Taryn Brumfitt is a name you'll want to know. Hailing from Australia, the mom of three once hated her body, especially postpartum. So she decided to fight to get back to her pre-baby body, hire a personal trainer, and compete for a body-building tournament. After much dieting and training, she had reached her goal. But standing on the stage in the final segment of the competition show—in what many might consider the best shape of her life—she had an epiphany. This wasn’t where she wanted to be.
"Standing on the stage, in my perfect bikini body, I was just thinking, ‘Oh no, I can’t do this beyond tonight.’ The first thing I did afterward was eat a couple of meals. It just wasn't sustainable to look like that,” she told me in a phone interview. "This is not sustainable, this is not healthy, and this is not me."
Brumfitt says what really got to her was listening to the other top-shape competitors behind the scenes, picking apart the aspects of their bodies they still didn’t like. Once you get on the train to reach physical perfection, Brumfitt realized, enough is never enough. There’s always something more you can change.
So she let it go, and went back to her healthy weight, which just so happened to not include washboard abs. A photography hobbyist, she took a nude photo of her new fuller look and placed it next to a picture of her dieted bikini bod—before and after. She posted it on social media. Before she knew it, Brumfitt’s photo had become a viral sensation. Some people couldn’t fathom how she’d be proud of how she looked in the heavier photo; others got it, and loved the message it sent.
Whatever one’s opinion on the photos in question, it’s fair to say it sent shockwaves into the Internet, challenging how we view our bodies. One book and a couple years later, Brumfitt has kept up the momentum, most recently releasing a documentary called Embrace. You might have noticed if you saw the cover art—it shows a picture of Brumfitt sitting nude in the middle of Times Square. Lest this discourage modest viewers from watching, the documentary itself does not showcase nudity, and as Brumfitt told me, undressing openly is not a prerequisite to body acceptance.
Here are just a couple of the important messages Brumfitt wants to transmit that we can wholeheartedly get behind.
01. Women’s media depicts imagery that is dangerously unrealistic.
We’re living amidst a body image crisis. “Women hate any part of their body, no matter where I travel to,” she told me. “From the Dominican Republic, to Canada, to across America, to Germany and Australia, the story always feels the same—women have had such a dissatisfaction and behind closed doors, so much heartache, they’re so miserable around this subject, and I think they’re getting to a point where they’re exhausted all this is weighing them down.”
There’s nothing wrong with tall, thin women, but there is something wrong with depicting only that narrow imagery to the world, as the advertising, clothing, and media industries do. As model Stefania Ferrario, who is happy and healthy at a size 12 (which happens to be the average body size), told Brumfitt in the documentary, “You end up thinking you’re the problem” when you don’t look the same. As a result, the only option to stay in the modeling industry with these narrow standards, is to get an eating disorder. Contrary to only affecting the modeling industry, this affects everyone exposed to the imagery, which is why we hear sad statistics such as this: 90 percent of people with eating disorders are women.
02. If you try to conform to media’s standards, enough is never enough.
After returning to her healthy weight, leaving the body building competitions and dieting behind, Brumfitt says she was extremely unhappy with her body. She made an appointment to get plastic surgery but canceled the appointment after thinking of how it could affect her daughter. She now realizes that surgery would have done little to solve the problem: “If I had had surgery back then, I’m sure by now I’d be on my tenth or eleventh surgery. Because our bodies evolve, they’re forever changing, so it’s a slippery slope. Thinking I’ll change this, I’ll change that would make me stuck in cycle of never feeling content.” For something that takes a lot of time and energy, you never really arrive at a destination.
