… and about how we as a society unnecessarily sexualize the female body, and how it makes girls and women feel terrible and how it takes a constant toll on the mental health of half the world’s population.
Did I lose you there?
Sorry (but not really though).
Yesterday, I went to see Embrace, a documentary by Taryn Brumfitt. Here’s my review.
Kids, you can play ego shooters, but you can’t see boobs
The first thing I noticed when I walked into the cinema was the age restriction. 16 and above? Really?
God forbid we let fifteen-year-olds see a mothers’ body unretouched and naked. Their poor teenage minds might be corrupted by the sight of breasts that, after nourishing three children, no longer defy gravity. Or the sight of a vulva with actual hair on it.
Give me a break.
When my sister was in eighth grade or so, we got a memo sent home from school saying that smartphones were no longer permitted inside the classroom as boys were using them to watch porn during class. Boys no older than thirteen or fourteen. Maybe we should worry about what that is doing to young people instead.
But I digress.
The perfect body is overrated
Here is the storyline of the film. Taryn Brumfitt is an Australian mother of three. She is never really happy with her body and things get worse after giving birth three times, to the point where she starts considering surgery. She decides against it in order to be a good role model to her daughter. Instead, she starts training for a bodybuilding competition with a personal trainer. She is desperate to know what it feels like to have the “perfect body”, for once in her life.
Taryn makes it to the competition with a very athletic body and very little body fat. She ends up on stage with the other finalists. And in that moment, which she had thought would be one of the happiest of her life, all she can think is one thing.
The effort and the sacrifice and the energy that it took to get to that point simply was not worth it.
She feels no happier.
So, she goes back to her normal, active, healthy life and a normal diet. She gains fat, loses muscle and returns to her natural shape. To document her story, she posts an unconventional before-and-after on her facebook page.
This is the “before and after” Taryn posted on her Facebook page. (source)
The photo goes viral and resonates with an incredible number of people. Taryn starts receiving e-mails from all over the world, from women telling her the story of their own personal struggle. She realizes she has struck a chord and decides to travel the world and meet a number of fascinating women to talk about body image issues.
“Your body is a vehicle, not an ornament”
One of the first people Taryn interviews is an Australian “plus-size” model, who essentially just looks like a normal person. She then goes on to talk to:
- Mia Freedman, the youngest ever editor of Australian Cosmo, who tells Taryn about how incredibly difficult it is to organize a fashion shoot with women who are not a size 8, and about how plus-size models are viewed as “less than” in the industry.
- Harnaam Kaur, who, due to polycystic ovaries, has a fully-grown beard. Harnaam went through depression and suicidal thoughts, and has now learned to love herself and rock her beard.
- Turia Pitt, who, while running a marathon, was caught in a wildfire and survived with severe burns on most of her face and body (“seriously, if I can learn to love myself, anyone can”).
- Nora Tschirner, a German actress who produced the movie and who takes Taryn to the Romys, a prestigious showbusiness award gala in Vienna, my hometown. This part is mostly intended to highlight the obsessive preoccupation with superficialities prevalent in much of show business and the media. I found this part funny, because I attended the Romys a few weeks ago and one of the first things I noticed was just how much effort people had obviously put into their appearance.
- a woman just recovering from anorexia.
There are more women in the movie whose story Taryn tells, but these are the ones that stuck with me most.
Taking all of their stories together, there is one main message in this film, and I can wholeheartedly confirm it.
When you see your body as a vehicle through which you can achieve a number of amazing things, if you keep it healthy and well-functioning, rather than an ornament whose main purpose is to look aesthetically pleasing to a (narrow, heavily brainwashed) group of people, your relationship with yourself, and your life as a whole, improve drastically.
“If I want to eat the fucking cookie my kid baked, I’m gonna eat the fucking cookie my kid baked.”
There are several scenes in the movie during which I felt like standing up and starting a standing ovation. This quote was definitely one of them. The woman who says this is Amanda de Cadenet, a British actress who shares her body image issues and the pressure she faces from being in the spotlight. She makes the point that when you are constantly thinking about food, and what you can eat, and when you can eat what, and whether you can eat that, and how many calories you have to burn, it takes up so much of your time, and so much of your mental energy. And I can’t tell you how real this is if you’ve never experienced it. I can’t tell you what it’s like to sit through an algebra class after having diet coke for lunch and to take essentially nothing in. I can’t tell you what it’s like to sit at uni and make a food and calorie list in the margin of your notepad instead of listening. I can’t tell you what it’s like to wake up and think “Shit, I have a date later and I need him to think I’m normal, so maybe if I just don’t eat until 6pm I can order a full meal.” and then not perform at work all day. I can’t tell you what it’s like to starve for two days and feel dizzy and groggy and then binge on a family-sized pizza and a tub of ice cream in tears. There are no words for it, but there is an overwhelming number of girls and women who just know.
And I never, ever, ever want my daughter to know.
So, how do we embrace?
Let’s be honest, we have known the problem this film exposes for a long time now. But Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar are not going anywhere, and neither is Victoria’s Secret. Magazines are going to keep printing a certain type of image, despite the fact that their sales are dwindling. We can’t tell other people what to print.
What we can do is flood the world with images of women of all shapes and sizes and body types. We can make sure that our daughters and sisters see as many unretouched images of all kinds of women as possible. If we bombard the world with diverse, multifaceted representations of women, we can drown out the superficiality, the sexualization, the pressure and the narrow, outdated, misogynist beauty ideal perpetuated by certain mainstream media outlets.
There are a number of brilliant projects contributing to this, and since I love writing and photography and creating all sorts of things, I am already thinking hard about how I could start my own.
My final thoughts on “Embrace”
The film isn’t perfect.
For one thing, the journey to self-love is made somewhat easier for Brumfitt – she has a loving, caring family to come home to and give her safety and reassurance. That resource is not available to everyone and, emotionally, it is worth a lot. I can imagine that a daughter who loves you and looks up to you would be an incredibly strong motivation to work through body image issues. I can imagine that a partner who supports you and loves you for who you are would make a big difference in feeling beautiful no matter what you look like. Taryn’s journey was certainly easier than it would be for people in different circumstances.
For another thing, I take issue with this feel-good message that “everyone is beautiful”. I would rather we started deemphasizing external beauty as a concept altogether and stopped caring all that much about what anyone looks like.
But “Embrace” is still well worth watching. More than recommending it to women, I would recommend it to every man who wants to really understand what it’s like to be a woman in this world.
Taryn Brumfitt is also the founder of the Body Image Movement.