Written and directed by Taryn Brumfitt
90 minutes, rated MA 15+
3.5 stars

Are you happy with your body? Neither am I. If the issue is mundane, it is also universal, but Taryn Brumfitt’s engaging documentary argues that it is a question of degree.

She interviews women on the street around the world, all of whom profess that they are conscious of their ‘flaws’. After their initial comments, she returns to several who then really say what they feel. The word that comes out most often is ‘disgusting’. That made this middle-aged man sit up and pay attention. That so many women are not just dissatisfied but repelled by their own bodies is both shocking and tragic.

Brumfitt bores in on the subject like a terrier. Her approach is nothing if not personal, but it had to be. Her own feelings of self-disgust drive the inquiry. After the birth of her first child in Adelaide, she was horrified by the damage to her body. Pelvic floor problems, incontinence, the whole disaster. She embarked on a fierce program of body correction – in fact, a 15-week intensive body-building regime that allowed her to reach a goal – to stand on a stage in a bikini in a built-body contest with other women. Job done, except that it wasn’t.

After two more children, she posted a photo of body-built Taryn in bikini, next to a picture of her real body, a few years later. She is naked and side-on, and smiling – a picture of health and beauty, although heavier. The internet went nuts about it: 7000 emails and one hundred million views later, Brumfitt goes on the road to talk to women around the world about body image.

At 90 minutes, the film is too long, but it is never dull, partly because it’s edited with pace and humour. Brumfitt is immensely open, warm and likeable on screen. She hugs everyone she meets, including strangers on the street, but that warmth gets people to open up. Her choice of interviews is also surprising – body image includes body damage, so she talks to Turia Pitt, the Australian mining engineer who was horribly burned in an outback bushfire, who featured (with scars) on the cover of The Women’s Weekly. Ricki Lake talks about achieving fame as ‘the fat girl’ in John Waters’ remake of Hairspray, and her qualms about cooperating with magazine stories about how good she looked when she lost half her body weight. Mia Freedman, as the youngest-ever editor of Australian Cosmopolitan, talks about the difficulties of putting a plus size model on the cover – the clothes designers didn’t want to loan their clothes, the photographer didn’t want his name mentioned, nor the designer.

The fashion industry takes a beating, as do the media. Brumfitt might have gone a little deeper here: did women in the 19th century not have body image problems? Do men not worry about the way we look? Of course, that would make the film longer. Brumfitt is right to keep the focus tight on women. Embrace is a surprising, thoughtful, energetic and troubling film.