Content warning: This story discusses an eating disorder.
It is a vulnerable mental health story wrapped in a mountain biking film.
Reflection, directed by Squamish filmmaker Casey Dubois, tells local Tori Wood's story of how traumatic experiences when she was a young gymnast were followed by depression, anxiety and an eating disorder that accompanied her into adulthood.
Reflection is playing in person in Vancouver on Saturday, Feb. 24 and online Feb. 23 to March 24, as part of the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (VIMFF).
"After winning the overall women's pro category in her first season, Tori is setting her expectations high to follow up her breakout year. As her second season begins without the same level of success, the trauma she's been trying to confront creeps back into her life. Tori needs to change her perspective as an elite athlete to reflect newfound priorities," reads the film's description.
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Wood told The Squamish Chief, the 20-minute documentary came out of conversations she had about mental health struggles with Dubois, who is a friend.
"Because of the approach that [Dubois'] The Grove Films has centred on mental health, we started putting the idea out there and saying, 'Hey, wouldn't it be cool if we could make a film about your story and about your journey,’" recalled Wood over the phone from Australia where she is currently on a mountain biking trip.
"And somehow use that [story] as a way to help others and help reduce stigma and encourage people to be vulnerable."
That was a few years ago.
You can't compare your trauma
Wood notes that her trauma didn't involve death or sexual assault, or other dramatic forms of abuse others may associate with the word trauma, but it is impactful nonetheless, which is hopefully a takeaway from the piece.
"It highlights even more the importance of validating that trauma looks like many different things. And there can be big T trauma, there can be little t trauma," she said.
"You can't compare your trauma to anybody else's. If it was significant enough to affect you in your adult life, then don't feel ashamed about that, and don't try to tell yourself that it's not worth working on. And it's not worth acknowledging just because it doesn't look like somebody else's trauma."
Sports and mental health
Wood noted that her eating disorder as a young athlete is not uncommon in aesthetic sports and those that are contingent on the athletes body composition, and what they look like.
In her case, in gymnastics when she was involved years ago, the tinier she could be, the better she would do in her sport.
"The smaller you were as an athlete, the more successful you would be, the faster you could flip ... [and] it was easier for coaches to spot you, and that kind of prototypical gymnast of being super, super tiny, tiny, almost childlike," she said.
"And also, the immense pressure that athletes put on themselves to be in complete control over all of the variables to increase the likelihood of a successful outcome. And so that control might look like a very, very strict diet and a very, very strict exercise regime because of the pressure that they feel to be successful, and also what they see in other successful athletes at that level."
She noted that eating disorders can be an issue for all genders, but that young females are bombarded with images and expectations that play into their disorders.
"I am not saying that men don't experience this as well, because they definitely do but in a different way. [There's ] pressure on them to look bulky. It goes both ways, for sure. But I think there's just so many influences coming from different angles that could create the perfect storm [for women]."
In mountain biking, she found freedom and a need to respect her body and what it can do, not just how small it can be.
Not to say she doesn't still struggle with negative self talk about her body, and feel her eating disordered thoughts creep back in. She said they still do, but she has arguments against that disordered thinking.
"I also began to realize that, hey, if you want to do this sport, which is inherently quite dangerous, you need to be switched on. And to be switched on, you need to have energy in your body; you need to have muscle and you need to be able to hit the ground and be OK and get back up again," she said. "I've talked about this in the film, but it's like, I finally found something that was more important to me than what my body looks like."
It's not about mountain biking
Having the film now come together and be out for public consumption is a bit "overwhelming," Wood said, but she added that she is proud of how it turned out.
Like anyone whose personal life is in the spotlight, Wood said she did have fears of judgment from others, but keeps coming back to why it is helpful to talk about mental health struggles. She hopes it resonates with people—even non-mountain bikers—and that they see they aren't alone if they struggle, too.
"It's not about mountain biking, and it's not about me trying to get recognition or for people to slap me on the back and validate me and be like, 'Oh, good job. You did such a great thing.’ It is truly about wanting to connect with other people. And to help people understand that being vulnerable and talking about their struggles and their trauma and their own mental health —it's the only way to grow and to move forward in their lives."
Find out more about Reflection and other films at the film festival on the VIMFF website.