June 19, 2020
People & Places

Taryn Brumfitt: Positive charge

Taryn Brumfitt is a powerhouse of positive energy who has been changing the world’s notion of the body beautiful. Now, she’s set her sights on shaping young minds, through her latest documentary. 

It’s been seven years since Taryn Brumfitt burst onto the Internet with her striking “before and after” photos, turning the notion of “body beautiful” on its head.

Her “before” photo showed a slim, toned Taryn posing in a bikini during a bodybuilding competition. Her “after” photo showed Taryn sitting naked on a stool, proudly showing off all her lumps and bumps. 

These striking images, side by side, delivered a powerful message from a woman who refused to be at war with her body any longer: striving for the perfect body does not bring happiness — what does is loving the skin you’re in.

It was raw, refreshing and real, and it struck a chord with people all over the world.  

Today, more than 200 million people have seen that before and after post, an impact that Taryn still finds “mind-blowing”.

“I just wanted to show that it is possible to love a version of yourself that’s not stereotypically ‘perfect’,” she says. “We’re so conditioned to think that losing weight will lead to happy ever after, and that just wasn’t the case for me.”

“I finally realised the value of just embracing my body and being grateful for all the incredible things it can do.” 

While her epiphany was enlightened, it had been a long road to self-acceptance for the 42-year-old former professional photographer. 

After having her children, Oliver, 13, Cruz, 11 and Mikaela, 10, Taryn loathed her body — the rolls, sags and stretch marks. She would gaze into the mirror and feel disgusted. So, she initially booked in for a tummy tuck and breast surgery, but then decided to take up bodybuilding instead. 

She starved herself, became a gym junkie and lost 15 kilos. Yet, at the end of the day, as she stood on that stage showing off her bodybuilding physique, Taryn realised the key to self-love and self-respect was self-acceptance, not the perfect body. 

So, she stopped. A few months later, Taryn had her “after” photo taken, posted the two images online and became a global sensation overnight, with chat show hosts, newspapers, magazines and worldwide media clamouring to interview her.

But Taryn wanted to achieve more than 15 minutes of fame – she wanted to achieve long-lasting change around issues of positive body image. So, riding the wave of support, she established Body Image Movement, travelling the world spreading her message of self-acceptance and gratitude as she seeks to “end the global body-hating epidemic”. Her motto is “your body is not an ornament, it is the vehicle to your dreams”.

She’s also written books, Embrace Yourself, a children’s book called Embrace Your Body, aimed at three to five-year-olds, and Embrace, which was made into a documentary now available in 190 countries.

Hollywood celebrities including Ashton Kutcher are fans, tweeting “this is good for the world”, and she has other famous names on board including Olivia Newton-John and actor Teresa Palmer, who is now a close friend. 

Several years down the track, Taryn’s message continues to resonate. She is in demand as a motivational speaker and she now has more than half a million followers on social media. 

Sitting in the courtyard of the South Australian Film Corporation where her office is now based, Taryn says she’s barely had time to reflect on all the success and achievements as she’s too busy planning ahead.

“We’ve impacted millions of people but there are billions of people yet to reach,” she says. “What’s changed me the most is not the publicity and the magazine covers or being on Good Morning America or The Doctors. What’s changed me is finding unconditional love and respect for my home, my body. That has been the most powerful and life changing, joy-inducing thing.

“It’s extraordinary what’s happened since learning to embrace. It’s the reason I get out of bed every day, as I work out how can I spread this to the next person? It’s such a good feeling and I want every woman, man and child, to experience the freedom.”

Driven and determined, Taryn’s now set her sights on educating children through a new documentary called Embrace Kids. She’s pulled together a powerhouse creative team made up of former Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja, comedian Celeste Barber and Teresa Palmer, who are creating the film aimed at 8-12 year olds. It will be given to schools globally as a free resource.

The impetus for the new project came after Taryn took her Embrace documentary into schools and spoke to young people about their body image.

“What I was finding was that some 14 and 15-year-olds hated their bodies and had felt that way for five, six or seven years; both boys and girls,” she says. “It almost felt like I was speaking to them too late. Even showing them a film as powerful and impactful as Embrace, it just felt like it was too late. 

“I remember leaving a school one day and just wiping my tears away because I’m so connected to this subject, and also having three kids of my own, I think no child should consider that body image is their number one issue and yet 70 per cent of Australian school kids say it is. Seventy per cent!”

Taryn says it is a melting pot of issues that have brought us to this place, including the media, social media, the sexualisation of girls in advertising, the objectification of women, as well as steroid use in young boys and the idea of hyper-masculinity.

