Alex Casey chats to filmmaker and activist Taryn Brumfitt about her movement to get women embracing their own bodies, no matter what the media says.
Walking up to my interview with Taryn Brumfitt, director of Embrace documentary and leader of body positivity movement, I pondered my Queen Street surroundings with the expression of a cat looking grumpily at the sun. As my own Bridget Jones style “climber’s legs” plowed passed Glassons, the skeletal mannequins pointed their stick-thin thighs at me accusingly. Next at Cotton On Body, tanned bums popped out in aggressively in every direction, impossibly pert in a world full of gravity and delicious things like donuts.
It’s this constant barrage of beautiful, photoshopped bodies, making women feel like they should be squashed in a skip, that inspired the Embrace movement and documentary. Spearheaded by Taryn after she had her own revelation about her post-baby body, the campaign seeks to empower women and rescue them from their self-esteem trash compactors across the globe.
With the help of Kickstarter, what began as a viral image soon became a documentary about a global journey. Now playing in the New Zealand International Film Festival, Embrace arrives with a controversial rating from Australian censors to restrict it to mature audiences, and promotional difficulties due to the amount of female flesh on the poster. I sat down with Taryn to talk about embracing our wobbly bits, and what women can do to make their voices heard.
Let’s talk about the ludicrous censorship around this film, just I saw this morning on Facebook that you are having trouble even getting the trailer out. What’s going on there?
The classification rating in Australia gave us a restricted rating that meant it couldn’t be seen by people alone who were under the age of 16. That means that we just can’t show the trailer anywhere – which is really problematic. Even on Facebook, we can’t get the film poster promoted because there is too much flesh.
It’s a laughable irony isn’t it? That a body-positive documentary is getting restrictions like this?
Totally, and that’s the hypocrisy that we are up against in this whole battle. I can go and find any page on Facebook that’s called ‘Sluts Embarrassing Themselves’ or whatever, but this empowering photograph on our film poster is the thing that’s not allowed to be shared. It’s hard work.
Is there any way to resist these censorship rulings? Can people do anything to help?
We will appeal. Thankfully in New Zealand it came back with an unrestricted M rating, which will be very useful when appeal. We can say ‘hey, across the water those guys are cool with it’. The whole role of the classification board is to protect minors from seeing harmful content.
The 12 seconds that you see of various vulva completely serves a normal, educational, enlightening purpose. That’s the whole point of the film: that you don’t otherwise see that diversity.
And where’s the harm?
Exactly. It’s the kind of thing they are going to see somewhere else, the problem is that place will be pornography and it will be only one particular kind of vulva.
The other layer of stuff that’s happening around this documentary is fascinating, and proves even more why it’s something that should be campaigned for. If we could go right back to that start, when you made that viral Facebook post, did you have any idea what you were about to do?
Absolutely not. I mean, who could have predicted that photo would be seen by over 100 million people? I’ve spoken to news and media all over the world, all about that one photograph. It’s just incredible how it broke people’s brains, they couldn’t fathom how a woman could love her body more in the ‘after’ shot. That’s what the news story everywhere was: how was it possible?
There was a bit of abuse that came with going viral, how did you cope with seeing that?
I coped pretty well, what it does is actually fuel my fire more and shows me just how many people need to be educated about body image and what’s actually important in life. I would have loved to have fought back against them, but there were too many.
I remember camping with the family when it went viral, and it was the very first time I had ever been under the spotlight or anything like that. There was an initial feeling of shock but it soon went away. I’d rather focus on the positive. I’d rather focus on my message that get tangled up in their stupidity.
Would you have any advice for people who may be subjected to a similar kind of online abuse and might not be able to deal with it?
I think you’ve just to stay on your track and not get sidetracked or taken away from what your objective is. If you’re working towards something and it feels authentic and good then no one should detract you from where you’re going. Don’t listen, unfollow, block, ban – you know all of those very practical things.
I think also keep in mind that no one can make you feel anything other than yourself. Just create a bit of a force field, I guess. Positivity breeds positivity, and there’s no point obsessing over it .
