Embrace Kids: Controversial body image doco gets a far more family-friendly follow-up

James Croot is the father of a tween-boy and teenage girl and the editor of Stuff to Watch.

OPINION: It was the educational 2016 film the Australian censors didn’t want parents to see with their teens and tweens.

Aiming to highlight both the lack of diversity in media imagery of women and promote self-love and self-acceptance, body image activist Taryn Brumfitt’s Embrace was filled with sometimes confronting imagery of the female form in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.

This was all too much for the authorities across the Tasman, who slapped a restriction on it that meant only those 15 and over could view it. Here, more common sense prevailed. New Zealand’s censor’s M rating left it up to individuals to decide whether it was appropriate fare, the Classification Office noting that the “well-made, thought-provoking and uplifting” film was “of high importance in terms of its unique exploration of the issues it addresses and also for giving agency to a diverse range of people about issues of bodies and representations of bodies”.

Now, six years on, Brumfitt is back, with a follow-up that’s far more family-viewing friendly, if no less important.

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Embrace, Taryn Brumfitt’s documentary on the effects of body image pressures, caused a stir when it was first screened here in 2016 as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

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Concerned that today’s youth are being exposed to an onslaught of ideas about the ideal body image at a younger and younger age – thanks largely to social media (“Everyday, there’s a new beauty routine, workout regimen or ‘influencer’ to follow,” former photographer Brumfitt notes) – Embrace Kids aims to teach young teens and tweens (and their parents and teachers) to see through the looking glass, celebrate difference – and their own uniqueness – and advocate change at a personal level.

Cleverly, Brumfitt is even more of a peripheral figure here than in the original, handing over the platform to a range of voices, some adult, but mostly youths, to tell their, sometimes, inspiring and often entertaining stories in a lighter, but no less enlightening tone than the first Embrace.

Heartbreak High star, autistic actor Chloe Hayden is one of the inspiring young people featured in Embrace Kids.

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Heartbreak High star, autistic actor Chloe Hayden is one of the inspiring young people featured in Embrace Kids.

The areas discussed are also far wider. As well as body image, discrimination, gender identity and neuro-diversity also get plenty of air time.

One of the stars of Netflix’s new Heartbreak High reboot, autistic actor, author and motivational speaker Chloe Hayden (she plays Quinni) winningly advocates that “no one has ever made a change by fitting in” and “that it’s what we do with challenges in our life that defines us”, while the non-binary Audrey Mason-Hyde (52 Tuesdays) opens up about everything from wanting to go to a four-year-old’s birthday party as Spider-Man, to obsessively rejecting femininity and eventually learning that “biological sex and gender are not the same thing – your body does not equal your identity”.

Yes, there are some ideas and concepts here that older audiences may struggle with, but maybe that makes watching this with your kids a two-way educational experience.

Celeste Barber, the Australian actress, author, podcast, Instagram star and international comedy sensation rose to fame and acclaim when she started parodying celebrities on social media.

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Celeste Barber, the Australian actress, author, podcast, Instagram star and international comedy sensation rose to fame and acclaim when she started parodying celebrities on social media.

A segment on Australian AFL star Erin Phillips solidifies what we’ve seen here recently with the Black Ferns in how far interest and acceptance of women competing in top level sport has come (more than 53,000 attended the 2019 AFLW Grand Final she starred in for the Adelaide Crows), although it doesn’t really address what needs to be done to ensure its sustainability, or the thorny question of transgender athletes.

Perhaps that was a downside of trying to cover so many topics in the slim, sub-80-minute running time – not everything is simply black-and-white or easily explained.

On Brumfitt’s core concern though – body image – Embrace Kids couldn’t be clearer – that magazines, TV, Instagram and TikTok have been teaching us that “we’re broken”, promoting impossible physical ideals that have often been manipulated via Photoshop or other digital tools.

In Embrace Kids, documentarian Taryn Brumfitt is a peripheral figure, handing over the platform to a range of mostly youthful voices to tell their, sometimes, inspiring and often entertaining stories in a lighter, but no less enlightening tone than 2016's Embrace.

Supplied

In Embrace Kids, documentarian Taryn Brumfitt is a peripheral figure, handing over the platform to a range of mostly youthful voices to tell their, sometimes, inspiring and often entertaining stories in a lighter, but no less enlightening tone than 2016’s Embrace.

While Australian comedian Celeste Barber provides plenty of laughs with a selection of her magnificent influencer image parodies, others offer a more sobering, thought-provoking take.

“Happy people don’t buy stuff,” British actor Jameela Jamil explains as the nefarious reason why such imagery is used so ubiquitously online. Detailing her own struggle with body image, which began at age 11 when she discovered she was the tallest and heaviest in her class, Jamil laments now how “a quick descent into a 2-year obsession robbed her of her youth”.

And having presented a 250,000 signature petition to Facebook and Instagram-owner Meta asking them to stop celebrities promoting toxic diet products on those platforms, she is the one whose voice is likely to resonate the most, as she urges us to take back the word influencer – ensuring you “lock, mute and delete” those sending the wrong messages.

“They can’t sell anything – or anyone – without our approval,” she sagely advises.

Embrace Kids is now available to rent from Neon, iTunes and GooglePlay.

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