the title. 

During my preparation for Miss Universe, I was continuously told I had to get into “the best shape of my life” for Miss Universe. 

I had just completed my first marathon (over 4 hours of running during one period), so I thought I was in pretty good shape! But I understood they meant I should lose weight.

If winning Miss Universe meant being a size 2 and sacrificing my health one more time, I didn’t want to do it.  

I chose to represent myself and other women around the world like me on the stage I dreamt of competing on for years. 

I knew I would be met with critics from around the world.  I was right.

Once again, I was called fat, a whale, overweight and told I was “promoting obesity.” 

I started to post social media responses to some of the comments I received.  Some of these posts were shared thousands of times.

My posts and story were shared by Cosmopolitan, TIME, Elle, Shape, Allure, Vogue, CNN Philippines and the list goes on. 

I went from 8,000 followers on Instagram to over 100,000 in a matter of days.  With the rise in followers, came a rise in criticism. But it didn’t stop me.

After 3 weeks of competition and activities in the Philippines, it was time for the coronation night, where a new Miss Universe would be crowned.  Steve Harvey called “CANADA” into the Top 13.  I then made it into the Top 9 and couldn't have been prouder. 

I proudly graced the Miss Universe stage in front of nearly 1 billion people around the world and represented myself and millions of other women who have questioned their self-worth because of their body. 

I ended up representing so much more than myself or my nation.

I represented every woman who has ever sacrificed her health to try and achieve beauty standards. 

I represented every woman who thought validation and self-worth could be found in the opinion of someone else.  I represented so much more than I ever could have, had I starved myself in hopes of winning a crown and sash.

My journey to Miss Universe taught me that being a leader is difficult.  Being a female leader in a society that defines women based upon their physical beauty is even more difficult. 

We need more women leaders in all sectors, yet we continue to belittle women based on their bodies and appearance.  We need to redefine the global vision of beauty and simultaneously break the mold of what it means to be a “leader” in today’s world.

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