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“You can’t judge someone’s health by their appearance”

Nov 7, 2023 | Journalism, Health, Activism, Food, Mental health, Social Media, Commentary, Diversity, Leadership, Body, Opinion, Cultural politics, Education, Culture, News, Feature

Written by Ginger Gorman

Fresh from casually dancing and singing with the Bee Gees offstage at the Whitehouse during Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s State visit to the US (true story!), Australian of the Year Taryn Brumfitt hit the stage at the National Press Club in Canberra to give us all a sobering message about body image.

“I have never met anyone who’s learned to embrace their body and regretted the decision to do so,” she told the packed room in a televised Women in Media address.

Moving onto a powerful lesson about the importance not judging the health of someone by looking at their body, Taryn told the audience about her late brother, Jason.

“I want to share a rather personal, painful example of how I know this not to be true. My brother was charismatic, charming and incredibly funny. He had the potential to do so much, and he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

“When he lived in Queensland, he was randomly approached by one of the team from the movie The Thin Red Line and was asked to be Sean Penn’s movie double, which of course he jumped at the chance. I don’t want to make it about appearance, but the girls did think Jason was a good looker!

“Now, if I put Jason here, and then a man in a larger body next to him, and ask 100 people who they thought was healthier out of the two men, all 100 people would have said Jason. And yet, Jason was a heroin addict, who died from his addiction, on a park bench in Sydney across from Central Station.”

She reiterated: “You just don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life, and you most definitely can’t judge someone’s health by their appearance.”

Moving on, Taryn recalled the incident 10 years ago in which she “…shared a before-and-after image of my body that sent the internet into a spin and lit the spark behind what would become my career and sole focus for the next decade.”

In that time Taryn believes we’ve made progress on body image – but still have a long way to go. She says while some commentators believe the topic is passé, nothing could be further from the truth.

“Body image issues among young people are the worst they’ve ever been. Since the start of the pandemic, rates of body image distress and eating disorders in young people have doubled.

A 2013 Deloitte Access Economics study, found that the total socioeconomic cost of eating disorders was $69.7 billion annually, not to mention the immeasurable personal costs,” she told the Press Club audience.

Picture at top: Australian of the Year, Taryn Brumfitt, addresses the National Press Club. Photo: Hilary Wardhaugh

Australian of the Year, Taryn Brumfitt, addresses the National Press Club. Photo: Hilary Wardhaugh

Taryn has been working to get evidence-based resources on body image to thousands of young people across the country.

However, she says one of the most important places children receive messages is at home: “I’m absolutely convinced that if we do not do the work as individuals and professionals to change our own internalised beliefs and behaviours around bodies, it will be another decade before we see any meaningful, lasting change.

“If you’re a parent, role model or caregiver to a young person – the most powerful thing you can do is to stop saying anything negative about your body or appearance—or anyone else’s—in front of your kids,” she said.

In her typical authentic style, Taryn declared that just like the rest of us, she’s had moments when “the wheels have fallen off.” But in the end, these experiences have driven her forward.

“In my teens my family was rocked by the suicide of my uncle, I’m still devastated every day to have lost my brother Jason when he was just 27 years old, and I was left absolutely broken when my 19-year marriage ended several years ago.

“I’ve had the full human experience, some real highs and lows, but out of all of the life-changing moments, there’s been nothing more profound than when I decided to stop hating my body, and learned how to appreciate and embrace it instead,” she said.

(Editor’s note: Hear! Hear!)

At one stage, Taryn said she despaired at her supposedly “broken” post-children body.  And even considered plastic surgery. But slowly it dawned on her that this would send the wrong message to her young daughter, Mikaela.

“I had this thought: ‘How am I going to teach my daughter to embrace her body if I change mine?’ So, I cancelled the scheduled surgery.”

Explaining this revelation further, Taryn said: “I realised that I didn’t want to move my body to punish it, I wanted to move it for the pleasure of being alive. I learnt that I wanted to nourish my body with foods that fuel me and give me energy.”

Circling back to the moment when she shared the non-traditional “after” photo of her larger body online – and how it sent the internet and media into an international frenzy – Taryn told the Press Club audience thousands of people then wrote to her about their own body image despair.

“It was at that moment that I fully understood the scale of this issue,” she said.

Turning to statistics, Taryn painted a sobering picture of the way Australians view their bodies: “Ninety one percent of women want a different body to the one they have. For our youth – we are experiencing a paediatric health emergency.

“Seventy seven percent of Australian adolescents experience body image distress, which is actually higher than the global average. Rates of suicide, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and steroid use related to body dissatisfaction are soaring.

“We know that young people with poor body image are 24 times more likely to develop depression and anxiety. One in ten adolescent boys and one in three girls meet the criteria for eating disorders. And the issues are presenting at younger and younger ages. We now have the data that shows that 37 percent of three-year-olds want a different body to the one they have.

“And there is elevated risk for body image concerns, among trans, non-binary, gender diverse, and sexual minority young people,” she said.

Taryn urged the audience not to comment on the bodies of others – for any reason: “If we normalise this type of judgement, our young ones will go on to think that their bodies should be subject to public scrutiny. It’s harmful, unhelpful and quite simply, none of our business!”

Her last tip was to stop blaming social media for body image issues, and harness it for good instead.

“Let’s encourage a more empowered approach to social media, for us and our kids. Just like in real life, let’s be discerning about who you let in the door, use your power to support the things that help us feel good, and unfollow the things that don’t.”

As a joking aside, Taryn urged us all to insist on more cat and dog videos in our social media feeds (as opposed to ogling at and comparing ourselves to people’s bodies).

When it comes to the media, Taryn suggested we “…show images of people that are as diverse in appearance as we see in the world…And let’s stop talking about weight and ‘obesity’ and start talking about health.”

“Life is fleeting. Don’t waste it being at war with your body, and please don’t set the young ones in your life up for a lifetime of the same,” she concluded.

Find out more about Taryn’s work with body image research and advocacy group The Embrace Collective here. Watch the Embrace films on Netflix.

  • If you – or someone you are about – needs support for an eating disorder or concerns about body image, call the Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 334 673.

 

Picture at top: Australian of the Year, Taryn Brumfitt, addresses the National Press Club. Photo: Hilary Wardhaugh

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Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Ginger’s bestselling book, Troll Hunting, came out in 2019. Since then, she’s been in demand both nationally and globally as an expert on cyberhate and the real-life harm predator trolling can do. She's also the editor of BroadAgenda and gender editor at HerCanberra. Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.

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