There’s still a lot of people out there that deny the effect that the media has on women, who are bombarded with literally thousands of altered images of already (conventionally) beautiful women every day. They’ll say “oh we all know magazine images are photoshopped and Instagram has Facetune”, but if you’re not completely comfortable in your skin – and honestly, who is? – then a little self-hatred can easily creep in after a flick through Vogue or your photo feed.
Many studies provide crucial data that connect these images to negative outcomes for young girls in particular, and at an age when things are already pretty hard. It has been said that three of the most common mental-health problems among girls (eating disorders, depression or depressed mood/self-esteem) are linked directly to the presentation of women in the media. I was disturbed to learn that fifty three percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies, and that by the time they reach 17, girls have seen 250,000 TV commercials telling them they should aspire to be that little bit “sexier”, or have a body size they can never achieve. Over thirty percent of high school girls (and 16 percent of high school boys) in the US suffer from disordered eating, and adolescent girls are more afraid of gaining weight than getting cancer, losing their parents or nuclear war. Lastly, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, which is a goddamn depressing fact in itself!
Which brings me to the subject of tonight’s documentary, EMBRACE. In 2012, now-filmmaker and body activist Taryn Brumfitt had an epiphany. Contemplating impending plastic surgery that would hoik her boobs back to their teenage position and put paid to her post-baby belly, the Aussie mother-of-three wondered what her actions were saying to her children, especially her daughter. "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?", she recounted on her blog. She cancelled the surgery but still had to deal with a body that she didn't love and parts she actively "detested". Then she wondered, what would happen if she could live happily with her body as it was? And if she could, how could she then help other women to think the same way?
It led the former photographer to found the Body Image Movement, which is aimed at encouraging women to be more accepting of who they are, prioritising health before beauty and objecting to unrealistic body images in the media. Its importance became even more apparent when Brumfitt posted an unconventional before-and-after photo in 2013, which was seen by more than 100 million people worldwide and sparked an international media frenzy. The "before" photo shows her grimacing in peak hard-bodied body-builder mode, while the "after" has a happy and relaxed, more curvy Brumfitt. Unsurprisingly, it attracted plenty of criticism and nastiness, and the idea for EMBRACE was born.
The film follows Taryn's crusade as she explores the global issue of body loathing, talking to a huge variety of women about how they see themselves. Her compelling group of talking heads includes actor and talk-show host Ricki Lake discussing body image and Hollywood, and an incredibly candid Amanda de Cadenet on what it was like living with tabloid scrutiny at the age of 18 (“The message I took from it was that if you were thinner you were better … these days I’d say if you want to eat the biscuit, eat the fucking biscuit”). EMBRACE also introduces us to women who have seen their bodies change in dramatic ways beyond their control, like breast cancer survivor Turia Pitt, who suffered burns to 65 percent of her body when she was caught in a bushfire. Brumfitt also talks to a plastic surgeon who spends a large amount of time telling her that her post-pregnancy nipples “should be up here” (“I took one for the team there,” she says) and magazine editors who talk frankly about the way in which the perfect face and body are sold to the world.
For many, the film won't really be saying or offering up anything new, but its refreshingly free of gimmicks and reinforces once again how global the problem of body shaming and self-loathing has become. Highly accessible, snappy (at 90 minutes) and humourous when needed, it’s an important watch for every woman who’s ever looked in the mirror and hated what they saw – and those raising the next generation.
EMBRACE premieres Thursday 27 April at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel
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