One thing that really struck me early in the documentary is when you hit the streets and all these women use the same words to describe their bodies: ‘I’m disgusting, I feel disgusting, I’m fat’. How did it feel to hear that?
It was shocking and heartbreaking to hear those stories, both as a woman and as a mother. That was harder than anything I’ve done. There’s also a natural tendency to want to rescue or help every single person but it’s just not possible. Hopefully now, through this documentary, people can see it and learn.
One thing that listening to all those points of view does for women is that it helps them to understand they’re not alone. Sharing these stories also gives hope that you can feel a certain way at one moment, but you don’t always have to. You can make positive change because many people have done it and are doing it. I think as individuals we can endure the messages from the media, endure this pain, but collectively we can come together and empower one another and get on with it. It’s really exciting.
Yeah what I loved was seeing this prolific media – the images of these skinny Abercrombie & Fitch models everywhere – and just doing a middle finger to all of it. It’s just this sudden realisation like ‘oh, you can put all this s*** around us as much as you want, but we aren’t looking’.
Yeah, it’s about not buying into it and also not buying it. We can take back some of the power with where we spend our money and what brands that we support. They can choose to continue doing what they’ve always done, which is try and make women feel insecure.
It’s not always fashion labels, but certainly the diet and the beauty industry make all their money from making us feel bad. They can continue to do that and we will just leave them behind. That’s what we’ll do. They can either come with us and make positive changes and give us what we want, or the alternative is to suffer.
There’s something that always bothers me going into department stores. You have to walk through the beauty section to get anywhere. It’s unfair, men don’t have to walk through a shop front that tells them they need to put a new face on their face. It’s interesting how it’s structured, just push the beauty to the back of the store!
It’s a trap! It’s all a trap out there [laughs].
It does feel like things are changing though and the change is coming from the ground level which is cool, because there are more of us down here than there are big wigs, right?
That’s right! That’s the great thing about the documentary. Travelling and meeting all these people, even here in Australia and New Zealand, and all these women around the world feeling the same thing. I think that’s the whole ‘endure but collectively bring it together’. Thank goodness for social media and allowing me to have a voice but also for us being able to connect and inspire one another.
How did you find the women that featured in the documentary? Did they all come to you?
Most of them came to me directly. Ricki Lake was a classic. She supported the original Kickstarter campaign and I thought ‘she’d be a good one to interview.’ So I sent an email and then next thing she says ‘come over to my house’. It’s quite amazing actually.
The power of women, eh.
That’s right. It was so exciting for me not just to share my story but just these women’s stories. They’re groundbreaking warriors, these women. To have them all in the one film, I’d hope it would have a big impact on people. For me, looking at the mix and the diversity of those women, that was really important.
Someone might not be able to resonate or connect with Harnaam, the bearded dame, but they might with Mia Freedman. Or someone who’s sort of more angelic and ethereal, like Jade. Women are all so different, so that was really important to be able to showcase a range of people and personalities. I believe everyone can get something from this documentary.
If Facebook and the censors let them see it…
Yeah it’s unbelievable. We couldn’t even boost the post on Facebook so more people could see it. So I asked that our community share it, and it got over 7000 shares and over 700,000 views. Just by women clicking and sharing! It’s quite amazing what we can do when we come together.
I want to talk about your interaction with the plastic surgeon in the documentary. How the hell did you not sock him in the face when he was talking about your boobs?
The activist in me just wanted to say ‘no, no, no this, this, and this’ but of course the director in me was just ‘let him speak’. He knew who I was and what I did, he’d seen the trailer for the Kickstarter. We’d made that very transparent, so I guess he just thought he was doing his job when he told me to inject my butt fat into my lips.
What’s your stance on plastic surgery as a whole? Are you fine with women surgically enhancing themselves if that’s what makes them feel better in this horrible world?
I think if women are making the choice to have cosmetic surgery and it comes from a place of empowerment, not because they’re forced, then good for them. Who am I to judge other people’s decisions? Would I have surgery or Botox or any of those things? Of course not. But I think it’s important that women know that they have the right to make those choices without judgement.
