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Mum’s global crusade to save kids from body shame

EIGHT years ago, Taryn Brumfitt was standing on the stage of a bodybuilding competition in a silver bikini and stripper heels hoping the judges would rate her body a good score.

A 15kg weight loss in as many weeks of intense daily workouts and kilojoule counting had come to this moment. She had the perfect bikini body she had wanted for so long.

Behind the taut tummy that carried three babies in 3½ years was a "hardcore obsession" to find happiness.

Taryn Brumfitt is the founder of Body Image Movement.
Taryn Brumfitt is the founder of Body Image Movement.

"That woman on stage was a woman struggling to find acceptance in her body," Taryn says of herself. "She bought into all of the messages we receive to be anything other than what I was.

"The minute I stepped on the stage as all these judges were looking at me, I thought 'My body is not an ornament'.

"I had the perfect bikini body. But in that moment, all I could think of was to have that body now has taken too much sacrifice.

"I thought, you don't even know what this body has done. I've had three children and breastfed for years and years.

"The minute I stepped off stage, I no longer wanted to be a person obsessed with having the perfect body."

It was a major revelation and turning point in Taryn's life.

Taryn Brumfitt’s before and after photos went viral on Facebook.
Taryn Brumfitt’s before and after photos went viral on Facebook.

Until this point, Taryn had fought a war with her body image, even to the point of booking in cosmetic surgery for a tummy tuck, boob job and liposuction after the birth of her youngest child.

On the eve of the surgery, Taryn changed her mind, watching her daughter Mikaela, now 10, play.

"What message will that send Mikaela?" she recalls. "I want her to embrace her own body just as it was. My choice to change my body might set Mikaela up to want to change her body. It broke my heart."

It's a realisation the 34-year-old now knows affects more children than is comprehendible.

"Up to 70 per cent of Australian schoolchildren consider body image to be a concern," Taryn says, of the research driving her organisation Body Image Movement.

In the weeks that followed the bikini model competition, Taryn posted a 'before and after' photo of her own body transformation to her Facebook page that would go on to become internet folklore. The photos were in reverse. The before photo was the chiselled bikini clad Taryn on stage, while the after was a curvy, all embracing nude that "broke the internet".

"I was a photographer, a mum of three kids, I was living a very normal, but good life in Adelaide," she says. "Then everything changed in that moment."

More than 100 million people saw the photograph online as it was shared across the globe. What followed was an international media frenzy as messages of support from thousands of people sharing their own stories about body acceptance flooded her inbox.

"The reason I posted it was to help some friends who I had been speaking to earlier that day, who couldn't understand how I'd done the competition months before and my body was back to what it was before the competition. They were so perplexed at the thought that I could embrace and love and be happy with my body after it went back. I didn't have the bikini body anymore."

Body Image Movement founder Taryn Brumfitt with her children Mikaela, 10, Cruz, 11, and Oliver, 13.
Body Image Movement founder Taryn Brumfitt with her children Mikaela, 10, Cruz, 11, and Oliver, 13.

In 2014, Taryn launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $200,000 to make a documentary.

Within two weeks she had raised $331,000 to fund the production. Nearly 9000 people backed the film, including heavyweights Rosie O'Donnell, Ashton Kutcher and Ricki Lake.

Her documentary Embrace premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in 2016. It has since been distributed in more than 190 countries on Netflix and iTunes, making it to number one on iTunes in Canada and the US in the year of its release, and again in 2018 in the UK.

Taryn's global crusade to end the body dissatisfaction epidemic subsequently brought her to the footsteps of Hollywood. She was recognised by the United Nations Women, Amy Poehler's Smart Girls and the Geena Davis Institute.

The photographer-turned-director has delivered more than 100 keynote speeches worldwide, including inspiring the next generation at Google HQ.

She was named alongside Beyonce and Emma Watson in Brigitte magazine's Woman of The Year and her powerful message inspiring social change has reached more than 200 million people.

Now, Taryn has published a children's book, Embrace Your Body, aimed at combating body anxiety in children aged two to eight.

It coincides with her latest passion project, the Embrace Kids documentary which is being executively produced by Celeste Barber, Teresa Palmer and Natasha Stott Despoja, and will be given to schools as a free resource to educate the next generation to embrace their bodies.

Last year, Taryn teamed up with children's entertainers Pevan and Sarah to co-write and produce the catchy children's song Embrace.

"We put it on iTunes and it went to number one of day one, the first day. It will always be our claim to fame, that we knocked Baby Shark off the top spot," she says.

"Watching videos sent by parents of their kids singing and dancing to Embrace, I thought 'What joy is being embedded into their hearts about their bodies'. We had to make this into a book to explore what is a really sensitive subject, but do it in a way that is positive and uplifting. It's inspiring for kids to build that foundation of values based off who they are and what they do as opposed to what they look like."

Mission Australia's National Youth survey found at least 31 per cent of young people in 2019 didn't like the way they looked. Notably higher proportions of females (42.8 per cent compared with 14.5 per cent of males) were extremely or very concerned about their body image. Moreover, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander females reported body image as the second most concerning personal issue, ahead of mental health.

