Taryn Brum­fitt:

the woman chang­ing body per­cep­tions

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

With her bril­liant red and orange spec­ta­cles and a neck­lace of mul­ti­coloured pom­poms, Taryn Brum­fitt stands out in a crowd. She is vi­va­cious, laughs of­ten and isn’t afraid to up­load videos of her zany dance moves – in short py­ja­mas, jig­gling her thighs – on so­cial media, try­ing to im­press talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

This is, af­ter all, the Aus­tralian woman who boldly posted be­fore-andafter pho­tos of her chang­ing body on Face­book in 2013: the be­fore – taut and toned, the per­fect bikini body; the af­ter – taste­fully naked with curves, stretch marks, and no spray tan. From ob­sessed and un­happy, to healthy and happy.

Those pictures went vi­ral, made head­lines around the world and, says Taryn, “broke peo­ple’s brains, to think a woman could love her body af­ter­wards.”

There are mo­ments when per­haps the vi­brant mum-of-three would pre­fer to be incog­nito. Like when she is try­ing to buy gro­ceries at her local su­per­mar­ket and she is stopped by women who want to tell her how she has in­flu­enced them.

“Yes­ter­day, it was a woman with a baby in her trol­ley. I was walk­ing past in my own world and she sud­denly said, ‘You changed my life!’ I was like, ‘Oh, thank you,’ and gave her a hug,” Taryn says.

“It’s al­ways very sweet. To think of the tur­moil and heartache these women are go­ing through be­hind closed doors, and that they can come out of that space and tell me about it.”

She knows it’s im­por­tant for her to put down that bot­tle of milk and lis­ten. Be­cause it wasn’t long ago that Taryn was one of those women. A young mother who de­tested her own body so much, she found ex­cuses not to leave the house. A pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher who was about to un­dergo plas­tic surgery to change the way she looked, un­til look­ing at her own young daugh­ter con­vinced her oth­er­wise.

Now, Taryn Brum­fitt, aged 40, is tak­ing on the world for the rest of those women. She’s made it her “life’s work” to be­come a global voice for change – to al­ter the way so­ci­ety sees the per­fect body, to change the at­ti­tudes of body shamers,

and to teach women the value and power of lov­ing their bod­ies, no mat­ter how they look.

She’s not do­ing it solo. At her side – lit­er­ally five me­tres away sit­ting in a swivel chair in their sub­ur­ban Ade­laide of­fice – is Mathew, her hus­band of 14 years. He gave up a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in global lo­gis­tics to be­come the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Body Im­age Move­ment (BIM) – a “cru­sade to end the global body-hat­ing epi­demic”. The BIM ac­tivism group is fight­ing this univer­sal cause through so­cial media, pe­ti­tions and, most ef­fec­tively, through Taryn’s movie-length doc­u­men­tary, Em­brace, which fol­lows her jour­ney around the globe ex­plor­ing body im­age.

“Mat has a story of his own,” Taryn says of her hus­band. “He lived with me when I hated my body, when I didn’t want to go out and didn’t want to so­cialise.” He also stood by her when she pushed her­self through 15 in­ten­sive weeks of train­ing to en­ter a bodybuilding com­pe­ti­tion; when she was, he says, “a to­tal pain in the arse to live with… de­pleted, de­praved and ob­sessed.”

“He doesn’t want our kids to grow up in a world that sex­u­alises young girls and ob­jec­ti­fies women, or a world with stereo­types for boys to be mas­cu­line and buff,” says Taryn.

“Work­ing with each other every day is a new part­ner­ship we’re still get­ting our heads around. We are equally pas­sion­ate and bullish, so we might have to have more date nights dur­ing the week!”

Taryn, who spent a year liv­ing in Christchurch as a ho­tel mar­ket­ing man­ager be­fore she was mar­ried, also has the sup­port of her BIM am­bas­sadors – 800 women around the world, in­clud­ing 20 New Zealan­ders, who are spread­ing the mes­sage of pos­i­tive body im­age, and sim­ply be­ing pos­i­tive role mod­els.

Taryn is per­fectly fine go­ing out these days.

She has to be – she spends a lot of time trav­el­ling the world. When I spoke to her, she was head­ing off on a three-week Em­brace tour through North Amer­ica, and hop­ing to show off her dance moves on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

She is still a size 12, but now happy in her own skin, even if it is a lit­tle dim­pled and lumpy. But does she still have the odd day of self­loathing, or just a lit­tle rage at un­in­vited cel­lulite?

“No. Never,” she says. “My re­la­tion­ship with my body is very dif­fer­ent now. It’s not that I can’t ac­knowl­edge there are parts of my body that wob­ble or wig­gle. But now it’s how I feel about what this body does, and the grat­i­tude I feel for it.

“Be­fore, I would have looked at these legs and gone, ‘Oh they have got a bit of cel­lulite, they’re a bit fat around the thighs, and have stretch marks ev­ery­where.’ But now I look at them and think: ‘These legs have run a marathon! Even if it took me five-and-a-half hours, they are pretty amaz­ing legs! And these arms that wob­ble, they can hug my kids.’

