Here is a picture of me looking rather forlorn. It was taken a couple of weeks ago during a screening of the body positivity documentary Embrace, which I was privileged to have been invited along to by hosts MuTu System. And frankly, when this photo was taken, I was forlorn. At the heart of the documentary is the story of producer Taryn Brumfitt. In 2012, having had 3 children, she - in her own words - "hit rock bottom" with the level of hate she felt for her body. She had planned to undergo extensive cosmetic surgery but cancelled the operation after worrying about the message it would send to her daughter. She nonetheless remained deeply unhappy with her body and so decided to enter a bodybuilding competition, as one does. She trained for hours each day, strictly controlled her diet and won the "bikini body" she had lusted after. But, having posed on stage in front of 1000 people, she realised she still wasn't happy. She did not have balance. After the competition, she relaxed her regime and her body shape changed. By this point she was starting to realise that she could love her body for what it could do rather than what it looked like. In 2013 she posted an unconventional before-and-after photo to social media. The before showed her lean, sculpted, oiled and bikini clad in a body building contest. The after showed her softer, larger, and totally naked. It was seen by more than 100 million people worldwide and sparked an international media frenzy.
So why so forlorn? That's a happy ending, isn't it? The lady made peace with her body and became an internet sensation? Well, yes, but the lady also set out on a crusade to explore the global issue of self-loathing. And during the documentary we see self-loathing in many guises, as she travels the world talking to experts, women in the street and well-known personalities about the types of body image issues that are seen at alarming rates in people of all body types. It is impossible to summarise all the standout moments of this documentary in this single blog, so I have whittled it down to 3 key messages which I have taken away from it.
1. We need to start finding positive words about our bodies and embedding them in our hearts. There is a section in the film where Taryn Brumfitt stopped women in the street and asked them which two words they would use to describe their bodies. The words that kept popping up were negative. Venomous even. "Disgusting", "ugly" and "fat". And it made me forlorn that there is a great army of women walking the world with only hurtful words to say about their body. The only body they will ever have. I recently went to hear Kemi Telford speak about confidence at a Lucky Things event. One of her tips was to stand naked in front of the mirror every day, look at yourself, and to declare out loud: "I love you!" It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But I have tried it - albeit sceptically initially - and it is very effective. Sometimes, there does need to be an element of "fake it 'til you make it". When you practise positivity, it beds in and becomes contagious.
2. "Am I living the type of life I want?" Interviewed for the documentary, Nigel Marsh invites us to stop agonising over how we look and instead to ask whether we are living the type of life we want. He urges us to do this freely before one of the “Big Four” – death, disease, divorce or redundancy - forces us to take stock. I found this very powerful, because by reframing in this way, we can shift our focus and allocate our attention and energy in a more meaningful way. So, changing your body may be a side effect of a decision you make to change your life in some way - for example, "I want to improve my fitness" or "I want to stop eating so much sugar" - but it is not the main driver. In my line of work, I think this is a really healthy approach, because I tend to find that when we level dissatisfaction on our appearance, there is a danger that it becomes a moveable feast. We "fix" one thing, and then our dissatisfaction simply moves elsewhere. We could have an infinite number of before and after shots throughout our lifetime. Our bodies change. That's life. It's a journey. I do not think we should equate lean with happy, nor do I think we should equate fat with heavy. In my mind, freedom is happy: freedom to be able, physically, to do what we need or want our bodies to do; freedom from negative thoughts; and freedom to be at ease in our bodies.
3. We have an opportunity to change the landscape for future generations. One of the reasons that this documentary made me forlorn was because I could not escape the thought of my daughter or son growing up hating and battling with their own bodies, or having an unrealistic expectation that every single body should look a particular way. Having reflected after the screening, I now feel more hopeful, because I think I - and everyone else who interacts in any capacity with a child - has an opportunity to make a positive shift in small ways. For example, when I refuse to be in a photo, what message am I sending to my sponge-like children? I am sending a really negative one: "I feel so unhappy with the way I look in this moment that I do not want it to be captured in photo form." I cannot instantly vow that I will always be particularly comfortable about having my photo taken, but I am certainly not going to be ducking out of photos any more. I am also taking time to be conscious of the language I use with my children and the message it is sending to them. For example, it is all too common for us to praise children based on what they look like: "Oh doesn't your hair look pretty like that!" or "What a lovely dress!" or "Isn't he handsome? He is going to break hearts when he is older!" By making a habit of praising our children for what they do, and not what they look like, we can start to shift the focus.
That MuTu chose to screen Embrace for its event was extremely apt. In leading a discussion after the screening, Wendy Powell, MuTu founder, spoke of her belief that every one of us is entitled to a post-baby body which is functional and capable. Body positivity does not extend to putting up with a body that does not allow us to run, or jump on a trampoline or skip, because of worries about leaking urine. Outwardly I was fiercely nodding at this stage, and inwardly I was whooping, cheering and carrying Wendy shoulder high around the event venue. One of my gripes about the “sensational post baby body” rhetoric is that it pays no attention whatsoever to function, to what is going on beneath the surface. The MuTu system is a proven, medically recommended post-baby recovery programme, which women can complete at home, to strengthen the core and pelvic floor, heal Diastasis Recti and lose weight. Many friends have undertaken the programme after having babies and I have heard only positive things about it, so I am delighted to be trialling it over the coming weeks. If you want to sample the MuTu programme yourself, you can sign up using my exclusive discount code - EMBRACE15 - for a whopping 15% off.
I will be reviewing the program in my blog early next year. In the meantime, I urge everyone to watch Embrace. It is not just a documentary for women. It is essential viewing for us all.