On Wednesday, I went with a bunch of my book club pals to see “Embrace”, a 2016 documentary by Australian documentary filmmaker and photographer Taryn Brumfitt. It was a special private screening organized by Nina Manolson, a Boston-area health and wellness coach. The event was sold out, and we stood in a long line with a varied groups of (mostly) other women. When we entered the theater, we had the opportunity to have our pictures taken. How could we say no?
Now to the movie: It centers around the experience of the filmmaker Taryn Brumfitt, who became a social media focal point in 2013 around the following story (from a review, found here):
The project began in 2013 when Brumfitt, an Adelaide photographer and mother of three, posted a before and after photos of herself on Facebook. The ‘before’ shot showed her muscled and tanned, wearing a bodybuilder’s gold bikini and high heels. The ‘after’ shot revealed her laughing and naked (tastefully posed), her body now soft and natural and bearing the obvious signs of motherhood. The message was simple: this ‘fatter’ body was okay.
The image went viral, even shared by the likes of Ashton Kucher. Seen by more than 100 million people worldwide, it caused an international media frenzy with Brumfitt being extensively interviewed and profiled. Apparently an average woman liking her average body was big news. Brumfitt was swamped with emails. There were the haters (‘being a mother is no excuse to let yourself go’ – and much worse) but mostly, they were messages seeking advice and help: How had she learnt to love her body?
Thus begins the saga of Brumfitt’s investigation into women’s views on their own bodies. She interviews loads of women on camera, and the most common word they used to describe their bodies was “disgusting”. This isn’t surprising to blog readers– many of our posts tackle issues of body image as they crop up in every facet of life.
Brumfitt interviews several women in the fashion industry, including a former editor of Cosmopolitan, Mia Freedman. Freedman recounts a story of doing a photo shoot with so-called “plus-size” models in which both the photographer and makeup artist removed their names from the credits (presumably because of fear of negative reactions). The message was clear: there is no room for body positive looks and fashion to exist on the same page.
But so much the worse for fashion, the film says. Brumfitt offers a glimpse into the lives of many women who have embraced their bodies and put themselves out there on social media as acceptance and self-love ambassadors.
Brumfitt also takes a trip to the dark side: she films a consultation with a Los Angelese plastic surgeon. He repeated pokes at one of her breasts, saying “the nipple is too low– it needs to be in the middle of the breast”. Well, dude, here is where it is. Deal with it.
Sadly, his way to deal with it is to propose a cornucopia of plastic surgery options. This includes reshaping vulvas to be in accord with someone’s illustrated old-timey textbook idea of what a vulva looks like. And because there is a brief shot of clinical photos of multiple vulvas (along with some brief nudity in non-sexual situations, as the reviewer Rochelle Siemienowicz points out):
…the Australian Film Classification Board has seen fit to give Embrace an MA 15+ rating, making it more difficult for the film to reach its intended audience, and thus proving the film’s very thesis. In a world swamped by altered, unrealistic and sexualised images of women, the normal female body remains controversial.
Yeah. Ain’t that a kick in the head.
The film is overall quite positive, and has spawned a website, facebook page, and is being used by body positive groups and health and wellness coaches (like Nina Manolson, who worked very hard to bring this film to the Boston area; thanks, Nina!)
This wouldn’t be a review without a few obligatory quibbles. First, I wish there had been more older women featured in the film. We are living longer, and aging presents a lot of emerging issues about body image and self-love that would have fit in nicely with the theme. Second, there could have been more diversity in the women portrayed, especially since the project was billed as a global exploration. Brumfitt went to the US, Canada, the UK and Australia (among others), and she missed out (in my view) on the opportunity to include views of a lot of different looks among the variety of shapes and sizes and colors available in our population. However, one film cannot be all things to all people. It is, on the whole, saying good things to us and the people we associate with. Go see it if you can.
One final note: during the audience discussion after the film, there seemed a times to be a conflation of the self-love message. Sometimes, it was this: love yourself because your body (as it is on the outside) is beautiful. Other times, it seemed to be this: love yourself, because you have qualities that outstrip what you look like on the outside. I’d like to see more (by more, I really mean all) women be able to state categorically:
“Bodies are beautiful. Period. Deal with it”. Because they are. Including mine.