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No more diets or self hate: How a nude Facebook photo showed women how to love their bodies

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 24/04/2017 Colby Itkowitz

Taryn Brumfitt © Courtesy of The Body Image Movement Taryn Brumfitt Caution: This article contains revealing images that may be offensive to some viewers.

Several years ago, after a conversation with girlfriends about how much they hated their bodies, Taryn Brumfitt did something impulsive and out of character: She posted a before and after photo of her body on Facebook (see below).

Turning the traditional post-weight-loss gimmick on its head, her before shot showed her in a bikini, toned and thin, at a body building competition. The after was a naked picture, curves and all, once she’d stopped torturing herself to have the so-called perfect body. That a woman would celebrate her post-weight-gain body was so novel that her post was viewed millions of times and became headline news worldwide.

Yes, that’s right. A woman not hating her body was news.

The Australian mother of three didn’t set out to be a global spokesperson for body positivity, but since the day she put her nude photo on social media in April 2013 for all the world to see (see the before and after here), her entire life’s focus has changed, sending her on a whirlwind, international quest to talk to women about their self-image and encourage them to “embrace” their bodies at any size.

Taryn Brumfitt in her “before” picture that she posted on Facebook. © Courtesy of The Body Image Movement Taryn Brumfitt in her “before” picture that she posted on Facebook. For Brumfitt, 38, her acceptance came after years of yo-yo diets and self-recrimination. Like so many women, she spent countless hours crying in front of the mirror, avoiding social situations because she hated how she looked. She was caught in the all-too-familiar cycle of either deprivation to achieve a thinner figure or a hateful inner dialogue that called her fat and disgusting. Both made her miserable, and neither allowed her to be present in her life.

But it was after she became a mother that her body image really suffered. After the birth of her third child, she struggled to lose the baby weight and ultimately decided to have cosmetic surgery to flatten her stomach and lift her breasts. But one day, she says, she looked at her young daughter and thought about what kind of message it would send to her that her own mother couldn’t love herself. So instead of surgery, Brumfitt decided to try a little social experiment. She enrolled in a body building competition and spent the next several months aggressively training and dieting.

She achieved the so-called ideal body. She stood on stage at that competition in a tiny bikini looking every bit like a glamorous cover model. But she wasn’t happy. In that moment, she gave herself permission to stop.

“You can do what you’ve done and you can spend your life in battle and feelings of shame and guilt, or you can make a choice to commit and embrace. Eventually, you get to a place where truly my body is not an ornament, it gets me through life,” Brumfitt said in an interview. “We’ve lost our way that our cellulite defines us and should be cause for concern in our everyday lives. That’s the perspective we have to tap into.”

From a simple Facebook post meant for her friends, Brumfitt has now made a documentary, “Embrace,” traveling the world talking to women about their struggles with body shame. In it, she talks to women of all ages, sizes and ethnicities on the street who each have something negative to say about their bodies. In one scene, she asks former talk show host Ricki Lake if she has ever wondered what it would feel like not to worry about her weight, to which Lake responds, “I have no idea what that would be like.”

For the past week or so, Brumfitt has been screening her film across North America with a goal of having 1 million women see it. She has even started giving women $10 on the street randomly and asking them to use the money to download and watch it. She asks that if they feel inspired by it, they give another woman $10 to do the same.

“The whole purpose of our lives is not to be on a diet merry-go-round,” Brumfitt said. “We’re here to contribute, connect with one another. That’s what our lives are meant to be, not all this other misery.”

Her critics say she’s promoting obesity or an unhealthy lifestyle, but she says it is quite the opposite. Once she stopped obsessing about having a perfect body, being active and eating better no longer felt like a chore or punishment, she says. She no longer has society’s interpretation of the perfect body, as depicted in advertisements and magazine covers, but she’s far happier and healthier.

It’s hard to make positive lifelong changes from a place of shame or guilt, she says. But when the focus is self-care and self-esteem, the byproduct is better health, both physically and mentally.

And she’s right. Research has shown that body shaming can lead to worse health long term. In one study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in July 2015, women with poor body image reported higher incidents of physical health symptoms such as headaches and nausea. Another study found that women who were self-critical and felt depressed about their bodies were more likely to binge eat.

For Brumfitt, the decision to stop chasing an ideal was not only liberating, but she says it has allowed her to use that freed-up brain space to focus on her new advocacy role. If she could take on such a mission, she wonders, “what about all of that other untapped potential that lies dormant in women?”

That’s why she wants to show women how much more there is to life than how they look.

“Women can’t put themselves forward if they’re anchored down by how they look. If you’re struggling from low self-esteem, how can you back yourself? How can you put your hand up and ask for more?” she said. “We have so much to contribute to the world and it starts with us. Women have to start with themselves.”

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