03. Food obsession and dieting hurt gender equality.
If the gender disparity for those suffering with eating disorders wasn’t enough to illustrate how unrealistic imagery hurts equality, consider how obsession to fit into media-prescribed waistlines hurts women’s edge in their everyday endeavors. Yes, experts have found that most diets hurt cognitive functioning, and women are lining up for them more than men. As professor, researcher, and author Dr. Linda Bacon explained in the documentary, after being on a diet for a while, “you’re thinking about food all the time, more conscious of smells. When your body is deprived of calories, it makes you think about food, it makes sure that you concentrate less about other things so that you’re focused on getting food and taking care of yourself. It even changes the taste perception in your mouth so that a wider range of flavors might be interesting to you, so that you’re more willing to eat anything.” No wonder body image blogger Jes Baker told Brumfitt that she found diets to be “soul draining” and that they’ve caused much "emotional and physical suffering” in her life. Dr. Bacon would put it this way, when it comes to maintaining a diet, “it’s not that people are failing, it’s that diets are failing them.”
04. Health and fitness aren’t the same as what we see in most media.
Brumfitt has found that since letting go of the dieting mindset she has never felt healthier. She is happy with her body and stays active. “I’m pretty sure you can’t run a marathon and be a lazy, fat pig,” she says in Embrace, over a visual of her completing a race. “Your role in life is not to spend it at war with your body,” she told me. “It’s not about how you look. Your body is not an ornament; it is the vehicle for your journey.”
05. Our ‘flaws’ could be the best things that ever happened to us.
Burn victim Turia Pitt said her accident, where she was caught in a bush fire that disfigured much of her body, could be the best thing that happened to her. At first, she said, there were moments she looked in the mirror and didn't know who was staring back; "the person who’s in the mirror, that wasn’t who I saw myself as." But now when I look in the mirror I see me, which sounds really ridiculous because who else would I be?” When Pitt heard someone say she’s lucky her husband stayed with her after she became disfigured, she said she felt crushed: “I’m so much more than just what I look like.” Since the accident forced her to confront this fact more acutely than other people, Pitt says, “my accident gave me a voice, and gave me the resources to put my energy into something I’m really passionate about… It could be the worst thing that ever happened to me and it could be the best thing.”
06. Seeing imagery of different-looking people is freeing.
In a number of ways, the documentary Embrace practices what it preaches, and proves its points in the process. Not only does it explain how showing diverse sizes and shapes of women in media would better serve all of us, it showcases imagery of different looking people throughout the film. Here is a film that depicts all range of sizes and physical appearance, including Pitt who survived severe burns, model Renee Airya, who after the removal of a brain tumor had some facial nerve damage, and Harnaam Kaur, a British woman who has a condition that gives her excessive facial hair. While these may be extreme examples of diverse looks, the effect is the same—viewers are freed from the false image that there’s one type of person we see in most advertisements that we should aim to look like. It gives perspective, and it’s invigorating to see women owning their beauty. Seeing a variety of women comfortable in their own skin reminds us we ourselves are unique and we can embrace ourselves too. As blogger Jes Baker said at one point, this “is how we recondition our brains, we see new images . . . to balance the older ones.” I felt this happening to me as a viewer, just by watching the documentary.
07. It is possible to break free of body stress.
Even though, as one interviewee said in the documentary, we’re living in a world so inundated with problematic imagery of women it can feel like we’re always having to put out fires, Brumfitt emphasizes we can overcome it once we embrace our bodies as we are. She speaks from experience. When it comes to body image, Brumfitt told me, “I never have a bad day, ever since I’ve committed this, and it frees up my time to do other things. I acknowledge my body still does things I used to hate about it, but those things don't define me, they don’t define my value in the world. Or my happiness.” It’s this life-changing discovery of hers that is palpable—and that clearly fuels all her work.
Ultimately, Brumfitt's message is a refreshing reminder to take care of, and appreciate, the bodies we've been given. “Your role in life is not to spend it at war with your body; go out there and do something with your life, contribute, and reconnect with how you feel in life and get some more balance back. It’s not about how you look. And that comes back to the quote I always say, ‘Your body is not an ornament; it is the vehicle to your journey.’”
Photo Credit: Body Image Movement.