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Present & Prepossessing: A Conversation with Jill Andrew and Aisha Fairclough

When speaking with Jill Andrews and Aisha Fairclough, I was immediately wrapped in their warmth and energy. The women and I discuss their careers, self-advocacy and reclamation.

Jill Andrew (left) and Aisha Fairclough (right) Photographed by Nora Navarro

Jill and Aisha serve as co-founders of Body Confidence Canada, an advocacy group that lobbies for messages, policies and practices around body diversity.

"By body diversity, we don't just mean size,” explains Jill. “We also mean cultural identity, sexuality, age, bodies with limitations, and ultimately for the ability for you to walk in the world however you do and be able to feel safe — as safe as possible. Not to feel tolerated or just "permitted" to exist, but truly to have that you, your body, and your voice belong.”

Body Confidence Canada hosts the Annual Body Confidence awards, highlighting the achievements of people in their field, as well as a clothing fundraiser for the 519 Group. The organization also hosts Body Confidence Week in both Winnipeg and Toronto school-boards, encouraging conversations in prevention and intervention of bullying in schools. The importance of the intersectionality of the prevention, intervention, and the discussions that follow is stressed by Jill.

"These words, like 'body positivity' and 'discrimination prevention' are buzzwords and very catchy. But they are often limited,” says Jill. “Body confidence cannot be a, for lack of a better term, "one-size-fits-all" ideal. We speak about wanting everyone to be confident in their bodies, but you know if your person who uses assistive devices and can't use them for whatever reason—"

"—Or need an ASL interpreter and there isn't one present," Aisha adds.

"Then just how confident can you be!" exclaims Jill.

Aisha reminds us that change comes in all sizes. “You know, being an advocate is being someone who wants to make a difference in this world, on a small or macro scale. And that starts with recognizing your privilege,” She says. “It’s a responsibility. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting there not being able to mobilize and operate in a way that makes an actual difference.”

We dive into the topic of reclamation.

“It’s about slowing down for me,” says Aisha “It can feel as though I’m always chasing time and it’s chasing me and you know what, it’s okay for me to take a break. It’s okay to say no to things, to events. I don’t put up with people who don’t want to contribute positively to the conversation. I’m understanding that my time is valuable.”

“You know,” Jill starts. “I’m someone who’s always been hard on myself, and growing up bullied there’s always been this sense of not being good enough. I’ve realized, as I’ve gotten older, that the only person whose opinion of you matters is yours. It’s okay to say when I can’t do something, or when something is hard,” Jill continues. “You deserve to carve out your own space, regardless of what commitments, or what you think is at stake, you can say no. Maybe because you are tired, or purely for the sake of your mental health, you can and should say no.”

“I can choose who and what I bring into my circle. It’s so important. It’s vital to what I can put out.” Aisha adds.

I ask them about their journey, how they got to where they are, and advice they'd extend to young people.

“Firstly, I would start by not saying things like ‘it's getting better’ that can be false and misleading. It doesn’t get better by itself, we all need to work to actively make things better. I’d also add that it’s okay to be seen.” Jill says. “I tell myself that I’m allowed to take up space, in politics, in the workplace, at family gatherings, in meetings. Not to make myself small, but to make myself present. I’ve got to tell you, there are some mediocre cisgender straight white men of a certain class who take up so much space, so why can’t I?”

Aisha weaves Jill’s words back into previous thoughts of her own. “So many young people feel down because of the people that are around them. It’s okay to grow out of friendships, it’s important because who you have around has such a big influence on you. So many times, we know what and who’s good for you. So listen to your gut, listen to your instincts.”

Jill highlights how some (especially women who cross various intersections) can find this difficult. “You’re scared to correct your professor, or you don’t want to cause a disturbance. Sometimes we just sit there silently and don’t use our voices.”

“When I was younger,” Jill says. “There were so many things I would have done but did not because I was afraid of failing, really. I think, looking back, I would tell myself to do it anyway. Trying anyway is an accomplishment. You never really fail alone. Along the way, you might pick up an ally or a friend. The experience is powerful.”

Aisha chimes in, “You have to take your commitment and dedication to something and run with it. Even if you fail, you still have that, and can always brush your shoulders off and go another way.”

We go onto discuss representation and why it is important. The answer to that question, Aisha says, lies simply in how powerful representation can be. “You have somebody to aspire to. Sometimes you don’t feel like you can accomplish something, or be something until you see yourself represented.”

“Looking like us just isn’t enough though!” adds Jill. “It’s one thing to look like us, walking the walk is important. However, representation is an entry point. It’s permission to enter spaces that marginalized people otherwise would not have thought they could have belonged in. I think about myself, you know, right now, with the big shoes that I’ve stepped into in terms of politics,” she says. “It’s one thing for me to represent, but it’s another thing coming in to do the work and doing the work. And that means listening to people and managing and prioritizing the voices of the most vulnerable. I’m looking forward to speaking and hearing the stories of people we know are sidelined in conversations: Black people, Black women, Indigenous peoples, those who fall under the LGBTQ2+ umbrella. It’s really about getting out there and listening.”

I asked the women what was up next for them, and for Body Confidence Canada.

“Next year is about finalizing dates for our Awards Show, something we have celebrated by highlighting 25 people across Canada. We plan to have this after the second week of October,” says Aisha. “We want to work with like-minded groups and people that want to take the conversation deeper. For myself, in this role, it’s about connecting with the community and recognizing where we can make real tangible change for those who need support now more than ever. We’ve done some pretty demanding work, and we want to do more.”

“The goal is to dream big,” Jill adds.

“Right now,” says Aisha. “This a journey about taking a chance on yourself, to take it easy. With every journey, there is travel expected but it’s really about the travel we take every day. Start somewhere.” Jill smiles with a knowing look, “Understand that you are not going to have all the answers. It’s okay to not know everything, just don’t lose hope.”

“Everything we do starts with one little step.”


This interview was originally printed in issue 004: Reclaim.


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