Will 2023 be a year of reckoning on body image?

by Women’s Agenda
Tuesday 4 April 2023

Mandy Dante with group of teenage girls

Five years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that a body image activist would become the recipient of Australia’s most prestigious honour, Australian of the Year.

But just months ago, it happened.

Taryn Brumfitt was announced as the winner of the award by the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, recognised for her global and widely acclaimed work helping young people to reframe how they think about their bodies.

Her acceptance speech was a ground-breaking moment, where we saw, perhaps for the first time, body image – a health issue that affects so many young Australians, especially girls – taken incredibly seriously in a national spotlight. 

“We weren’t born into the world hating our bodies, this is something the world has taught us,” Brumfitt said in that speech.

“What if, instead of spending precious time and energy at war with their bodies, our young people were free to become the leaders, big thinkers and game changers the world needs more of right now?”

For Ashani Dante, the Founder and Creative Director of Flourish Girl, it was an exciting moment that signified a shift in the way conversations around body image are conducted.

“I’m so excited for someone like Taryn to be Australian of the Year, because she’s now got such an incredible platform and we can start normalising these conversations more,” Dante says.

At Flourish Girl, Dante and her team work with school students every day, hearing first-hand the issues they are most impacted by, and want to talk about. Time and again, body image is at the forefront of topics girls and gender diverse students want to discuss.

“Especially after COVID and the lockdowns, we've seen a spike in body image issues and eating disorders among teens,” Dante shares. 

“I definitely feel like there wasn’t a sense of urgency around body image before, but I think, especially with what we're noticing at Flourish Girl, and the horrific stats around body image and eating disorders, it's time we started prioritising these conversations.”

Dante notes that in Flourish Girl workshops, facilitators try to place emphasis on the idea that “your body is your body”, and there is no “good” or “bad” way for a body to exist in the world.

“It’s about changing our narrative around the body,” Dante explains. “It’s not like: ‘I want to get skinnier to look good or feel loved and accepted’. It’s more: ‘I want to make sure that I’m doing all that I can to treat my body like a vessel, a temple, or a vehicle that I can use to create change’.

At Flourish Girl, school students are invited to participate in full-day, immersive workshops delivered in schools, where the aim is to provide a safe space for girls and gender-diverse teens to flourish, and come to grips with some of the big issues they are facing.

The workshops also provide an alternative, healthy Rite of Passage for girls and gender diverse teens, so they can work out who they want to be as they transition into adulthood.

“What we notice in our workshops is teenage girls are very good at bottling up how they really feel,” Dante says.

“In one program, students are encouraged to think of society’s perceptions of being a young person, and body image has always been an issue…it’s like, we’ve got to be slim, we’ve got to be like the Kardashians, all these different things.”

As Brumfitt often speaks about, body image is a paediatric health emergency, with 70 per cent of children citing it as their biggest concern.

Eating disorders are now among the most deadly of all mental health conditions. Recent reporting highlighted a staggering statistic – some hospitals in Australia have recorded an 80 to 104 per cent increase in children presenting with anorexia since the pandemic started.

Meanwhile, a new global study on disordered eating among children and adolescents found 1 in 5 experience disordered eating behaviours, and that disordered eating is significantly higher in girls than in boys.

It’s exactly why organisations like Flourish Girl are so essential for Australian teens – it takes work to undo all the negativity that society has taught us to feel when we think about our bodies.

With Brumfitt as Australian of the Year, Dante says she hopes Australia can really start coming to grips with the work we have to do to address body image.

“I would love to see us really start normalising these conversations, so that our young people can get on with becoming the next generation of leaders.”