One woman has a beard. Another sustained burns to more than 60 percent of her body. Then there's the TV personality who’d struggled publicly with her weight for decades. Taryn Brumfitt spent months traveling the world in 2015, meeting these women and others, in the hope of answering just one question: “Why do so many women hate their bodies?”
“There’s a global epidemic of body hating,” said Brumfitt, sitting in her office in Adelaide, South Australia, over Skype this month. “So many women are trying to find a quick fix, a pill, a potion, a lotion, to help them love their bodies. So many brilliant minds are wasted on these thoughts.”
Part of the problem is the lack of diversity in the stories the media reports on women and the images of women we see, Brumfitt believes. Open most fashion magazines and we're bombarded by images of size 0 girls and guides on “how to get thin fast.” Women are getting fat-shamed, skinny-shamed and criticized for being everything in between. Your boobs droop, your labia looks weird, your chin isn’t sharp enough.
“I want women to know they don’t have to conform to one body shape to feel OK about themselves,” said Brumfitt, founder of Body Image Movement, a campaign aimed at “redefining the ideals of beauty.”
“We need to end this conversation about boob jobs and tummy tucks and diet, diet, diet,” the photographer and mom-of-three stressed. “We need to talk about this differently. I truly believe that the more stories of women we hear, the more we’re inspired by people who’ve faced adversity and pushed through, the more we can empower women into becoming their authentic selves.”
It was this belief that led Brumfitt, 38, on her around-the-world quest last year.
Her goal was to create a documentary -- one that would chronicle the unique stories of a diverse group of women, many of whom had struggled with body hatred before finding self-love.
“I believe that by sharing our stories, it gives people hope that they too could love their bodies as well,” Brumfitt said.
She made the documentary film,"Embrace," after more than 8,000 people donated $200,000 to fund the movie’s creation on Kickstarter. It’s the most successfully crowdfunded documentary in Australian history, according to Brumfitt. She held the world premiere in Sydney on June 12.
In the film, Brumfitt visits the home of American actress and TV host Ricki Lake, who spoke about her long-fought battles with body image. Lake admitted she had “no idea what that would feel like” to not worry, even for a moment, about her weight.
“She was very raw and very honest,” Brumfitt said of the TV star.
Harnaam Kaur, also known as the “bearded dame,” described being on the cusp of suicide before choosing to embrace her body as it is, ditching the razor and self-hate for good. Australian model Stefania Ferrario spoke about watching her peers eating cotton balls to feel “full.” An anorexia survivor known only as Tina sobbed on screen as she implored young women to never starve themselves.
“I also spoke to Turia [Pitt] for the film,” said Brumfitt, referring to the 29-year-old woman who suffered burns over more than half her body during a 2011 ultramarathon. Pitt is now a motivational speaker and humanitarian. She recently completed an Ironman triathlon after doctors told her she’d never race again.
“Turia said, ‘If I can get on with my life, I don’t know why others can’t,’” recalled Brumfitt. “And it’s so true. When I ask people the question, ‘What do you think you’re going to be thinking about in your last moments on Earth?’ No one’s ever said, ‘My nose’ or ‘my big bum’ or my ‘thigh gap.’ If only we could remember this -- that our bodies are not ornaments, but vehicles to achieving our dreams.”
Brumfitt’s story of self-love also begins with loathing.
Standing in front of a mirror, she prodded and poked herself.
“You are gross. Look at how your tummy wobbles. Look at those stretch marks. You are hideous.”
Her body had changed after giving birth to three children. “I hate you,” she told herself during those dark days. “You are disgusting.”
Seeking freedom from these thoughts, Brumfitt decided in 2010 to undergo surgery. She would get a tummy tuck and breast augmentation. She recalled almost “skipping” out of the doctor’s office, so thrilled that she’d soon “fix” her body.
But a few weeks after the doctor’s visit, while watching her young daughter Mikaela play at home, Brumfitt suddenly had a change of heart.
“I had an epiphany,” she said. “[I realized] if I go through with this, what am I saying to my daughter about body image? How will I teach her to love her body? How am I going to encourage her to accept and love her body, when I am standing in front of her with a surgically enhanced body? What type of hypocrite or mother would I be?”
