In our MECCA M-Powered interview series, fearless people from around the globe share their incredible stories – from overcoming adversity to following their passions and inspiring a future generation of changemakers.
With International Women’s Day falling on March 8, we sat down to interview the 2023 Australian of the Year, body image activist Taryn Brumfitt.
Content warning: the following interview contains references to disordered eating, excessive exercise and mental health – these themes may be confronting for some readers.
Given she’s set to change the lives of millions of kids, it’s a relief to hear that body image activist, author, speaker and director Taryn Brumfitt has a lot of energy – even more, she says, than her four kids! This year might just be her most energetic yet; it’s only March, and she’s already been named Australian of the Year, married the love of her life and set the ambitious goal of getting her Embrace Kids Classroom Program in front of 1 million children by the close of 2023. If anyone can do it, it’s Brumfitt.
“People often say to me, ‘Where do you get all your energy from?’ I'm really proud that I've probably got more energy than all four of my kids put together. I suspect a big part of that is because I don’t have the mental load any more of hating my body. I am the same person living in an older body, and I feel better now than I did 10 years ago when I was hating it. I truly believe that is because I'm just not weighed down by negative thoughts,” she explains.
It's about time body image was taken seriously – because none of us are immune from negative thoughts about our bodies. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say we’ve all either struggled with disordered eating or known someone who has. We’ve all experienced that feeling of being not-quite-good-enough while looking at a magazine cover. We’ve all wondered, at some point in our lives, why it is that the desire for perfection has taken control of our mind.
It’s why, when Brumfitt was named 2023 Australian of the Year by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, people everywhere celebrated – not only for themselves, but for their children and future generations. They felt heard. They felt validated. Finally, a bright spotlight was shone on a serious issue (and in some cases, life-threatening; of all psychiatric illnesses, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate).
There’s a reason Brumfitt rightly calls body image a “paediatric health emergency” – 70 percent of Australian kids cite body image as their number-once concern. What’s more, says Brumfitt, kids who experience body dissatisfaction are 24 times more likely to be depressed or have anxiety.
Taryn Brumfitt’s body journey
Without even realising, many of us engage in body shaming activities: standing on the beach and feeling self-conscious about going for a swim, depriving ourselves of food or over-exercising. Brumfitt has done all of the above, and her journey to embracing her body certainly didn’t happen overnight. There was a time, not so long ago, when Brumfitt found herself sitting in a plastic surgeon’s office to discuss a tummy tuck and breast augmentation.
It was her daughter Mikayla who stopped her. “I looked at her and I thought, how am I going to teach Mikayla to love and embrace her body if I can't [embrace mine]?” While Brumfitt is not against cosmetic surgery, she felt she wanted the procedures for the wrong reasons and didn’t go through with them. Instead, she threw herself into the world of bodybuilding and in just over 10 weeks, lost 15kg and competed in a local competition.
However, standing on the stage with a body society would deem ‘perfect’, she didn’t feel the joy she expected because the ‘perfect body’ had come with a high cost: it had meant weeks of restriction, deprivation and over-exercising. “I was really unhappy,” she reveals. “I couldn't have any chocolate. I couldn't have any wine. I felt deprived. Getting up there on that stage, in that body that I had thought was going to be nirvana, it wasn't. I guess that's what happens when you try to have a different body shape from the one that you've been given.”
After the competition, she stopped bodybuilding and posted a before-and-after photo. Only, the before photo was Brumfitt standing on stage in a bikini with society’s version of a ‘perfect’ body, while the after photo featured Brumfitt sitting on a stool, naked, smiling – and with a body that wasn’t subjected to rigorous rules. It was her idea of a perfect body. The message was clear: find your natural body and embrace it. The photos went viral, and without even intending it, Brumfitt became a face for body positivity all over the world – and that’s what made her determined to change how we all think about our bodies.
She founded The Body Image Movement, and in 2016, made her debut as a director with her documentary EMBRACE. In 2022, the film EMBRACE KIDS launched, exploring the relationship children have with their bodies and covering topics including social media, disability, gender identity, representation and diversity (Brumfitt worked with high-profile performers like Teresa Palmer and Celeste Barber on the film).
The learning starts young
For Brumfitt, her work centres around giving children an "armour" to protect themselves from the negative messages they see in advertising and social media: “First and foremost, role modelling positive body image behaviour is really important because kids are soaking up everything that we say,” she explains. “And it's not just about what we say – it’s about showing them as well. Show, don’t tell.”
The Embrace Kids Classroom Program – a curriculum-aligned resource available free to all primary and secondary schools in Australia – centres on evidence-based activities shown to have a broad-spectrum effect on promoting body and mental wellbeing. “One of the key focuses of the program is the development of self-compassion, because being more compassionate and less critical of ourselves is associated with improved body image and mental health outcomes, as well as lower levels of anxiety, depression, stress and eating disorders,” Brumfitt says.
Changing words, changing lives
Moving beyond the mind, changing behavioural patterns is also a pillar of the program. For women and girls in particular, weight is often a point of discussion when catching up, and can even dominate the conversation; phrases like “You’ve lost weight!”, “I’m on a diet” and “I feel so fat at the moment” can make frequent appearances.
Brumfitt advocates “taking weight out of the conversation”: “It’s about opening up a new conversation, a new dialogue. Also, having some pacts with our friends: ‘Can we never talk about this stuff again? Can we never talk negatively about our own bodies or the bodies of others ever again? Can we not talk about weight loss or weight gain ever again?’
“It opens up far more important, interesting conversations. I've sat at the table with women who talk about the bodies. At one time in my life, I was right there talking about the diet or talking about going on holiday and wanting to look good. I've done it, but thank goodness I'm not doing it anymore. I say that without judgment, but there's this real ‘goddess energy’ that comes when you’re not talking about any of that stuff!” she reveals.
However, these conversations won’t change overnight; Brumfitt is firm in the belief that embracing your body is complicated and there’s often a lot of work to do. “As women, we've been deeply conditioned to value ourselves on the basis of how we think other people think we look,” she explains. “It's like we think of ourselves as a product on a shelf and focus on how shiny and perfect we are, rather than what we do.
We can start to gently reframe the relationship we have with our body and our appearance so that becomes less important than who we're being or what we are doing in the world.
“Research is showing that practising and building self-compassion and reducing our critical self-talk can be really powerful in terms of making progress towards being really neutral in our bodies and boosting our feelings of self-worth.”
Ultimately, the message of The Body Image Movement is simple: in a world where we know we need to be grateful for every day, is hating our bodies really how we want to spend our precious time? Embracing your body might be a lifelong journey, but it’s one we can all start today, knowing that we’re in it together. And with women like Brumfitt leading the charge, we’re in very good hands.
To find out more about Body Image Movement, go to bodyimagemovement.com.
MECCA M-POWERED is an interview series brought to you by MECCA M-POWER, our social change program focused on educating, elevating and empowering women and girls every day. Learn more here.