In this episode, Amelia travels to Idaho and learns about body positivity from fat feminist activist + artist Amy Pence-Brown.
In this episode, we hear from Amy Pence-Brown about her body positive art and activism, including her 2015 Stand for Self Love and the Rad Camps she runs for women and teens.
- What is body positivity? [6:10 – 9:00]
- The Stand for Self Love [11:30 – 16:15]
- RADCAMP: A Body Positive Boot Camp For Feminists [16:45 – 18:55]
- Why body positivity has to be feminist and feminism has to be body positive [20:30 – 22:30]
Amy Pence-Brown on Instagram
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Amelia: This is Fifty Feminist States a roadtripping, storytelling podcast visiting all fifty US states to interview feminist activists and artists about their work for gender justice.
I’m Amelia Hruby, and this week we’re in Idaho.
Amy: So about nine years ago, I finally turned to google because I knew no one else in real life who was fat and happy. So I typed those words into google, like all good researchers, why am I fat and happy?
Amelia: If you know anything about Idaho, it’s probably, say it with me, potatoes. Idaho’s current state slogan is “Great Potatoes. Tasty Destinations.” and Idaho license plates read “Famous Potatoes.”
There’s even an Idaho Potato Commission that regulates the use of the word Idaho in relation to any mention of potatoes. This is likely because potatoes are big business in Idaho. With the state growing one third of the nation’s potato crop, potatoes make up more than 15% of Idaho’s gross state product.
But, believe it or not, this episode isn’t about potatoes. When I traveled to Idaho this summer for season one of Fifty Feminist States, I expected a lot of potatoes, but what I found was an incredibly beautiful state with a diversity of landscapes that I never imagined.
While famous for its potatoes, Idaho has almost 4.8 million acres of wilderness area. That’s the third highest in the country, trailing only behind Alaska and California.
And Idaho is home to one-of-a-kind natural phenomena. There you can find a waterfall taller than Niagra Falls, the highest single-structured sand dune in North America, and an active volcanic field with the deepest open rift crack on Earth. That’s not even to mention the hot springs, gorges, and mountains that I also visited there. And I was only in the states for five days, scratching just the surface of its wild offerings.
Having spent the last five years living in Chicago, Idaho felt a bit like a revelation and Idahoans’ connection to their land seemed so radical. Everyone I met there spent lots of time outdoors and was so connected to and enamoured with the landscapes and resources of the state. But it’s unclear whether people’s love for their land can or will translate to their love for each other.
It’s hard to see if that radical connection to the land connects to any sense of feminist politics in Idaho. Both environmental and feminist activists critique our ideas of beauty, interrogate the meaning of nature, and critically consider who or what is allowed to take up space, but does environmentalism necessarily entail feminism or the other way around? Politics is messy in this way, and my time in Idaho brought this question to the forefront.
In this episode, we’ll hear from Amy Pence-Brown, a fat, feminist mom, writer, artist and body image activist (those are her words) living in Boise who was quick to assure to me that Idaho is definitely not radical. She told me that it was in fact the land that has connected her to Idaho, time and time again, especially when her art and activism have often been rejected here. We’ll hear from her now about her journey to feminism and body positivity.
Amy: I have identified as a feminist for a long time since I went to college. I was clearly a feminist before that in high school, but I don’t think I ever heard that word before, but at the time, and I would have to say still today to a large degree, um, feminism wasn’t addressing, um, so directly a body image or what we now call body positivity or fat activism or fat acceptance. But it took me living, you know, 32 years in a larger body that ranged from Chubby to fat my whole life, um, that I constantly fought for most of those 32 years and tried to change actively all the time even though I didn’t necessarily want to. I started to realize that that was something I felt like I had to do, and what if I changed my mind and I didn’t have to do that any longer because I didn’t want to? A big part of that corresponded with me getting pregnant and giving birth to my daughters. One of the age of 28 and one at the age of 32. And that was an extraordinary time where my body changed dramatically, and my world changed dramatically and I often say motherhood made me an activist in so many ways. And giving birth to two girls, I didn’t want them to grow up hating their bodies like I did. And so I knew then that it was a time was time for me to make a difference not only in my life so I could make a difference in their lives, but then ultimately I realized quickly that I could also be making a difference in the lives of other girls and women, and then all people, ultimately.
So about nine years ago, I finally turned to google because I knew no one else who was believed the same way as I did. I knew no one else in real life who was fat and happy. So I typed those words into google, like all good researchers do: “”why am I fat and happy?” Because I thought I’m either going to find nothing or is there someone else out there just not in Idaho who feels this way? Certainly, I knew no one in Idaho that felt that way. And after scrolling through pages and pages of ads for the diet industry complex because Google picked up happy and turned it to unhappy as that word is most often correlated with fat, I finally found two blogs that were exactly what I was looking for and they led me down a rabbit hole of books and tumblr feeds and facebook pages and other blogs. Um, so that’s sort of how I started on what I would call specifically my body positive journey at that time. Actually 9 years ago, it wasn’t called body positivity. What I found was fat activism and fat acceptance, which was a movement, or is a movement that has been around since the 1960s.