It was a critical personal lesson, said Brumfitt, but her view of herself did not change. The disappointment she felt toward her body remained.
So, at the suggestion of a fitness trainer, she decided to enter a body building competition. She went all out for months. She dramatically changed her diet, her lifestyle and her exercise regimen. Brumfitt shed the weight she wanted and attained the “perfect bikini body.”
But on stage at the 2012 INBA bikini contest, during what should’ve been her “moment to shine,” Brumfitt said she felt enormously let down.
“Unfortunately, or really fortunately, once I got there, it wasn’t all it cracked up to be. I did have the 'perfect body' but, you know, nothing changed about how I felt about my body,” she said. “I also felt incredibly imbalanced. It had all just been too hard, it was too much obsession.”
That was ultimately the moment that changed her life, Brumfitt recalled.
“I discovered then that it’s not about how I look but more about how I feel," she said. "The realization was like winning the golden ticket.”
Months later, Brumfitt decided to post two photos on Facebook: side-by-side “before” and “after” shots.
But this wasn’t your typical post-weight loss comparison. The “before” photo had been taken at the body building contest. The “after” was a post-birth image.
“Earlier in the day I had been speaking to some girlfriends and they were talking about their bodies and their changing bodies and I thought it would help them to see a ‘non traditional before and after photo,’” Brumfitt explained. “We are constantly being told that losing weight, being on a diet or having the ‘perfect’ bikini body will make us happy, that before and after was just a way of me expressing that it isn’t always the case.”
The photos ended up receiving millions of likes on Facebook -- a viral phenomenon that landed Brumfitt on the pages of magazines and newspapers, and on TV shows in Australia, the U.S., Russia and beyond.
Brumfitt said she personally received more than 7,000 emails and messages from “nearly every country in the world” in the aftermath of the viral post.
“I had an inkling that [body image] was a global issue,” she said, “but I didn’t know the level that it was affecting people all over the world. That was quite alarming.”
But as she did the media circuit, sitting for interview after interview, Brumfitt said her frustration only grew.
“There was just not enough time to tell the whole story,” she said. “This [body obsession] is killing our young people and holding back women all over the world from living life at their full potential. So after all that media, I thought to myself: what more can I do?”
Her Kickstarter project was soon launched online. “Embrace” the documentary would encourage women to “accept themselves as they are,” Brumfitt said.
“Women and girls are constantly held back and lead to believe they’re not as good as they should be. Why? Because every day we feel we’re being judged on our appearance and how far away it is from an unachievable ideal,” reads a post on the “Embrace” project page. “Lose weight, reduce wrinkles, fight cellulite; we’re constantly told to fight a battle to be someone other than who we are.”
The idea for the film was met with overwhelming positivity, according to Brumfitt. “In fact, there’s just been huge amounts of support every step of the way,” she said.
Trolls, however, have never been too far behind.
“Go fucking work out, you fat bitch.” “Sucks to your husband.” “Bulges are disgusting.” “Eat a salad, skank.” These are just some of the online comments Brumfitt has personally received since her body image crusade began.
“I think people have been brainwashed into thinking that there’s only one type of body that’s healthy,” Brumfitt said. “I just ran a marathon a few months ago and my body wiggles and jiggles and I have cellulite and everything, but I’m an exceptionally healthy person. You don’t know my story. No one knows anyone’s story.”
Brumfitt gave the example of her younger brother Jason: a “strong, tall and handsome” young man who died at the age of 27.
“If you’d put a photo of Jason next to one of an overweight man, 100 percent of people would’ve said my brother was more ‘healthy.’ But Jason was a heroin addict and he ultimately died of that addiction,” she said. “We need to not judge at all. We don’t know someone’s story.”
As “Embrace” opens in cinema screens worldwide, Brumfitt says she hopes the film will spark new conversations about beauty and the skewed, problematic body standards women are often held to.
“It’s about taking action,” she said. “It’s about building a world of empowered women. There are just so many more important things that we should be doing and worrying about than our cellulite or our stretch marks.”
“For people to make positive change in their lives, it has to come from a place of self-respect and self-esteem,” she continued. “My hope is that I can help people find that within themselves.”
Find out more about "Embrace" and how you can watch it on Body Image Movement's website.