Written by Standard Issue


Body of evidence

When Taryn Brumfitt posted controversial ‘after and before’ pics on Facebook, they went viral. Here’s what she did next.

Taryn Brumfitt

Photo by Katherine Schultz, courtesy of Peppermint magazine.

Next week my fourth child, I mean my documentary, Embrace, is released in the UK and Ireland. I am thrilled. Not just to share the film but also to participate in the very important conversation about body image that is happening worldwide.

In the UK (as around the globe), studies have shown how people with poor body image are more likely to lack self-esteem, making them vulnerable to peer and partner pressure; more likely to be depressed; more likely to use risky coping strategies and self-soothing behaviours to control their weight.

But this kind of body image dissatisfaction – and the issues associated with it – has never been just an academic issue for me. It’s been a personal struggle; one that led to those before and after pictures that caused such a stir and changed my life.

After having three children, I hated myself so much I decided to have surgery to ‘fix’ my ‘broken’ body. But one day, while watching my young daughter, Mikaela, playing, I had an epiphany: “If I do have that boob job and tummy tuck, what message will I be sending to Mikaela?”

“If I have surgery to change my body, will Mikaela want to change hers?”

After a bit of soul searching, I decided not to have the surgery. But, there I was, still stuck with a body I hated. That’s when I made the crazy decision to enter a bodybuilding competition in order to get that ‘perfect’ bikini body that was sure to make me happy.

I’d exercised before. How hard could it be? Pretty hard. Training was gruelling, but I stuck with it and 15 sweat-and-tear-filled-weeks later I walked across that stage in my teeny tiny silver bikini. Fantastic.

My friends and people I knew applauded me as “inspirational” and “amazing,” but all I could think of was how unhappy I was. Sure, I finally had the perfect body I wanted but what I’d learned in the process: well, maybe it wasn’t so perfect after all. Training endlessly at the gym, obsessing over my weight, restricting my diet and never feeling ‘present’ in life wasn’t much fun. I’d accomplished my goal, but at what cost?

That’s when I began to think that perhaps I shouldn’t think of my body not as an ornament but rather as the ‘vehicle’ to my dreams. Training is fine, but why do it as a punishment? Why not for enjoyment? Sure, run up a hill, but run for the pleasure and satisfaction of getting to the top and not because of all the calories it will burn. Eat food for enjoyment, not for weight loss.

“I never posted the photos as a stunt. I posted them to highlight what was and is a very serious problem, one that is killing many people.”

After the competition I naturally put some weight back on (that lifestyle was not sustainable) and one day several girlfriends asked me how I ended up making peace with my ‘after’ body. Peace? I was happy, healthy and content; what was there to make peace about?

Later on it dawned on me that what they valued most highly was their physical health and the way they measured that health was by how they looked. This got me thinking about how health is not just physical, it’s mental, spiritual and emotional and I was reminded of all those ‘before and after’ photos I’d seen (and admired) in magazines.

“Hang on a sec,” I thought. “We demonise the ‘before’ and glorify the ‘after’, when the ‘after’ isn’t all that glorious.”

That night, without giving it too much thought, I posted my non-traditional ‘before and after’ photos on Facebook. Before: my bikini body. After: my natural and normal self with a few more rolls and folds.

taryn's 'before and after' shots
Within minutes, the computers and phones in the house were pinging like crazy as friends started texting me: “Taryn WTF?” (Those photos have now been seen by more than 100m people and Ashton Kutcher even tweeted, “This is good for the world.”)

The media storm that followed was unbelievable. Interview requests came from all over the world and I started to be introduced as ‘internet sensation Taryn Brumfitt’. But after six months in the spotlight I became frustrated with that title. I never posted the photos as a stunt. I posted them to highlight what was and is a very serious problem, one that is killing many people. The rate of suicide, depression and anxiety related to body dissatisfaction is an issue I didn’t want lost or glossed over because I was just an ‘internet sensation’.

I decided I needed to tell my story on my terms (not in four-minute TV interviews). And it’s not just my story. It’s the story of women, girls (and men and boys) all over the planet. Having been a photographer for 12 years, I figured I could make a documentary. How hard could it be?

Two years and a lot more blood, sweat and tears later Embrace was born. But not just the documentary; the mission that helped shape the documentary and that led to me founding the Body Image Movement: to harness and facilitate positive body image activism to create a shift in how people think about their bodies and value themselves.

When I learned to love my body after I had loathed it for years I felt like I’d won the golden ticket. I made Embrace because I want other women to experience this same joy and freedom; the sweet feeling of what it means to embrace yourself.

It’s a feeling that’s too good not to share, which is why I know that when you watch Embrace you will be moved by women all across the globe who will rock your world and, quite possibly, inspire you to change your life.

See Embrace in cinemas across the UK from 16 January.


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Written by Standard Issue