Amelia: I want to pause here and talk a little bit about body positivity. Before there was the contemporary body positivity movement, the fat activism movement started in the 60s and worked to change anti-fat bias in society. Fat activists fought against discrimination in the workplace, harsh medical barriers, and general cultural messaging to argue that society had to stop policing fat bodies. This movement still exists, but over time, fat activism has evolved in a number of ways. There are still many radical fat activists working on demolishing socio-cultural biases and barriers; other folks have developed the Health at Every Size movement to tackle fat acceptance specifically within medical communities and health conversations; and many influencers have taken this message online to argue that all bodies are good bodies and help individuals develop positive body image. This latter movement has kind of blown up for better and for worse thanks to social media platforms that allow for the dissemination of selfies and slogans. This is often what people are referring to when they say “body positivity” today, but they might be referencing only one or all of three of the body positive methods I mentioned before. Hear Amy talk more about her conception of body positivity and why it’s so important.
Amy: Fat activism I mentioned was started in this country in the sixties. So it’s been around a long time, but it was not popular until it became the more palatable sort of body positivity in like the late nineties, early two thousands, which still was slow to take off. But now it’s really popular. But I think body positivity is about so much more than your weight. It’s about how the outward appearance of your body directly affects so many things about you, the color of your skin, um, your gender, your sexuality, you know, all of these, these sort of things. Your ability or different ability, you know, disability sometimes people call them. Particularly locally, I know a lot of feminists who are not body positive and who are not fans of my work and are not interested in fat acceptance. And a lot of that comes from a long, long history in this country of dieting and consumer culture teaching us that we have these beauty ideals and these standards of bodies that we are expected to have. And if you don’t and you’re deviating outside of that norm, it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people. And, and, and especially not just women who identify as, or men or people who identify as feminists but, but anyone, you know, when you tell them there’s possibly a different way that they could live in a different way about how to think about their bodies and food and exercise. It kind of makes them angry that they’ve spent all this time fighting it and they don’t necessarily like it.
Amelia: This last point is a tough one and something that Amy has a lot of experience with. So now we’ll hear more from her about the reception her work’s gotten in Boise and why it’s so necessary.
Amy: So I was speaking out and doing what I call public performance or social activism pieces, um, about five years ago. And it was not at all well received. I was getting all of this harassment from people I knew in real life. And then of course trolls including an awful Twitter troll here locally who was harassing me while I was speaking live on stage at a local event, as well. And all of that corresponded with me having my very first miscarriage, which shook my body image and body positivity to its core. And I shut down all my social media for the summer to take a break for my heart and my mind and my body. And came back, which as often is the case for me louder and stronger and decided I needed to create my own safe space on the Internet to share these sort of radical feminist ideas about body positivity and fat acceptance and health at every size and, um, created the Boise Rad fat collective. Rad is short for radical, um, as a facebook group. And I invited a couple of people, the one friend and a few others who I thought might be open-minded to this sort of idea to have a safe private space to share those links and news articles on facebook and on social media. And then ultimately there were about eight of us and I was very, very selective. And we grew slowly and I’m, I’ve been the sole admin the whole time. I am very, very particular and careful about who I let in. And I screen them carefully in order to keep it a safe space. And by the way, you don’t have to be fat or from Boise, but you do have to be radical and feminist and open-minded to be part of the group. You don’t have to be a woman either. I called it boise only because that’s where I’m located. But the Internet provides you with great community elsewhere. We started meeting up in real life as well, doing in life in real life community, small events like a chunky dunk that we call is what we call like getting together at the hot springs or a pool. I host a plus a plus size clothing swap at my house every year for the Boise Rad fat collective. We sometimes do activism, things like participating in marches, civil rights marches. And I still was speaking out loudly and in this gave me more power and more strength. This group of people that I had behind the scenes sort of agreeing with me and cheering me on and I kept speaking out on my facebook page and it would still showing up in my art and in public performance pieces I was doing and then about two year later I did a stand in a market in a black bikini and a blindfold and that changed the course of that group and my work in a lot of ways.
Amelia: This is where we get to the part of the story where you might realize you’ve heard of Amy before. In 2015, Amy did a performance at a busy Boise market where she stood outside blindfolded in a bikini and asked people to draw hearts on her body if they’d ever felt self-conscious or insecure. A video of this performance went viral online shortly after. Hear her tell the story of that day in her own words.
