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Embrace

Year: 2016
Production Co: Body Image Movement
Director: Taryn Brumfitt
Writer: Taryn Brumfitt
Cast: Taryn Brumfitt, Amanda De Cadenet, Ricki Lake, Stefania Ferrario

There are a lot of interesting things in this documentary, but it's not a very new or interesting idea in itself. That doesn't make much sense but let me explain.

It's far from the first cultural artefact (book/movie/etc) to lament the impossible beauty standards the world demands of women because of the fashion and advertising industries, the society we raise girls in and myriad other factors – that's a debate we've been having throughout the media age.

Yet every new entry into the debate no matter what the era is framed as if it's something that's never been noticed before and is only now getting particularly insidious because of social media, TV advertising or countless other evils we've identified.

It also reminded me a bit of all the people falling all over themselves to praise Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel because we were finally getting kick ass representations of strong, independent women on screen – hadn't they ever seen Aliens, Star Wars, The Hunger Games, The Matrix, The Terminator, Breakfast at Tiffany's, His Girl Friday or countless others?

In the same way, I can only surmise the talks shows and Instagram fans that swirled up around South Australian mother of three Taryn Brumfitt and her branding had never heard of Demi Moore's pregnant Vanity Fair cover, that Get Real campaign from Dove soap or the writing of Naomi Wolf or Germaine Greer.

Brumfitt became a viral sensation when she posted two pictures of herself side by side, one of her at her shining best in a body building competition and the other with all the bumps, sags and wrinkles of a woman her age plainly and proudly on show.

The first interesting thing it made me think about that the movie probably didn't intend was that it's the same picture I'm sure thousands of body-positive women post online every day, yet somehow, thanks to the strange and unknowable gods of algorithms in social media and search platforms, it was Brumfitt that became famous the world over for doing it during this particular 15 minutes of history.

The movie starts with her telling her story alongside stills and footage of her enjoying time with her young family – about how she'd always felt the same pressure all girls and women do to be beautiful and watch what she ate, etc, how she almost got plastic surgery to regain her body confidence but opted for body building at the last minute, then started to question how accepted standards of beauty should be making her feel confident anyway. She posted her soon-to-be famous comparison picture, it blew up, she got invited onto every talk show there is and the rest is history.

The structure of the movie is of her (presumably along with a small camera and sound crew) travelling the world talking to interesting people about body image and positivity. There's a French actress feeling the pinch of the constant demands to be beautiful, a young Englishwoman with a condition that gives her a full beard but has come to an inspiring level of peace with it, former US TV talk show maven Ricki Lake, British socialite Amanda De Cadenet and her history of being a tabloid target because of changes in her weight, burn victim Turia Pitt, former Cosmopolitan editor Mia Freedman and many more.

It all adds up to a series of messages that are perfectly worthy but I felt like I'd seen countless times before – your relationships with others and not your obsession with yourself are what will sustain you in life, and to not love yourself and everything's that wrong with you – real or imagined – will mean you'll never find peace in your life. So far, so politically and socially worthy, and no right minded man or woman should find themself disagreeing with any of it.

But as they say in the health field, it's all about pathways, and I was more interested by the several conclusions arrived at, sometimes by her talking heads and sometimes by Brumfitt herself. I found many of them to be completely wrong, cherry picked to support a thesis and as such, kind of apportioning blame for the problem the film is addressing to things that might not even exist.

In one example, respected sociologist Melinda Tankard Reist talks about how young boys grow up objectifying women thanks to the influence of their media interests. She singles out the way you can have sex with a prostitute in your car in Grand Theft Auto 5 and then shoot them dead when they go to leave to take your money back. To me that has far less to do with boys objectifying women and body positivity in women than how our economy gives parents less time to supervise their children and how game consoles and YouTube consequently raise their kids.

Mia Freedman talks about her efforts as editor of one of the most influential magazines in Australia to feature more diverse body shapes on her covers and admits that advertisers resisted, but nobody goes further into the fact that the kind of models that make magazine covers don't generally appeal sexually to most men, so there's some other imperative there besides the male gaze (which is implicated at several other points in the film).

She also utters the biggest clanger in the whole movie, claiming that magazine circulation is 'in the toilet' because women are sick of starving, waxing and torturing themselves to attain advertisied body shapes based on those of pre-teen girls. Of all people she should know they're in the toilet because we all gave up magazines after we got Facebook and Google (and there's as much of that body shaming and hatred online as there ever was in tabloids, something that's little disputed).

Online hatred is also mentioned more than once, buying into the common assumption that every time a woman stands up who looks different or has something different to say, virtually every human being on Earth is ready to shame, harass or threaten her. But I don't think the vitriol the online world is know for is as widespread across populations as we think.

I don't mean there aren't countless people who are racist, sexist or claim George Lucas raped their childhoods. I just believe they're in a minority, and as I've written every time I get the chance, the internet has a way of amplifying hatred from a few fringes and making us think everyone else around us is some kind of bile-spewing monster who hates woman/black people/transgendered people/etc. I'll actually bet most people in the world nodded their heads appreciately and quietly said to themselves 'you go girl' when Brumfitt posted her famous pic.

All of which leaves us with the same very important sociological question we've always had, because I don't think the movie answers it. Something is putting extraordinary – sometimes fatal – pressure on women to adhere to impossible beauty standards. But it's been an urgent question in our culture since at least the second wave feminism of the 70s. I was in nappies back then and I'm about to turn 50 and it hasn't gone anywhere, so I don't think the usual reasons we attribute to it (videogames, magazines, advertising, social media, etc, etc, etc) are as obvious as a lot of people think.

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