“I think it’s a real gift to have that per­spec­tive. You have to love the things you have; don’t wait till it’s too late. It is some­thing that hap­pens as you get older – you ap­pre­ci­ate hav­ing a healthy or able body. If only we could tap into more of that in our 20s and 30s…”

It was in her 30s that Taryn re­ally strug­gled to get her head around the way she looked. By then she’d had three chil­dren – sons Oliver and Cruz, and daugh­ter Mikaela – and hated her “bro­ken body”. She was booked in with a plas­tic sur­geon who promised her perkier breasts and a slim­mer belly, un­til she looked at three-year-old Mikaela and asked her­self: “If I go through this, what am I say­ing to my daugh­ter?” Would she one day want to change her body too?

Even af­ter can­celling the surgery, it took Taryn time to come to the re­al­i­sa­tion that maybe she could still love her body with all its im­per­fec­tions. “It was like win­ning the golden ticket – hav­ing the knowl­edge to love and em­brace my body, when so many women are search­ing for the per­fect bikini body to find hap­pi­ness.”

When her friends be­gan to lament their chang­ing body shapes over a Sun­day lunch, Taryn went home and posted her topsy-turvy be­fore­and-af­ter pho­tos on Face­book. The first im­age was taken at the end of her 15-week flir­ta­tion

What sort of weird, warped world do we live in, when we can’t just be who we are?

ABOVE: Taryn and Mat with their three chil­dren.

with bodybuilding the year be­fore, which left her feel­ing empty and “im­bal­anced”; and the sec­ond was of a health­ier, hap­pier and curvier Taryn snapped six months af­ter. She wrote the words: Be loyal to your body, love your body, it’s the only one you’ve got.

The in­stant re­sponse was mind-blow­ing – more than three mil­lion likes; over 7000 mes­sages. It spurred other women to open up and share their own strug­gles with body ac­cep­tance and so­ci­ety’s ideal of beauty. Then there were other com­menters who were not so kind. Taryn was called fat and ugly, a lazy pig, and ac­cused of pro­mot­ing obe­sity.

“I was feel­ing a bit torn at first whether I should fight back. But it be­came pretty clear there were too many com­ments to re­ply to,” she says. “It quickly turned into some­thing that fu­elled me in a pos­i­tive way, made me want to do more, to start con­ver­sa­tions, and change peo­ple’s minds.”

She be­lieves she’s al­ready suc­ceed­ing. “Body shamers”, who once judged peo­ple on how they looked, have writ­ten to her ex­plain­ing how af­ter watch­ing her doc­u­men­tary, Em­brace, they’ve changed their tune.

“They now un­der­stand that health isn’t just phys­i­cal, it’s also men­tal and emo­tional,” Taryn says. “There’s al­ready a lit­tle more un­der­stand­ing out there, rather than peo­ple be­ing so of­fended by see­ing some­one who is larger, or a body that doesn’t con­form to what we of­ten see cel­e­brated as beauty or health.”

Since its re­lease in June last year, Em­brace has reached an au­di­ence of well over 100,000 in New Zealand, Aus­tralia, the United States and now the United King­dom. There were sold-out screen­ings in our ma­jor cities dur­ing the 2016 New Zealand In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

The in­spi­ra­tion to make the 90-minute movie came to Taryn af­ter she was in­vited to speak on tele­vi­sion shows, and re­alised she could make more of an im­pact with longer screen-time. With the help of crowd-fund­ing – which raised over $350,000 pledged by more than 9000 peo­ple – Taryn spent nine weeks trav­el­ling the world, meet­ing some of those who had mes­saged her and in­flu­en­tial women who also felt the pres­sure of con­form­ing to so­ci­ety’s un­re­al­is­tic stereo­types.

It’s a pow­er­ful story, told through the an­guish, frus­tra­tion and, in some cases, ac­cep­tance of other women. Mel­bourne model Stefania Fer­rario – who has fought to stop fash­ion houses la­belling mod­els “plus size” – saw young girls on the cat­walk eat­ing cot­ton balls to swell their stom­achs. Talk show host and Hair­spray ac­tress Ricki Lake re­sented hav­ing spent so much of her life hat­ing her­self in the mir­ror, but now calls her­self a shape-shifter: “I’m soft and I smell good.”

In the movie, Taryn ap­pears in a New York photo shoot with women of var­i­ous shapes and sizes, cap­tured by noted pho­tog­ra­pher and doc­u­men­tary maker B. Jef­frey Mad­off. “If there was more af­fec­tion and ac­cep­tance rather than crit­i­cism and vit­riol and point­ing, the world would be a bet­ter place,” Mad­off says.

Taryn, who spent 10 years as a pho­tog­ra­pher of chil­dren and fam­i­lies, found mak­ing Em­brace both re­ward­ing and dif­fi­cult, in her first en­counter as a screen­writer, di­rec­tor and pro­ducer. But again, she didn’t tackle it alone; among the ex­pe­ri­enced moviemak­ers on set was ac­claimed New Zealand ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Tim White (Ma­hana, Chas­ing Great, Pork Pie).