We’re all faced with these unique lives, so I want people to know that the body image movement is always inclusive and it’s never exclusive. Do I wish that less women were turning to cosmetic surgery to change their bodies? Of course I do. And that’s what this is all about. It’s about giving an alternative.
Unfortunately lots of women, and more and more young girls, feel like it’s the only choice they have. I’m saying ‘no, here’s another choice over here’. You can actually just not do it and learn to embrace the parts of your body that you might wanna get cut off, and then just get on with it.
There’s this new show out here called Beauty and the Beach, and it’s essentially an advertorial for these cosmetic surgery holidays. And I just think that kind of thing needs to stop. Sure, the option is there and it’s fine to do it, but it seems to be seeping into the everyday and becoming more and more normalised.
It’s that casual language of ‘oh I’m just going to get some Botox.’ The amount of school mums I know who get Botox, it’s crazy. What has been the most remarkable, amazing thing for me to hear is that four people had surgery booked in and didn’t go ahead with it because of they’ve either read my book or seen the original Kickstarter trailer or seen something on Facebook. Four women.
Can we talk about the infamous vaginas of the film? Labiaplasties are another thing that freak me out a bit because it really shows how pornography and the internet are influencing women’s bodies. I don’t even have a question here, I’m just really scared about it.
The amount of women that are turning to labiaplasty to change a part of their body and to remove a part of their body, is just tragic. I truly believe that most of those decisions are not from a place of empowerment. They’re from a place of shame, or they’re embarrassed about their bodies because they’ve probably only seen a certain type of vulva. When that happens and you fall outside of that ‘norm’, you go ‘oh my gosh, what’s wrong with me? I have to go change that.’
That’s why it was so important to have those 12 seconds’ worth of still imagery in that film, that was a very conscious decision to put it in there. First of all, it was informative and educational, but also it helps women to know that they’re okay, that they’re normal. I’ve spoken to so many women about this and the amount of women who said ‘it made me feel normal’ is astounding. I even spoke to a 71 year old who said that.
There’s this whole Instagram fitspo model thing, it’s really hard to get away from. You see these women in sports bras and yoga pants pushing skinny teas that makes you shit yourself just so you can be thinner. Do you have any advice for women on how to avoid this on social media?
You need to change the currency, change the value system of how you appreciate and love other people. It has nothing to do with what a person looks like, it’s about who they are, what they do and how they contribute and their humility, kindness, and compassion. Those are the things that actually matter, not someone’s thigh gap or tight butt or whatever it is.
I would advise not to follow those trends. I know from talking to clinical psychologists that these images can give a quick motivation towards change but then it naturally falls away. You start working out to get the dream body, and then you can’t maintain that lifestyle so you fall off the wagon. Then you see another meme and you think ‘I’m gonna do this one!’. We need to stop chasing other people’s dreams and goals and body shapes, and rather embrace and respect what we have.
You’ve become a bit of a celebrity now from this documentary. Have you still managed to maintain the same stringent Embrace ethos even with all eyes on you, and having to go through makeup for TV and all of that?
It hasn’t changed, it just is what it is. Nothing or no one can infiltrate or change the way I feel about me. It’s like a rock. It all comes back to if you put makeup on because you want to, then good on you. But it’s gotta be the woman’s choice. I reckon there’s something really powerful in women tapping into that space of doing everything ‘on my terms’. On my terms, I’ll make these choices and no one else’s.
For anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the documentary yet, is there a quick fix? Is there anything they can immediately do to start embracing their bodies more?
Ask yourself the question: when you take your final breath on Earth, what thoughts do you think you’ll be having? Having asked thousands of women this question, no one has ever said their big bum or their cellulite or their thighs. Because those things actually don’t matter.
to our journalism!Find Out More
While we’re here and able, capable and breathing, imagine tapping into that perspective and getting on with life, being grateful for what we’ve got. Bums and cellulite are not newsworthy, these are parts of our body that change. We live in a world where women are sold, young girls are sexualised and people don’t even have free water. We need to be the voice for those people, not the voice for ourselves, talking about ourselves. What a waste that would be.
The Spinoff is supported by the strong women legends at Lightbox – click below to watch the butt kicking feminist TV masterpiece that is UnREAL
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.