Amy: I kept it top secret. I only told the Boise Rad Fat collective and my husband that I was thinking about trying to recreate this stand in a blindfold and a black bikini based on the one that the Liberator’s International did with a sign at my feet that read: “if you’ve ever suffered from a self esteem issue like me and believe all bodies are valuable draw a heart on my body.” And I had was washable markers on my hands and a blindfold. The woman who did it for the liberator’s, J West is very thin and very young and was in a much more progressive city in London. They did it for more of a public acts of kindness standpoint. And I was really wanted to recreate it from a radical, fat feminist point of view and thought how it might be received differently if a woman that was twice her age, 40, and a mom twice her size, like 226 pounds, and in a really conservative place like Boise, what would happen? And I had had such awful rejection and pushback from people in Boise for years prior to that that the rad fat collective was afraid for my safety and afraid for my sanity and my heart. Um, my skin was, was very thick then. It’s even thicker now. And I was at peace with my body. I wasn’t doing it for myself. I wasn’t afraid about myself being harmed, and I had sensed a shift in the national climate around positive body image and body acceptance. And I was interested to see if that shift had made it to boise. Boise is really conservative and a lot slower to change and slower to sometimes adopt sort of radical ideas. Um, I don’t know, there are a number of reasons for that. I think geographically our location here also just the conservative nature of this place.
So, um, I was expecting fully expecting it to be horrid, horrible to be honest. Uh, that morning in the market I was fully expecting people to say mean things to me or more likely not participate in my project and I would be standing there alone for minutes that felt like hours, um, or that people would call the police and turn me in even though I knew what I was doing was not illegal. Um, and none of that happened. I was shocked that everyone right away, people were rushing at me and the overwhelming sense of humanity and love and kindness that was literally emanating from my body out into the space. And everyone who was interacting with me with, I mean within, oh my gosh, like a 100 foot radius and that was not just my feeling, even though I, I could feel it and I couldn’t see it, but it was literally what everyone who was there that day will tell you happened.
And people of all genders and ages and nationalities and religions and abilities participated that day in the project, and cried, and I wasn’t actually prepared for that. And it went what I like to call, Boise viral, which I think I had 30,000 views of that video and the very first day within 24 hours. And I was on the local news and that was extraordinary. That made me change my perception. That one thing that so many, it resonated with so many people, not only who were there in the market but who, but who saw it online and they started sharing it, not only just sharing my blog post in the video, but in conjunction with their own stories of struggles with body image and and 20 different diets that they’d been on and they still never felt better about their bodies or you know, being made fun of when they were six years old by a family member for being chubby. You know, these really heartfelt stories that people were just opening up and my vulnerability was rubbing off on everyone else and making them vulnerable too. And it was extraordinary. And then the news, you know, picked it up as a really powerful story. I was on, I think it was in the Idaho Statesman in the boise, Idaho, NPR station, Boise state public radio, live in studio at ktv where one of our news channels and they came to my house all within less than 24 hours after I dropped that blog post.
Amelia: After the video went viral, Amy’s community was suddenly worldwide. The Boise Rad Fat Collective group on Facebook quickly grew up to 2000 members, the cap that Amy keeps on the group to make sure it still feels intimate. But even as her work began to get national and international attention, she still maintained focus in Boise and began new programs for that community.
Amy: And I am a teacher and an educator and a writer, and I know as a teen I needed someone like me. I would, it would have changed my life to see someone like me do what I do and so I had so many requests for it that I finally considered it and did some research on camps, feminist camps, sort of body image camps, and I could find literally nothing geared specifically in this way towards teens or adults. Now there are more but at the time, so I kind of made up my own curriculum and started rad camp, a body positive bootcamp for feminists teens, girls, and only open to 10 girls in Idaho ages 13 to 15. And then I do an adult version of that for women, only women in the Rad Fat collective. And we, for the women’s camp, I rent a cabin in Mccall, which is a little mountain town about two and a half hours from here, and it’s a retreat weekend and we do lots of hard work, journaling and talking about body image and there’s a little bit of some books involved because I’m an academic and a book lover of books at heart, and but we also do fun stuff to celebrate our bodies like go hiking and swimming and visit the hot springs and we make lots of good food together and, and enjoy food with each other, and enjoy community and shared lots of heart felt and hard stories. I bring up an amazing yoga instructor from here locally who’s in the Rad Fat collective, and she does meditation and the Self Love Meditation and Yoga with us in the morning. And it’s really lovely.
The girls’ camp is here in town, but it’s all day Saturday and Sunday and we do similar things, but we use art a lot in the girls’ camp as well, and a lot of that involves craft and a form of craftivism I invite guest speakers to come and other, um, we had a writer of, one of the textbooks I use with them flew in from Chicago too, and she also is, a plus size yoga instructor, so she taught a yoga class to the girls. We make homemade ice cream together and I teach them how to read a recipe, and we plant seeds in dirt and I teach them how to read a seed packet as part of sort of a healing process or not so much for young girls healing, but learning more about food because I think that that’s a big problem in this country in general.
