Late in the summer, there was this video running rampant on social media. It showed a tanned woman in a black bikini, standing in the middle of a busy public market with a blindfold wrapped around her gray-streaked hair. Her cellulite and fat rolls were daringly exposed, and she held an array of markers in her hands. The sign at her feet asked passerby to draw a heart on her body if they supported self-love.
All images courtesy of Melanie Folwell Portrait + Design
If you watched this video, you might not have realized that you were seeing a real live goddess. Webster’s Dictionary defines a goddess as “a woman whose great charm or beauty arouses adoration.” The majority of our society typically aligns these traits (great charm and beauty) with celebrities or models. Amy Pence-Brown is neither of these things. She’s an artist and homemaker who lives in Boise, Idaho. But Amy is part of a growing segment of our society who is fed up with the way popular media glorifies thin bodies. As a chubby child turned curvy teenager turned fat mother, Amy always weighed more than her peers. She was teased as a child and made fun of in high school for being the “fat cheerleader.” As a teenager in rural Idaho, she internalized these messages of shame, devouring glamour magazines, secretly taking diet pills, and becoming addicted to exercise.
At the same time, she was rebelling against traditional standards of beauty. At the age of 16, she cut her long curls into a pixie. Her hair began to turn silver at 18, around the same time she began to study art history. She ended up with dual bachelor’s degrees in American History and Public Communications, a minor in Women’s Studies, and a master’s degree in art/architectural history. Throughout her education, Amy studied the works of other fat activists, feminists, and writers (e.g. Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta, the Guerilla Girls and Sally Mann). Amy eventually began creating her own art about femininity and motherhood (she had her first daughter at the age of 28, when she finally stopped dieting and grew out her natural silver streaks). Amy’s viral video, which captures her Stand for Self-Love at Boise’s Capital City Farmer’s Market, is a natural evolution of her artist/activist roots.
When you watch Amy’s video, you will experience a visceral reaction. Possibilities include: shock, awe, love, joy, tears, laughter, amazement. I was prepared to experience each one of these, based on the numerous notes my friends sent my way, urging me to “Watch & Share This!” Their encouragement made perfect sense. After all, I just took a stand of my own with the launch of my Courageous Self Love Campaign. I am ashamed to admit that my reaction to Amy’s video – after awe – was jealousy (which shocked and saddened me, but being a human is messy, man). As I watched Amy’s video for the first time, I saw a women with awesome hair. Beautiful tan skin. Cellulite and a pear-shaped body similar to mine. But above all of these things, she was making a Stand for Self-Love. This is the exact goal of my website: empower people to love themselves regardless of their external appearance.
The big difference is that I started my website a matter of weeks ago. I’m still finding my voice. In Amy’s video, what you cannot see is that she’s an expert artist and activist. Many of the news reports about her Stand for Self-Love focus only on the performance itself; why she did it and the response she got. But my curiosity propelled me to dig deeper, and I realized that she’s spent years unearthing her voice; recognizing that her fat was actually her source of power.
As I’ve experienced more and more of Amy’s wisdom, I’ve been amazed by the graceful way she embraces her status as a fat woman. For all the years she’s been loving her body, I’ve been shaming mine. It is this shame that fueled my jealous reaction to Amy’s video. Luckily, my curiosity is stronger than my fear and shame, and I repeatedly watched the video. I read the news coverage. I read Amy’s blog. And with each new piece of background data, I became enraptured by Amy’s boldness. This is a woman who listens to the heartbeat of her soul, paying close attention to that loving inner voice. The voice that recognized her radical feelings of happy fatness, and then dared to ask why. Literally – she full on Googled the question “Why am I fat and happy?”
With that Google search, Amy fell into the body positivity/fat acceptance movement. She studied our society’s denigration of fat people: where it comes from; why it happens; how to move past it. She took matters into her own hands, tackling a global problem with a local solution – the Boise Rad Fat Collective. This is a private Facebook group Amy started two years ago, when her attempts at scholarly discussions of fat activism were met with vile hatred and false voices of concern. Amy’s new group became a safe space, where other feminists could discuss the radical concepts of fat acceptance and health at every size.
It was the Boise Rad Fat Collective that gave Amy the courage to make her Stand for Self-Love. To face her fears and stand up against the noisy, hateful, shaming critics. She took a stand with grace, love, and a crazy amount of intentionality. I use the phrase “crazy” because she chose to really listen to her fears (which is atypical in our society). Amy gave her fears a voice in her planning efforts. Her fear said, “No one will draw a heart on your body!” Amy listened, respectfully, and made a plan for that potentiality. She planted a friend in the market, with strict instructions to draw the first heart if no one had stepped forward within 10 minutes. But it only took 10 SECONDS for the first person to step forward, full of awe and gratitude and tears.
Amy gave that same friend another, very wise purpose: observe and report on all of the people inspired by Amy. This friend was to capture the chatter surrounding Amy’s performance and the people of all types and sizes who engaged with her. Young girls. Old women. Fat women who understood Amy’s exact struggle. Thin women who harbored embarrassment about their small breasts. A middle-aged man who told his teenaged sons that she was the very image of a beautiful woman.
This friend turned out to have a critical role, because every inch of Amy’s exposed skin was covered by markers after just 50 minutes. Amy’s Stand for Self-Love concluded only because there was no more physical space for the love spilling out of that crowd. But Amy’s friend witnessed all the love that her skin was unable to hold. As did the second friend Amy had thoughtfully collaborated with – a professional photographer who captured the love via photo and video. That video broke open an entire world of supporters (no joke – this mama from Idaho has touched the lives of people from Cambodia to Kenya to Qatar). And there is no way to contain an entire planet that supports Amy’s brilliance, beauty, and exceptional sense of self.
These elements are what make up Urban Dictionary’s definition of a goddess, by the way. But it’s important that we understand – there is a goddess within every single one of us. Emery Allen, wise artist and author of “Become,” said:
“Kiss your own fingertips and hug your own curves. You are made of waves and honey and spicy peppers when it is necessary. You are a goddess. I hope you haven’t forgotten.
My darlings, I’m sad to say that I had forgotten. Or maybe no one ever taught me. In any case, Amy Pence-Brown has shown me (well, all of us, really). Amy boldly took a stand, showing us what is possible when you face your fears and move past them. She’s showing us how to be kind to ourselves; to love ourselves where we are right now. This doesn’t have to look like Amy’s radical performance in the market (in fact, it probably won’t). Amy advises that we start small: eat what you want for one day; exercise for fun rather than out of fear; buy an outfit that makes you feel wonderful, regardless of the number on the tag.
And she’s far from done. Luckily for us, Amy’s radical stand has enabled her to line up an entire year’s worth of engagements; to spread even more of her brilliant art and activism. For starters, you can read her innermost thoughts on her blog, “Doin It All, Idaho Style.” She’s been interviewed by a host of major news outlets and podcasts. Next week, Amy is a featured speaker at a Boise State sorority's "Tri Love" week. She will return to the Idaho public market an honored guest this Saturday (10/24), handing out #AllBodiesAreGoodBodies coloring sheets to Boise's next generation.
Amy’s radical stand started as just one piece of her “40 tiny beautiful things before 40” celebration, and has turned into a worldwide movement. A new goddess has entered our lives, and may we never be the same again.