For the eighth year in a row, young Australians rated body image issues as one of the top four concerns in the annual survey, alongside other mental health issues such as coping with stress and school or study problems. The 2020 survey is currently open to 15-19 year olds until August 14.

Butterfly Foundation CEO Kevin Barrow says the latest results show an increasing trend in young people's levels of concern about their body image (from 26.5 per cent in 2015 to 31 per cent in 2019).

He says there is a compelling rationale for the need to address negative body image thinking in all ages of a child's life - particularly before negative body image thinking takes root.

"There are serious health ramifications if we do not challenge fundamental belief structures that are translating into nationwide body shape and size stigma," Kevin adds.

"Poor body image can contribute to impaired mental and physical health, lower social functionality and poor lifestyle choices. People who are dissatisfied with their body image are at higher risk of developing serious mental illness including eating disorders."

Taryn Brumfitt with daughter Mikaela, 10.
Taryn Brumfitt with daughter Mikaela, 10.

The Butterfly Foundation is publishing a report Insights in Body Esteem this year, which found more than half (58 per cent) of young people compared themselves to people on social media and were growingly dissatisfied with how they looked (43 per cent in 2017 to 48 per cent in 2019).

"We know Australian kids as young as eight are suffering from poor body image that could have serious and long-term health consequences," Taryn says.

"By age seven, one in four kids has engaged in dieting behaviour. About 70 per cent of adolescent girls dislike their body and one-third of adolescent boys wished they were bigger."

Taryn remembers dieting throughout high school.

"I remember in my teens wanting to have 'her' body and wanting to be thinner," Taryn says.

"It was pretty normal, which is terribly sad to think that we have been brainwashed into thinking we are meant to be at war with our bodies and we are meant to battle against it. It's not the case.

"Only a few months ago, I spoke to a young teenager who had struggled with her body all of her life. She came close to ending her life because of how she felt about her body. She was sobbing."

Taryn says the reason she made the film Embrace was because she received more than 7000 emails from people around the world.

"I have a four-year-old daughter and I've never swum with her, because I don't want to wear a pair of bathers," one emailer wrote.

"I've not been intimate with my husband for three years, because I think I look disgusting," another said.

"It's one thing to hear those heartbreaking stories from adults," says Taryn, "but it is another thing to hear it from kids who are in their prime, they should be enjoying life.

"To think that up to 70 per cent of Australian kids are not - as a mum, I feel devastated by that statistic. We really need to do something about it."

And that starts with changing the dialogue about body image among children, she says.

"Embrace your Body is more than just a book, it's an opportunity for parents, carers and teachers to help children build a foundation of positive body image values based on moving, respecting and enjoying their bodies.

"This book could really change people's lives and change kids' perceptions of their body and that's massive."

Australian researchers have studied feedback from Taryn's film Embrace that focused on her story and how her body-positive social-media post started the global Body Image Movement, impacting millions of people around the world.

The findings from a survey of 1429 women aged between 18 and 77 were published in BMC Women's Health journal in February.

Associate Professor Zali Yager from the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University was the lead author.

"We found that women who had seen the film were much more likely to report appreciating their body, and in some cases, the film had prompted some really major and positive shifts in their lives that the women said contributed to their wellbeing," she says.

The results show the original documentary to be a catalyst for women starting to change the conversations they have about their bodies. Taryn is keen to replicate these effects in a children's version of the documentary, and is now crowd-funding Embrace Kids.

"After attending a number of Q&A screenings of Embrace in high schools, it became apparent that showing the film to teenagers was almost too late to make a lasting impact," she says.

"Despite the research supporting the positive impact of the film, I knew we needed to embed the embrace philosophy earlier, helping 8-12 year olds to build a foundation of values based on who they are, what they do and how they feel as opposed to what they look like."

 

Taryn Brumfitt.
Taryn Brumfitt.

 

Taryn's work to positively influence young and older Australians and promote body diversity saw her nominated as an Australian of the Year finalist in 2019.

"We weren't born into the world hating our bodies," she says.

"We learned this behaviour and it's incredibly destructive. There's a raft of mental health issues in adolescence, from eating disorders, suicide related to body dissatisfaction and increase of steroid use in young boys; it's a big problem that needs to be addressed.

"We've got one really short life. We've got 28,000 days on the planet. We've got one body to enjoy all of those days with."

Taryn admits a lot has changed since learning to love her own body eight years ago.

"I'm more confident, I feel more gratitude for my body, I feel like I can do things I never thought I could do before," she says.

"Speaking was a big hurdle for me in my twenties, I was so nervous. Now I'm like, 'Give me an auditorium'.

"When you embrace your body, there are so many more things you say 'Yes' to. When you are kind to your body and you really back yourself, you find yourself doing things like standing on the stage at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley addressing their leadership team and going 'How did I get here?' That is the Embrace journey."

Embrace Your Body by Taryn Brumfitt is published by Penguin Random House Australia.