Three years ago, Amy Pence-Brown ’05 MA walked into a busy farmers market in Boise, Idaho, stripped down to a black bikini and put on a blindfold. In front of her were a handful of washable markers and a chalkboard that read: “I’m standing for anyone who has struggled with a self-esteem issue, like me, because all bodies are valuable. To support self-acceptance, draw a heart on my body.”
For nearly an hour, people wrote words and drew hearts all over Pence-Brown’s body until there was no room left to write.
A video of the performance art piece – “The Stand for Self-Love” – went viral, garnering more than 200 million views to date. Media across the world including CNN, USA Today, Cosmopolitan, People, “Today,” Huffington Post, “The Dr. Oz Show,” NPR and Shape magazine featured her story. In a TEDx Talk the following year, Pence-Brown spoke about her experience standing in the market that day saying, “In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.”
Pence-Brown’s body positive message is still going strong. The Idaho native, who lives in Boise with her husband and three children, holds body positive boot camps for women and teens, regularly blogs about issues, has just finished writing a book and frequently talks to media about the body positive work she does. In July, Pence-Brown was quoted in the Time story, “Can Gen X Women Love Their Bodies?” We recently chatted with her about everything from that day in the market to her time at St. Thomas in the College of Arts and Sciences Art History program. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
On how she kept the momentum going after “The Stand for Self-Love” went viral: I didn’t plan any of it – it was a grassroots-type of thing. I didn’t have a lot of experience in going viral or trying to go viral. It did seem like people in the media and regular folks were all surprised I didn’t just wake up one morning and take my clothes off in the market spontaneously. I had already been working as a body image activist and a feminist for six years. I was asked to do these interviews and people realized they also liked what I was saying. The words coming out of my mouth were powerful, important and valid. My story was their story, too.
I emerged in many people’s minds as a leader in the movement. People kept asking me for interviews. They liked that I was smart, educated and thoughtful about bodies, body positivity and fat acceptance. I’m also a writer, artist and historian. They would ask me to write for them, be a guest on a podcast or interview me for something else. It all leads from one thing to another.
On what people took away from her video: The whole point of that performance, for me, was to show other people that I’m at peace with my body exactly how it is right now and perhaps you can be too. I can stand here before you and by you looking at my body, maybe you’ll think about your body and all its “imperfections” and see yourself and other bodies differently. Perhaps with more compassion, kindness and openness.
I call it a social activism performance art piece. The people I’ve met since and talked to since that video went viral, they’ll tell you, and I certainly felt it, the humanity and the acceptance positivity emanating from me out into that space and surrounding that moment was extraordinary. It was palpable. It comes across in the video and in the photos.
Within 10 seconds of me taking off my clothes and putting on the blindfold, a woman came up to me and picked up a marker. She was crying, she was shaking, she was talking to me. That type of interaction continued throughout the nearly hour I was there. People told me their stories and how I was affecting not only them, but the whole space around us. I couldn’t see them, so they were telling me what was happening around me. I could also hear them talking to other strangers and sharing personal stories about past trauma or hope or concerns about their children and their bodies.
On what needs to change for body acceptance to occur: I do talks and teach workshops. I just got back from RADCAMP for feminists I run every summer in the mountains of Idaho – I do a teen version, too. There are many ways people could add more acceptance and body positivity to their lives. I truly believe it has to start within you. You have to take the personal steps to be more accepting toward yourself and that will lead to greater compassion toward others. Then that will lead to you practicing what you preach and living by example. Other people within your own family, workplace or classroom will see that. As an activist, living by example is the biggest and best way I can advocate not only for myself, but for my kids and family.
On how her time at St. Thomas influenced her current-day work: I ended up getting a master’s degree in art history from St. Thomas – my emphasis was architectural history and museum studies. I did a lot of work while I was there on women and bodies, so all of this was building up to the type of activist I am today. I presented at many conferences and ended up writing on the architecture of the American funeral home for my master’s degree.
One paper I did for a class at St. Thomas was on images of breastfeeding in colonial Latin American art, which I presented at a conference too, and that certainly feeds into this work I do now. All of the work I did on death positivity and the American way of death directly feeds into my body positivity work. I use art as an important part of my activism. That stand in the market was a performance art piece. All of the research I was doing while at St. Thomas exposed me to feminist artists whose work has directly influenced me still to this day. That work inspired me.