January. The truly transformative month – when change and good habits and significantly less alcohol dominate minds and conversation. The month when gyms and slimming clubs and those who sell “spiralisers” and diets and supplements and “the new you” ask us to crave transformation, however unattainable. Purge fat and you will be redeemed by society. Shed pounds like sins, “punish” yourself in the gym and cultivate a purer waistline, eat “clean”, be “good” and you will be accepted. Before: ugly, greedy, slovenly. After: thin.
A new film aims to challenge that tired narrative. Embrace sees Taryn Brumfitt, founder of the Body Image Movement, travel the world to look at women’s relationships with their bodies, on a “quest to end the body-hating epidemic”. It asks why the idea of unachieveable – and often harmful – body images persists, questions the lack of diversity in body role models and tells of Brumfitt's determination to change it.
Her story began in April 2013, when she distorted the “before” and “after” image we see associate with weight loss, to celebrate her weight gain. She immediately hit a nerve. The “before” picture, which showed her body in a stereotypically “perfect” light – blonde, tanned, toned and small – was the result of a strict diet and gruelling exercise routine. She had taken up weight-training – an alternative, she says, to surgery – after the births of her three children left her feeling unattractive and low. When the highly demanding exercise routine left her with the body she craved, but with less time with her family and a lingering sense of dissatisfaction, she decided to lead a healthy but unrestrictive lifestyle and embrace her natural shape. She showed the result in the “after” picture: softer, bigger, imperfect and happy.
You can only chase someone else’s perfection for so long, before you realise how unhappy it is making you
Taryn Brumfitt's "before" and "after" pictures
The photographs went viral overnight, being shared hundreds of thousands of times and gaining her a worldwide following from women who found it empowering. Brumfitt became the accidental face of a new body-positive movement – and then, in an age when public ownership and the constant commentary of women’s bodies has been given new life through social media, she attempted to take back control.
“It went viral immediately,” Brumfitt explains from her home in Australia. “I posted it because I’d been speaking to some friends about dissatisfaction with our bodies. I thought it might help my friends feel better. And then it just went crazy. Suddenly, all the devices in the house were going off. In the next week, my picture was alongside headlines in newspapers all over the world. It was shocking. And then people started to get in touch.”
Brumfitt watched as her body, like so many others in the age of the internet, quickly became public property. She received thousands of comments – from women, thanking her, and others, shaming her. “Initially, I really wanted to fight back when I saw a negative comment,” says Brumfitt. “I made a decision to focus on what I was doing and ignore the trolls and comments. All they did was make me want to do more to dispel the notion that bodies should come in one shape or size.”
There is a very ingrained notion that women should change their bodies if they happen to be outside of what is deemed the “norm”. On her journey, Brumfitt meets women with burns scars and eating disorders and excess body hair – and she meets women who simply look at themselves in the mirror and give themselves a hard time.
One word comes up among women Brumfitt interviews on the street more than others: “disgusting”. It’s saddening to watch. And it hits home that, although Embrace isn’t really doing anything new – these reflections and observations and calls to action have been around and under scrutiny for decades and more – it is still relevant. Because, really, very little has changed. Women’s magazines have long been at the heart of plenty of body-loathing angst, but what about the Instagram stars now facing a backlash against “clean-eating”, too? Aren’t they just packaging another unattainable “perfection” in a different way?
“You can only chase someone else’s perfection for so long, before you realise how unhappy it is making you,” Brumfitt says. “We can all be shiny and perfect, but there’s nothing wrong with being messy and complicated.
"What we need is positive body-image stories and role models. We need to see women of different shapes and backgrounds, with different stories, elevated. We also need to keep on talking about it. And, finally, then, we might see something change for the better."
Embrace is in cinemas across the UK now.