Our new national hero puts her body on the line

The path of choosing an Australian of the Year has been an undulating one since the award’s inception in 1960, but I’m sure no-one would question the suitability of this year’s winner, Taryn Brumfitt.

Rosie Batty’s selection in 2015 expressed powerful community concerns about domestic violence and its impact on young people, and likewise the 2021 choice of Grace Tame reflected our concern about the experience of young sexual abuse victims. Brumfitt’s award addresses body image and the self-loathing that can accompany it. Amid the many stressors afflicting us today, this is a serious mental health issue.

Batty, Tame and Brumfitt are among just 16 women who have been recognised with Australian of the Year awards – as opposed to 55 men. More trivia from my research: at the time of their awards those 16 women had an average age of 39, as opposed to 51 for men. There may be fewer women achievers than men, but they waste no time getting there.

Batty and Tame came from obscure backgrounds, emerging into the public consciousness as a result of violent, abusive events that shaped their lives. Only after receiving their awards did they become household names, a result of their subsequent work in the role to shape the public discourse about attitudes to women and young people.

At their inception in the 1960s,  Australian of the Year awards recognised past accomplishments and made little difference to subsequent lives. But to their great credit, Batty and Tame really did change lives after being elevated to the national stage. 

This is as the National Australia Day Council intended it to be, at least since 1993 when it switched the award from the year before to the year ahead. Until then, award ceremonies were backward-looking affairs reflecting past glories. Since then, the intention has been to focus at least as much on what the person might yet do using the award’s public platform. 

These days the award does make a difference, and Brumfitt looks to be going places. Everything she said in her high-energy acceptance speech in Canberra last week made perfect sense even if we hadn’t thought about it before. Her message is so fundamental you wonder as she says it why it’s not obvious to everyone all the time. But it isn’t, and it bears repeating, again and again.

As she said, the human body is something to be treasured. Yes, we’ve been taught to be critical of our bodies, and yes, body shaming is a universal problem that is delivering a health emergency with “soaring” rates of suicide, depression, eating disorders, anxiety and steroid use.

But “it is not our life’s purpose to be at war with our body,” Brumfitt told her national audience. What really matters, she said, is nourishing, respecting, enjoying and loving our bodies – “because you can’t look after something you don’t love.”

So clear, so unarguable, so important to our wellbeing, yet almost invariably ignored.

A child’s path to a healthy adulthood is full of potholes and pitfalls, none more dangerous than the self-loathing that all too often accompanies body image, as well as sexuality and gender. Because of her own experience – trying to reshape her own body before she realised her folly – Brumfitt’s hit 2016 documentary video Embrace focused mainly on girls and young women. 

While the particular matter of body image tends to focus on the female form, the danger of ignoring the raising, nurturing and educating of boys is now coming into sharp focus. I’m sure Brumfitt is aware of this. In her current school project, Embrace Kids, she focuses equally on girls and boys, especially in their early, most impressionable years.

Attention now turns to what Bumfitt will do this year. Each in their own way, Rosie Batty and Grace Tame illuminated the dark shadows of concealed violence; how will Taryn Bumfitt now respond to her 2023 assignment?

Unlike those two predecessors Bumfitt has a high starting point: a prominent public profile not just in Australia but globally. Her film Embrace is streamed on Netflix and has been shown in 190 countries. She has four best-selling books to her credit, and her latest documentary, Embrace Kids, launched last year, is getting a lot of attention in schools. And you can’t get more exposed than nude full-body images; hers have been seen world-wide.

We have every reason to expect big things from the 2023 Australian of the Year, and judging by her effort and achievement over the past decade she’ll deliver on that promise in spades. All power to her arm – in fact to her whole body.

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