Ex-bodybuilder fights ‘myth’ of ideal shape

Body talk: Lillian Russell, Marilyn Monroe and Megan Fox all had the ideal shape of their era.

The most common new year’s resolutions? Lose weight. Exercise more. Eat better. But a new documentary says the idea of a ‘perfect body’ is wrong -- and we should stop wasting our time.

In 2013, Taryn Brumfitt wanted to do something to help her friends struggling with their body image. So she posted ‘before and after’ pictures of herself on Facebook. In one she was on stage at a bodybuilding contest, in a bikini with strong abs and a thigh gap. In the other she was softer, rounder — a far more normal shape for a woman with three children. The twist? Her body was larger in the ‘after’ photo; that, she said, was when she was the healthiest and happiest she had ever been.

She got 3.6 million likes overnight. ‘The response was mind-blowing… I found myself doing media across the world.’

Now she is the founder of the Body Image Movement, a website which aims to ‘end the global body-hating epidemic’, and the creator of a documentary called Embrace, which comes out in Britain this month. In it, she investigates everything from plastic surgery to Hollywood, interviewing dozens of women from all over the world.

‘Body shaming and body hating was everywhere… I found that heart-breaking and mind-blowing,’ she told The Observer this week. ‘I wanted people to know that they’re not alone.’

A woman’s ‘ideal’ body has always changed throughout history — from the round stomachs worshipped in the Renaissance to the ultra thin ‘Heroin chic’ of the 1990s. Now, the conversation has moved towards fitness and wellbeing — but despite Brumfitt’s efforts, magazines, movies and catwalks are still full of thin women. In Britain last year, a survey of 7–21 year-old girls found that body confidence had hit a five-year low.

Now that the Christmas holidays are over and a new year has begun, thousands of people are taking the opportunity to ‘get into shape’. According to a ComRes poll, 38% of people in the UK have made a new year’s resolution to ‘exercise more’. Around 33% want to ‘lose weight’ and 32% will be trying to ‘eat more healthily’. Unsurprisingly, January is the most popular month to buy a gym membership, and in 2016 alcohol sales halved in the first few weeks of the year.

Is it worth it?

Thin line

Yes, say some. Exercising and eating healthy foods is good for you; obesity is linked to problems like diabetes and heart disease. No one can deny that. So as long as people don’t push themselves too far, there is nothing wrong with wanting the ‘ideal’ body of 2017: one which is fit and healthy, without much fat.

It is more complex than that, say campaigners like Brumfitt. People have all sorts of natural body types, regardless of how much they eat and exercise. One is not better than any other. And the mental health problems that can come with hating your body are far more dangerous than being overweight. Forget your looks; the most important thing is to be happy.

You Decide

  1. Is there such a thing as an ‘ideal body’? If so, what does it look like in 2017?
  2. Should people focus more on being happy?

Activities

  1. Write a list of new year’s resolutions. Then write a paragraph on the reasons why you chose them and discuss it with a partner.
  2. Choose a painting or photograph which shows the ‘ideal’ body from an era of your choice — men or women. Create a short presentation which explains where the trend came from.

Some People Say...

“All bodies are beautiful.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m a boy. Why should I worry about body issues?
For one thing, because body issues are sometimes related to what boys ‘want’ girls to look like. What you say can matter. For another, boys increasingly worry about their own body image too. Last year a Credos survey found that over half of 8–18 year-old British boys would consider changing their diet to look better.
I’m a girl. How can I be healthy?
There are thousands of diets and exercise regimes out there to help lose weight — the problem is that they often don’t work. Most doctors and professional dieticians will tell you that the best way to be healthy is to eat a balanced diet, with a bit of everything in moderation, and to exercise regularly. That applies to boys and girls.
When can I see Brumfitt’s film in the UK?
From January 16th.

Word Watch

Thigh gap
A gap between a woman’s thighs when she is standing straight. For many women, achieving this is impossible, as it depends on the shape of your hips — not something you can change through your diet.
Renaissance
The period of European history between the 14th and 17th centuries. Curvy women with round chests and stomachs are celebrated in many Renaissance paintings, such as Titian’s The Pastoral Concert (1509).
1990s
This was epitomised by models like Kate Moss, and caused outrage at the time. It was accused of glamorising drugs and encouraging eating disorders.
Survey
The 2016 Girls’ Attitudes Survey, by the Girl Guides, found that only 61% of girls are happy with their looks, down from 73% in 2011.
ComRes poll
Taken in November 2015, this poll asked people about their health-related resolutions.
Halved
According to The Drinks Business on January 18th 2016. This was generally associated with ‘dry January’.
Obesity
This is defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 30. According to the NHS, in 2013 Britain had the highest levels of obesity in Western Europe at 25% of adults.

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