“For me, the other major issue is how we value another human being,” she says. “Let’s look at who our role models are and why. Kids are following people on Instagram and these people haven’t really contributed to the world in a meaningful way, and yet they will follow and absorb everything they say and do for no other reason than their lips, face or bum. It’s all based on the way they look, and it’s so superficial.

“I truly think it’s where the disconnect is, not just for kids but for humanity. We’ve become so technologically advanced that it’s had an enormously detrimental effect on our mental health and physical wellbeing and I think we’re all feeling it. Phones and screens have taken over our lives and I think it has disconnected us from how we feel and fit in the world.”

Embrace Kids, which starts production in May, also has educational and health professionals on board, including Dr Zali Yager from Victoria University and Dr Ivanka Prichard from Flinders University, who are working with Taryn to ensure the film’s content is safe and effective in the classroom.

“These doctors conducted a global study, which was published in the British Columbia Medical Journal, on the impact of Embrace, and it’s so exciting because it reflects what I’ve seen anecdotally,” Taryn says. “I receive tens of thousands of messages from people who talk about the impact that documentary has had on their lives, but now we have the data that shows it.

“So, what we have discovered is that when you embrace your body, you’re more likely to look after your body. We know that kids who embrace their bodies are less likely to take illicit drugs and less likely to smoke and drink. That is one statistic that we know.”

Taryn also has plans for an Embrace Men film, admitting that while she has an enormous amount of energy, it’s still tough to find enough hours in the day. She balances her hectic work commitments with keeping the family on track.

“When I get up the first thing I do is go around and kiss all three of my children and wake them up with our dog, Chico,” she says.

“The kids know what I do and they’re very supportive. They have a laugh when they see my books in the store, but my kids are just my kids. They go with the flow and are pretty relaxed.

“They’re just like, ‘what’s for dinner and I need to go to soccer practice’.”

Taryn says it’s the feedback she gets during her public speaking engagements that inspires her to work harder.

“There are times now where I find myself on stage in front of hundreds of people and I love it, but it’s actually not about me, it’s about them and it’s about sharing stories,” she says. 

“One of my KPIs is watching people laugh and cry and then getting a standing ovation, that is my trifecta of a great keynote speech, because I just love watching the penny drop and people having a real ‘a-ha’ moment.”

Ultimately, Taryn says she’d love to put herself out of a job, meaning all of the issues have been addressed, but that doesn’t seem likely.

“I’m going to have work until the day I die,” she says. “All you have to do is look at the statistics. We keep an eye on the rates of eating disorders, the increase in steroid use in young boys, mental health issues, obesity. There’s a whole bunch of metrics that we look at and we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Taryn says one of the highlights of her Embrace experience so far was being asked to speak at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley, her appearance live-streamed to every Google office in the world. She was also a finalist in the 2019 Australian of the Year Awards, the same year she was named in The Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence awards, as well as being crowned the 2018 SA winner for Excellence in Women’s Leadership.

While the accolades are welcomed, Taryn says the true measure of success is “doing what you love to do every day, making an impact on the world and doing it surrounded by the people you love”.

People she’d love to work with in coming years include Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, singer Sam Smith and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Another person on her wish list to interview for Embrace was Turia Pitt, the former Australian of the Year who made a miraculous recovery after being badly burnt while competing in an ultra marathon in the Australian outback in 2011. Taryn had been trying in vain to contact Turia, but she was not deterred.

“I knew she was speaking at General Electric in Melbourne so I jumped on a plane and I flew there, knowing Turia would be leaving there to go back to the airport, so I jumped in the back of her car. We’d had a photo and a ‘hello’ before that, so she knew who I was but she was a bit surprised! But she also was very open to hear what I had to say about Embrace and we ended up having lunch together at the airport.

“Another life motto of mine is ‘polite persistence wears down resistance’. You just keep going.”

Getting people to look inwards and stop the negative, demoralising self-talk remains at the heart of Embrace and Taryn remains passionate about her messages of love and acceptance.

“How can you be all you want to be in the world and, probably more importantly, what the world needs you to be, if you are allowing this internal dialogue to hold you back?” she says.

“How are you going to feel the strength and the power and have a vision and take people with you on that journey if, before you are on stage, you’re worrying about the size of your arms. It doesn’t work. It’s like oil and water. It needs to stop.

“I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting some incredible leaders around the world and to be honest I’ve never heard any of the men I’ve met talk about their stretch marks or the size of their bum. 

“If we truly want to step into our power as a woman, as leaders, as wives, mothers, and friends, then we need to understand the value of self-acceptance and self-love.” 

 

This story first appeared in the April 2020 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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