Mom of Three Strips Down to Bikini in Public to Challenge Body Shamers

Amy Pence-Brown bared it all to raise awareness of how people view folks who don’t meet conventional beauty standards.

(Photo: Vimeo)

Sep 10, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Magazines and fitness websites are full of eating and exercise tips offering to help people—usually women—get their bodies ready for swimsuit season. Being “ready” means being slim and trim, without any visible cellulite or love handles. But last week, Amy Pence-Brown, a body-positive activist in Boise, Idaho, who doesn’t fit society’s narrow standards of beauty, decided to rock her bikini in public. Her goal: to get people to think about the relationship between body image and self-esteem.

The mom of three, who is a founder of the Boise Rad Fat Collective, headed to the Capital City Public Market in downtown Boise at noon—a time when she knew the farmers market would be packed with people. She stripped down to her bikini, blindfolded herself, and invited people to use markers to draw hearts on her skin in support of self-confidence.

“The hush in the crowd around me was instantaneous and I barely had time to tie on my blindfold, prop up my sign and grab my markers before the first woman rushed up to me, touched my hand with her shaky one, told me I was brave and powerful and asked if she could give me a hug and started to cry. And then I cried, too,” wrote Pence-Brown on her blog.

“But I could tell she didn’t just draw a heart on my body. She wrote a word. In fact, by the end of my fifty minutes of continuous public support, there were dozens of words that covered my body, and even more hearts,” she continued.

Pence-Brown’s experiment was inspired by a recent video that went viral from The Liberators International, an Australian organization that invites people to take part in “participatory acts of freedom that allow us to see that beyond our differences there is love and humanity,” according to its website. The Liberators clip features a woman named Jae West, who is recovering from an eating disorder. A blindfolded West took off her clothes, stood in her black bra and underwear in London’s Picadilly Circus, and invited “people to draw hearts on her body if they share her promotion of self-acceptance,” wrote Pence-Brown.

(West’s experiment might remind you of Serbian artist Marina Abramović’s groundbreaking 1974 piece of performance art, Rhythm 0, 1974, in which a blindfolded Abramović invited the public to do whatever they wanted to her nude body. Given that an audience member pointed a gun at Abramović’s head and people chose to draw hearts on West in London, it certainly seems we’ve come a long way in the past 41 years.)

Pence-Brown and other members of her body acceptance collective began to wonder, what would happen if they tried to mimic West’s stunt?

“How would it be received if the woman had been less socially acceptable in appearance, like, fat? And, say, a mom who’s nearly 40 years old? And in a place that was more conservative and less progressive than London like, say, Boise, Idaho?” she wrote.

It turns out folks scrawled words such as “badass” and “power” and phrases such as “You are gorgeous” and “Stand strong” onto Pence-Brown’s arms, legs, and torso. She also blogged about people, such as a dad with his two young sons, coming up to her and telling her how beautiful she is, and teen girls who told her she is “an inspiration and a role model.”

In the past week, more than 173,000 people have viewed her video of her experience on Vimeo, and folks are leaving comments on Pence-Brown’s other social media platforms, detailing how her decision to stand in public in a bikini has moved them.

“I saw (& shared) your video on Facebook (I cried) & have come to find you here. I applaud your courage & was so moved watching both women and men write on your beautiful body. Thank you for daring to show that all bodies ARE beautiful. I’m on my own journey with my body, making progress, and you have encouraged me today,” wrote Instagram user Gwenniep, echoing the sentiments of many commenters.

It might seem strange to some that people would cry after viewing Pence-Brown’s video, but the lack of body confidence out there is real. According to a 2007 survey by Fitness magazine, 20 percent of women said they’d choose walking on hot coals over wearing a swimsuit in public, and half will skip attending pool parties to avoid it.

RELATED: Ladies, You’re Not Fat or Ugly: One Mom’s Mission to Counteract Body Shaming

Meanwhile, young girls following the selfies and magazine spreads of thin celebs and models—such as Taylor Swift and her “squad,” including models Gigi Hadid and Cara Delevingne—are likely to feel anxiety over what they look like in a swimsuit too. Indeed, half of girls in grades 5–12 want to lose weight because of magazine images, according to the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders.

When you watch the video below or view pictures from Pence-Brown’s time at the farmers market in Boise, you’ll see the things society shames women for—and plenty to be proud of. As Pence-Brown puts it, “the sweat running down my rolls of back fat, cellulite (on strong legs that have carried me for four decades), a wonky bikini top with sagging breasts (that nourished three babies), stretch marks (that represent my transition from a chubby adolescent to a curvy teenager to a woman who’s been pregnant [multiple] times), and darkly tanned skin (from a summer spent at the Boise Public Pools with my friends and my children).”