Amelia: Amy’s statement that it would have changed her life to see someone like her as a teen girl, definitely resonated with me and my teenage experience. And I was so excited to hear about all of the resources that her rad camps offer to teen girls and to women. I wanted to wrap up my conversation with Amy by hearing a little bit more about her relationship to Idaho and her feminism there, because I think her experience as a feminist in Idaho and in the larger feminist community represents the lived experience of folks who find themselves — whether by choice, happenstance or the force of political realities — calling a place home that doesn’t necessarily welcome them.
Amy: And I am born and raised in Idaho, from birth. I did move away for um, many years, and then by chance moved back to Idaho. My husband’s also from Idaho. We moved here 12 years ago now, after living in to very liberal progressive states, Oregon and Minnesota, and it was shocking. It was, you know, even though I was born and raised here, so I was familiar with the conservative nature of it, it was hard coming back to how conservative or it really is. And then I got school than that when I started speaking out about positive body positivity and fat acceptance and mean things that are flung at me all the time now. And a lot of them are actually from people who live here in Idaho, um, lots of men and women and people of all genders, I guess that live here who harass me on the regular, on the Internet.
But I think to me you cannot be body positive without being a feminist and you cannot be a feminist without being body positive. And I know this is a radical stance and I know it’s, it upset a lot of people and it upsets a lot of people still when I say that, but I firmly believe that. I truly believe that they go hand in hand and you cannot be one without the other. And so I’m all about, I’m making space for and movements or in movements or, or anywhere really in which I know the history and I know the background and I know the tenets and I know I belong there and I know that it’s being misinterpreted. So I’m not willing to let that go. And I I think they’re so powerful and I think it will do nothing but make both movements even more powerful and more palatable really to people if they realize how integrated they are and that you can’t have one without the other.
And it’s complicated because we all do things — like I am calling myself a feminist and I do things that are not feminist, you know, but recognizing that is the key I think. I just had this conversation this weekend at Rad Camp as a matter of fact. We were talking about makeup and makeup being a complicated relationship with makeup in terms of body positivity and feminism and you know, the fact that one of the Rad Campers was saying like, “oh, I wear makeup and I feel anti feminist. I feel like I’m not a feminist.” And I’m like, no, I don’t really think that’s the case. It’s more about analyzing like why do I wear this makeup and understanding the history of makeup and the purpose of makeup and where it comes from and that you can still wear makeup, like I do. I don’t wear a lot of makeup, but I like it, but I would never say makeup is feminist because I’m wearing, I like to wear makeup and I’m a feminist. I can be a feminist and wear makeup as is. And I think the important part is just realizing that and like analyzing, like critically thinking like, “hmm, why do I wear this makeup?” Same with body positivity, you know, “am I wearing this makeup because it makes me feel good because I like it because I think it makes me look more socially acceptable to other people or it makes me look more professional or I think other people, that’s what women are supposed to do, quote unquote,” you know. So it’s so complicated, but I think it’s important to think about all of these things.
Amelia: This commitment to critical thinking and self-reflection is one that I’ve often come back to in my own feminist politics. There’s a lot of pressure to do everything “right” when you take up a counter-cultural position, but so much of that just falls back on knowing why we do the things we do, unpacking and re-aligning those motivations and actions.
This sort of critical thinking is I think the challenge of a state like Idaho. And while this one interview only scratches at the surface of that challenge, I think we see here critical questions for the state, like:
- how do we value a state that loves its natural environment, while also critiquing how it doesn’t always love its people, or at least not all of them equally?
- how do we appreciate the bodies that populate Idaho’s wilderness, while also recognizing how those bodies are judged, discriminated against and policed?
- And although I didn’t take this up in this episode, in idaho we also have the question of, how do we see a state’s breathtaking vistas and it’s right-wing extremism in the same landscape? Northern Idaho poses this challenge as well.
If you’re interested in Amy’s work, I’ll link to her viral video and number of her essays in the show notes. You can find those at fiftyfeministstates.com/podcast.
Otherwise, next episode we’ll take some of these critical questions east and travel to Montana. Until then, I’ll see you on the road!
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Thanks for tuning in to this episode of Fifty Feminist States. You can follow Fifty Feminist States to stay updated on episodes and roadtrip happenings on Instagram at @fiftyfeministstates that’s @f-i-f-t-y-feministstates.
Our opening music is by Lobo Loco and this wonderfully sexist song that you’re listening to on our way out is a recording by Billy Murray from 1916.
Special thanks go out to Amy for meeting with me and sharing her insight into Idaho’s feminist landscape. I also have to thank the hundred or so Kickstarter backers who made funding this season possible.
Until next time, wild ones! We’ll see you on the road.