Writer, speaker and performance artist Amy Pence-Brown received worldwide attention in August when she stood in a Boise farmer’s market in a black bikini to promote self-acceptance in an act of performance art and activism.
Pence-Brown, the mother of three young kids who works as an architectural historian for Preservation Idaho, ran a video about her performance piece on her blog and then watched over the next several days as it spread locally, nationally and then internationally. It has now been seen by 130 million viewers through her blog, through Buzzfeed, and through the HLN Daily Share, a website and cable and satellite TV channel that’s part of the CNN network. People magazine wrote about her, and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz ran her video on his television show. Dozens of people have emulated her farmer’s market performance piece in public spaces around the world, all, like Pence-Brown, aiming to show body acceptance and to push back against the culture of shaming based on appearance.
Pence-Brown has now corresponded with thousands of people around the world who contacted her after seeing the video. Hundreds have signed up for her private Facebook group, Boise Rad Fat Acceptance, and she is paid to speak about self-acceptance and body image at college graduations and other events.
She was invited to appear April 2 at the second-ever TEDx Boise, a program at the Egyptian Theater that will include 14 speakers, music, a flamenco dancer, and other performances. Idaho Business Review spent some time talking with Pence-Brown about how her performance piece and blog fit into an international movement, and about how success has affected her life. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What will you be speaking about at TEDxBoise?
This year’s theme is “reframing radical.” I’m going to share a lot more about how I got to my performance piece. Those sorts of things resonate with people today. When so much of the media is negative or staged or sad these days, when somebody sees something that’s natural and pure and raw, it touches people in a deep way.
Has the popularity of the video changed your life?
It’s been a crazy ride in the most beautiful way. It has been overwhelmingly positive, and catapulted me into all sorts of great speaking engagements, and connections with other activists around the world. And it’s led me to writing projects and performances like TEDx.
My email and Facebook and Instagram have literally thousands of messages from all over the world from people writing about their own struggles with self esteem and body image and how I’ve been such an inspiration and opened up their eyes to changing the way they feel about themselves.
People are tired of the negative messages in the media and the diet industry, and the rest of the world telling them they should hate their body and be unhappy with it and in a constant desire to change it. Shame is a motivating factor by this consumerist culture that we live in.
It’s sort of a grassroots uprising from the people saying they’re not buying into this anymore. Using your body as an example, you take better care of something that you love, not something you hate.
Has Internet stardom brought you piles of money?
No. Zero. It was truly not intended as a money-making venture; it was just a form of performance art activism. It was more of a way to change minds, and I never expected it to go take off and hit such a nerve in such an extraordinary way, but that has been a gift, a surprising gift that is worth way more than 10 cents a hit.
Body acceptance is so near and dear to my heart. I’ve wanted to get the message out there as an artist and a writer and an activist for years and years, and to see people finally get it, and move forward in changing their way of thinking, is so powerful and touching. Literally people will run up to me at the store and tell me their story, and tell me I changed their life. I’ll hear stories from people who bought a bathing suit for the first time in 10, 20 years and can now go swimming with their kids. Those moments are worth their weight in gold and there are thousands of them.
Also, the private Facebook group I run went from about 30 people the day I stood in the market to about 930. I’ve heard from so many people in that group that they are revamping their media feed with positive stories and news articles.
What drives the obsession with physical perfection?
Oprah comes to mind. She’s a chronic yo-yo dieter publicly; that’s part of her platform on her television show and in her magazine. She became a spokesperson on the weight loss bandwagon, and she has a lot to gain financially from that. It’s almost entirely driven by money. Especially the diet industry. We’ve now learned nobody likes the word diet so they have changed the wording to “lifestyle changes” or “healthy living.” That’s ultimately selling a product that they know will fail. It’s a brilliant business plan; you’ll never lose the customer. If you fail, they say you’re not using the product right.
I think it symbolizes a way to oppress people, and it’s clearly a form of bigotry. Fat-shaming is in fact a civil rights issue. It was originally part of the civil rights movement, when women’s right and equal rights for people of color, gay and lesbian rights, those important movements gained power, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance was also started in 1969. It has just taken a lot longer to take root and open up peoples’ minds it seems than some other important civil rights issue.
So is this quest of yours about weight?
It’s about something more. It’s about power, about bravery, about courage, about shame and vulnerability, and about education and having a voice. Our bodies are much more than the number on a scale or our Body Mass Index. It’s down to the core of not being ashamed of who you are, and what you do for a job, or what you wear, or how you color your hair or don’t color your hair, or you have a skin defect, or lots of freckles, whatever it is.
We have been taught all of our lives to think a certain way about bodies and health and weight and how they’re all related. It’s so institutionalized by our celebrities, by our media, our doctors, our businesses, our consumer culture. We haven’t thought critically about it. The idea has really gained popularity and mainstream knowledge over the past five years. Boise is a little slow; big ideas and radical concepts seem to come to Boise a little later than to other cities. We don’t hear about them. I don’t know if it’s because we’re isolated or more conservative in nature.
At least half of my email messages are from men all over the world, who have written to me to say my stand has touched them.
Does this matter to anyone who isn’t overweight?
There are statistics that show fat people or people of size are passed up for jobs, for promotions and that sort of thing all the time. It comes down to our bigotry and own perceptions of associating fat with negative connotations, like someone is lazy or lacks ambition or self-direction and is unhealthy, where in fact scientific studies and medicine have shown that’s not true.
If fat people had the same opportunities as everybody else, you’d have more diversity in the workplace, which makes for a better, more fulfilling environment for everyone, not only for employers and employees, but customers and clients as well.