Body Positive

Words by: Emma Howarth
Image above: Meg Hansen 

If you think body positivity is something that happens after you lose a few pounds, get your highlights done and finally find the perfect pair of jeans, it’s time to think again. The global body positive movement is here. Saying no to diets, £100 eye creams and cover-up swimwear, and yes to self-care, self-love and embracing the skin you’re in, right here and right now, is fast becoming the new religion.

Unhappy with her post-baby body, Taryn Brumfitt did what many of us do; embarked on a strict diet and exercise regime in a bid to get back into shape. It worked. In fact, it worked so well that she entered a body-building competition, showing off the fruits of her post-labour body on stage in a shiny silver bikini. But as messages from friends and family pinged into her inbox declaring her an inspiration, Taryn realised she felt anything but.

“I’d trained to get the perfect body. I had the perfect body but it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be,” she says. “I stood on stage with everyone looking at me and all I could think was ‘this isn’t worth it’. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life at war with my body and obsessed with what I looked like.”

The second she stepped off stage, she quit the regime and a few months later, posted an alternative before-and-after photograph on social media, which quickly went viral. The more it was shared the more women got in touch with her to tell their own stories of self-loathing and negative body image. “I had emails from women all over the world, all sharing the same sorts of stories, all feeling the same sort of body hatred I had experienced myself,” she says. “I felt a responsibility to do something about it.”

That something was Embrace, a crowd-funded documentary film featuring Amanda de Cadenet, Ricki Lake and body-confidence activist Harnaam Kaur, which explores the global issue of body loathing. If you haven’t seen it yet, it launches on iTunes this month, and is being screened by body positivity enthusiasts across the country as part of online community crusade the Body Image Movement’s ‘Embrace: The Union Project’.

One such enthusiast is Aimee Cooper, who recently put on a screening (one of the Union Project’s aims) for 30 local women at her home in Kent, with more screenings planned for later this year. “I first saw Embrace when Natalie Lee from [lifestyle blog] Style Me Sunday screened it in London and I was just blown away,” she says. “It was like a light bulb moment for me. Not just why am I wasting time feeling bad about my supposed ‘imperfections’, but why is anyone? I left determined to make sure as many people as possible see this life-changing film.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many women when they first see the documentary. Taryn’s Body Image Movement has over 251,000 Facebook followers and another 60,000 over on Instagram, many of them shouting as loud as they can about Embrace. “That’s the real beauty of it,” says Taryn. “The heart and soul of Embrace is that it is everyone’s film. There are women all over the world doing their best to get it and its message out there.”

That message is loud and clear, whether you’re a size six or a size 26, whatever colour your skin is, whether you have children or not, whether you’re 25 or 105 – it’s high time we said no to ‘new year, new you’, ‘getting your body back’, ageing paranoia and the diet industry.

“I haven’t met a single human being who has made a long-term positive, meaningful change for their health that has come from a place of shame or fear,” says Taryn. “You can’t look after something that you don’t love, and self-love and self-care are the keys to good health.”

Style Me Sunday blogger Natalie Lee couldn’t agree more. As well as putting on her own Embrace screening, she is behind the Warrior Woman Project, a social media campaign encouraging body positivity, especially among mothers. “After I had my first baby, I felt so bamboozled by the body I was now inhabiting, I vowed never to wear a bikini again,” she says. “But our bodies are amazing – they’ve done an amazing thing and it’s beautiful not disgusting. That’s why I’m passionate about putting normal images of post-natal bodies out there, so women don’t get sucked in to some of the unrealistic expectations portrayed in the media.”

Re-touching, airbrushing – even Instagram filters, we all know it’s happening but in those dark moments when we’re looking a little too closely in the bathroom mirror, it can be all too easy to forget. Have you ever looked at your stomach in disgust? Felt depressed after a flick through a gossip mag? Googled Botox in your lunch hour? Stayed on the beach in a kaftan rather than splash about in the sea with your children? If any of your answers are “yes”, you are not alone.

“There’s so much pressure out there, especially for mothers,” says Taryn. “Pressure to look young and bounce back. And really what that’s doing is robbing women of their joy. And when women have low self-esteem they’re just not going to put themselves out there or achieve their goals.”

It’s not just our own body image we need to work on, either. A 2016 study by the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years showed almost a third of nursery and school staff have heard a child label themselves fat. Ten per cent said they had heard a child say they felt ugly. Some of these children were as young as three years old.

More recently, the Children’s Commissioner for England published a report highlighting the “significant emotional risk” children face due to social media use, especially as they enter secondary school. The Life in Likes report showed that children aged eight to 12 who use social media become increasingly anxious about their online image and worried about their appearance.

Natalie makes a point of never weighing herself or talking about herself in a derogatory way in front of her children. “We talk a lot about self-love and being kind to yourself. It’s an important thing to model for children. It can feel like you’re constantly fighting fires as far as outside influences are concerned, though,” she says.

Taryn takes a similar approach. “To our children we are kings and queens,” she explains. “Everything we say is being absorbed by them. I teach my children to fuel their bodies with food that makes them feel great and to move their bodies for fun not because they have to.”

Taryn believes that even small tweaks in our communication can make a massive difference and suggests that if your daughter asks you if she looks pretty in a dress, you should try asking her what is she going to do in the dress instead. Likewise, if your son asks if he’s fat, try asking him if his body can run, jump, move and hug the people he loves, because if it can, it’s completely perfect.

“We need to move the focus away from looks as a source of worth,” she says. “Our bodies are not ornaments, they are vehicles for our dreams.”

We couldn’t agree more. Let’s make 2018 the year we embrace our bodies as they are, create shame-free zones in our homes and teach our children to challenge ‘perfect’ images they see on television, in magazines and online. Let’s wear that bikini, splash about in the sea, run because it feels great, eat because it’s delicious, stop saving things for best, start smiling at the mirror and do something far more interesting than worry about how we look.

Taryn’s Tips for Body Positivity

  • Move your body for pleasure not punishment
  • NO diets. Diet is a four-letter word where the first three letters spell DIE
  • Celebrate what your body can do and how it feels
  • Practise daily gratitude for all the things your body can do
  • Remember that ageing is a privilege denied to many

Changing mindsets starts today says Natalie Lee

  • Treat yourself like you would a friend. Be kind
  • Start taking compliments. Just say “thank you”
  • Curate your social media feeds. If something makes you feel bad, hit the unfollow button
  • Focus on things you like about yourself when you look in the mirror
  • But also get in touch with your body. Look at and touch the bits you think you don’t like. Switch negative thoughts for positive ones.

Embrace is available to watch on iTunes now.