“The re­sponse to the film has been over­whelm­ing. We get hun­dreds of mes­sages every day from women around the world shar­ing their sto­ries and rev­e­la­tions af­ter watch­ing it – some heart­break­ing, some in­spir­ing,” Taryn says. “It’s do­ing what I wanted it to do – start­ing re­ally im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tions with lots of women around the world.”

There’s the classic ex­am­ple of an Aus­tralian mum who’d never been swim­ming with her four-year-old daugh­ter, fearing be­ing seen in a swim­suit in pub­lic. “She could have stayed as that woman sit­ting on the side­lines, not en­gag­ing in life,” Taryn says, “but then she sent me a photo of her do­ing a bomb in the pool!”

The Body Im­age Move­ment, now re­quir­ing the Brum­fitt’s full at­ten­tion, is also mak­ing a big splash. Among its ac­tions is an on­line pe­ti­tion call­ing for a law change in Aus­tralia, re­quir­ing im­ages where mod­els’ bod­ies have been dig­i­tally al­tered to be iden­ti­fied as such.

“France and Is­rael have passed those laws; why can’t we have them in New Zealand and Aus­tralia? On In­sta­gram, we’re now see­ing ev­ery­day peo­ple chang­ing their own pho­tos be­fore they post them. What sort of weird, warped world do we live in, when we can’t just be who we are? We’ve be­come so dis­con­nected about what life is like and what it should feel like, be­cause we are so con­cerned about how our bod­ies look,” Taryn says.

While so­cial media is recog­nised as one of the worst plat­forms for en­dors­ing neg­a­tive body ideals (best-sell­ing au­thor and girls’ lead­er­ship teacher Rachel Sim­mons calls it a “toxic mir­ror”), Taryn also sees it as a nec­es­sary evil. “Ten years ago, it would have been very hard for me to tell this story with­out so­cial media,” she says.

“So­cial media can be a very pos­i­tive thing if peo­ple make the right choices and take the re­spon­si­bil­ity to make sure their news feeds are filled with re­ally in­spir­ing peo­ple. It’s some­thing I talk to teenage girls about of­ten. I look at their news feeds and say: ‘Is this in­spir­ing you to be a bet­ter per­son; does this make you feel great today?’ Fill your feeds with pos­i­tiv­ity.”

In mea­sur­ing the suc­cess of her cru­sade, Taryn has a list of goals she hopes to achieve, none of them easy.

“Get­ting the mes­sage out to the 7.4 bil­lion peo­ple who live in the world will be my life’s work. It’s a big job.”

She hopes Em­brace and BIM may one day lead to a drop in the rates of eat­ing dis­or­ders, sui­cide, de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety re­lat­ing to body dis­sat­is­fac­tion. And a de­crease in cos­metic surg­eries. She also hopes it will have an im­pact on the op­po­site sex, and re­duce the use of steroids by teenage boys.

“I want to see an in­crease in women’s lead­er­ship roles and gen­der equal­ity. The women’s marches around the world in Jan­uary gave me goose-bumps – to see women in the world moved, con­nected and united,” she says.

“Look­ing back in his­tory, women’s roles in life have been based on how they look, how they present them­selves. This gen­er­a­tion of women has to let go of be­ing ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’, and re­alise our bod­ies are not or­na­ments. They are ve­hi­cles. Let’s use our bril­liant minds to come to­gether and con­trib­ute to the world.”

Taryn and Mat’s chil­dren are still young. Oliver is 10, Cruz eight, and Mikaela – the lit­tle girl who, un­know­ingly, turned her mother’s life around – is now seven. Do they com­pre­hend what a mover and shaker their mum has be­come and why she gets stopped in the su­per­mar­ket?

“When peo­ple ask them, ‘What is it your mummy does?’, all three kids say, ‘Mum teaches peo­ple how to love their bod­ies.’ But they’re kids, right? All they want to know is what’s for din­ner, and where are their soccer shoes. In terms of BIM or Em­brace, they don’t re­ally un­der­stand the enor­mity of it.

“But they’ve been great lit­tle helpers. We’ve trav­elled to­gether when we’ve re­leased the film, and they hand out fly­ers at the cinema. It’s great to share those mo­ments with them.”

One day, though, Mikaela will watch all of Em­brace and un­der­stand the mes­sage Taryn has for her: “There’s so much good­ness in the world and I can’t wait to share with you ev­ery­thing I have learned. In your life­time, there will be peo­ple who try to tell you that you need to change. But you don’t. Your pur­pose in life is not to be an or­na­ment to be looked at, but rather to do, feel, ac­com­plish and con­trib­ute. Dar­ling girl, don’t make my mis­takes. Don’t waste a sin­gle day of your life be­ing at war with your body. Just em­brace it!”

Taryn’s movie Em­brace is avail­able at some dvd stores and on­line.

This gen­er­a­tion of women has to let go of be­ing ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’ and re­alise our bod­ies are not or­na­ments.

ABOVE: The im­ages Taryn posted on so­cial media that brought her to the world’s at­ten­tion.

ABOVE: Taryn has made it her life’s work to take her mes­sage to the world and has al­ready trav­elled ex­ten­sively do­ing just that – with her char­ac­ter­is­tic ex­u­ber­ance.

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