'We need to declare peace in the war with our bodies'
When Taryn Brumfitt's nude photograph went viral it changed her life and turned her into a campaigner
January is three weeks in and most people will have already reneged on their New Year promises. The gyms around Dublin have begun to empty out again as many of us revert to comfort eating our way through the long dark nights, all the while steeped in self-loathing for not having more self-discipline.
Now, right on cue, a new film aims to tackle the myth of the perfect body and the pervasiveness of the celebrity culture that drives it. Embrace, a startling documentary about self image, follows Australian photographer Taryn Brumfitt as she parlays the fame that came with a nude viral photo growing into a social movement in her home country. She speaks to talk show host and actress Ricki Lake about being "the fat girl" in John Waters's remake of Hairspray; to former tabloid starlet Amanda de Cadenet about what it was like living with media scrutiny at the age of 18 ("The message I took from it was that if you were thinner you were better … these days I'd say if you want to eat the biscuit, eat the f**king biscuit"); and to Harnaam Kaur, a British Sikh woman who celebrates the beard caused by polycystic ovary syndrome rather than break her religious beliefs. Brumfitt also meets ordinary women who have undergone mastectomies and a burns victim who tells us that she had to start her life again from scratch.
The unlikely starting point for the film was a couple of 'before and after' photos which Brumfitt posted on social media during 2013 in an attempt to cheer up some girlfriends who had been complaining about their weight. The 'before' photo showed her competing in a bodybuilding competition, wearing a bikini and heels, looking lean and tanned. The 'after' picture showed her a few years and a couple of children later, a smile still on her face and a layer of fat covering her midriff (she says her stomach looked like the creature from the horror movie The Blob).
The hook was supposed to be that she's more contented and happy in the after shot and boy, did the internet bite. The pictures and Brumfitt's journey from her svelte twenties to her more comfortable motherhood years made news from New York to Moscow. After a week, 700,000 people had liked the post. Within two weeks, it had gone viral with more than 3.6 million views. She was featured on Good Morning America and the likes of Rosie O'Donnell and Zooey Deschanel tweeted about her. This gave her the confidence to fund Embrace through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.
It all seems like an incredibly slick response to an apparently unplanned post. Had she hoped that it would go viral? "Not at all, posting a nude photo for all the world to see - that wasn't me at all. I posted it to help some girlfriends I'd been speaking to earlier that day. It was for them really. The reaction shocked me." Of course some of the commentary came from trolls. Brumfitt was told she was "disgusting" and, most hurtfully, a poor role model for her children.
Brumfitt grew up in Adelaide and is something of an unlikely activist. In her teens and twenties she had a "relatively positive body image" but she was still always on diets, never wanted to be fat and eventually even went to the extreme of taking part in a bodybuilding competition. She never felt truly comfortable in her own skin though. "We have really poor role models for young women. Young women are the target of a huge industry. Women being insecure is a very profitable space and companies spend a lot of money to make sure we remain insecure. That was certainly the case with me."
Despite being happily married, and successfully juggling motherhood with running a thriving photography business, Brumfitt privately wrestled with crippling body image issues. Close to resorting to plastic surgery to 'fix' her post-childbirth body, she decided that what she really needed to change was not, in fact, her body but her attitude toward it.
It's an uplifting message to be sure, but there will be those who say that since she was happily married by the time she posted the photos and made the film she had the luxury of not caring what people thought of her body. "I'd ask those people: 'Is the obsession to live up to someone else's standards of attractive really making you happy?' I've been there, I've done that, I get it. But I know from the thousands of conversations I've had with young women that it's not working." She adds: "And if we're really going to get into it, is that what you're looking for in a guy? Just someone hot that you have great sex with? It's probably not the best basis for a partnership."
Debatable. Self-acceptance and chilling out about body image sound like healthy goals but what about all of the Instagram stars and models who present an obsession with looks as a focus on health? "We come in all shapes and sizes and to try to be someone else's version of healthy is not going to work," Brumfitt responds.
But isn't it inherently unhealthy to be overweight, for instance? "Not necessarily. You have to look at the whole person. We are obsessed with physical health but what about emotional health? In the film there is a woman who suffered from sexual abuse and she said to me: 'I know that I'm larger and that I'm comfort eating. But I'm doing the best that I can right now.' And I applaud her. I also don't think that there is any lifelong meaningful change that has come from shame or guilt."
Although the film is primarily aimed at women, Brumfitt says self-loathing over body image is not confined to her sex and cites studies which say it is on the rise in young men, who are also "fed idealised images of what they should look like. It's difficult for parents to stop these messages reaching their children," she acknowledges. The message of the film, she says, is that we need to "detox from negative body images and stop spending our short lives in this war with our bodies.
"You can either keep fighting that war or you can accept yourself."
Embrace premieres in cinemas today. For information see https://ie.demand.film/embrace/