A few weeks ago, we published an advice column, offering advice to a Women Who Travel reader who was feeling self-conscious about stepping out in a swimsuit on an upcoming group trip because of changes to her weight during the pandemic. The question and subsequent advice from Amy Pence-Brown and Stephanie Yeboah, two body image advocates and writers, led us to an even deeper conversation about our bodies—and how the pandemic has affected our relationships with them. So, this week, we're joined by Amy and Stephanie to chat about how they got to the place of self-love they're at now, how the conversation has shifted around fatness during the pandemic, and how we can have healthier relationship with weight changes.
Thanks to Stephanie and Amy for joining us and thanks, as always, to Brett Fuchs for engineering and mixing this episode. As a reminder, you can listen to new episodes of Women Who Travel on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, every Wednesday.
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Lale Arikoglu: Hi, everyone, and welcome to Women Who Travel, a podcast from Condé Nast Traveler. I am Lale Arikoglu and I'm joined, as always, by my co-host Meredith Carey.
Meredith Carey: Hello.
LA: A few weeks ago, we published an advice column helping a Women Who Travel follower, who was feeling anxious about wearing a bathing suit on an upcoming group trip. And like many of us, her body had changed over the course of the pandemic and she wasn't feeling as competent as she had before. Turns out there are a lot of us feeling the same way. So we wanted to dedicate a little more time to talking about our relationships with our bodies, and how that's changed over the past year and a half. Today, we're joined by Amy Pence-Brown, a body image activist, writer, and creator of Radcamp, a body-positive boot camp for feminists and feminist teens; and Stephanie Yeboah, a self-love advocate, blogger and author of Fattily Ever After: A Fat Black Girl's Guide to Living Life Unapologetically. Thank you for joining us.
Stephanie Yeboah: Thank you for having us.
Amy Pence-Brown: Yeah. Glad to be here.
MC: I'm curious what your journey has been like to get here, to being advocates for self-love and opening up this conversation about body image?
SY: So I guess for me, so I've kind of been in the body image/body positivity/fat acceptance space since 2012, I think. For me, my journey towards self-love and learning how to love the body that I'm in has been a very long time in coming, maybe about 16 or 17 years. For me, it was definitely when I started my blog in 2008, and I started joining networks and platforms such as Tumblr and some Facebook groups and things like that where I started seeing these small communities of women who looked like me and were shaped like me professing their love of their bodies and themselves. Whether it was through the medium of content such as photos, or videos, think pieces, poetry, things like that, it was just such a buzzing hub of women who were just learning how to love themselves loudly and unapologetically.
At the time, for me, especially when I finished university, I had always had issues with confidence, and self-love, and learning how to love myself in this body, and have gone through a series of things like eating disorders and internalized fatphobia and all of these things that sort of shaped my perception of my body quite negatively. So I think being able to access these resources online at that particular moment was a life-changing element for me.
So since then, I've used my blog to not only talk about the way in which I'm learning how to love myself, but I also have tried to focus on things such as mental health as well, and how important it is to acknowledge things such as intersectionality when it comes to the issues of body positivity, and self-love, and things of that nature. So for me, it's been a very, very, very long journey and I never thought I would ever get to a point where I could say that I loved myself, or I never thought I would get to a point where I would feel comfortable just calling myself fat, and not feeling grossed out, or embarrassed, or ashamed, or anything like that.
So it's been a very interesting journey, but like a lot of us sort of in that community say, when it comes to confidence and self-love, it's always going to be an everyday thing. It's not like a one-shape-suits-all type of thing. It's an everyday journey of learning how to love yourself.
MC: And Amy, what has your experience been like?
APB: Of course, it's been a lifelong one now that I look back at the age of 45 and how I've been working towards learning to love my larger body most of my life. But it really started when I was a teenager and I started becoming more dissatisfied with beauty standards that were put upon me, and not things that I felt like I wanted to take part in, but things that I felt like I had to do, like having long hair, for one thing. When I was about 16 and I, in a rebellious act, cut it all off really short, shorter than it is now, in my rural, conservative, American Western town in Idaho. It was radical. That was a radical move.
And I often say this, that it was really motherhood that made me a body love activist. It was really motherhood that launched me into a more sort of public way of thinking. I had been already questioning diet culture and being done with it for a number of years when I had my first daughter at the age of 28, and then I had another daughter when I was 32, and this was over 13 years ago now. And that was it—I was done hating my body for the size that it was, and I was done with diet culture, and all of that. And I, 13 years ago now, Googled the words, "Why am I fat and happy?" because I knew no one else in real life who felt that way. And I turned to Google, like all good researchers do, right? I felt I can't be alone, possibly, in this way of thinking, but if I am, then that's okay, but I'm going to try to find out. And Google, 13 years ago—less so today, because I have now since typed that phrase into Google many times, and a lot of different articles come up—but 13 years ago, Google picked up happy and turned it into unhappy when related with the word fat, as Google does. I got pages and pages of ads for the diet industry complex, and I kept scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling, and finally found two blogs that forever changed my life and are now run by colleagues and friends, I'm lucky to say. One is The Curvy Fashionista by Marie Denee, who's a plus-sized fashion blogger.
SY: Love her.
APB: And the other one, The Fat Heffalump by Kath Reid, who's an Australian activist. They had just started those blogs, probably in websites a year before, probably in 2008. I found them in 2009 and they led me to other writers, and bloggers, and Tumblr feeds, and books, really, that I began to devour and it really changed my life. It took me about three years to really read through all of this stuff, and immerse myself in this education, and this culture that was pretty new, and really radical, and then the words started showing up in my writing, on my mommy blog at the time. They started showing up on posts on Facebook. They started showing up in my art, and coming out of my mouth. Fat acceptance was what I identified with 13 years ago as a movement, along with feminism, of course, and civil rights, and all of this that's part of it. And then body positivity as sort of a term and a buzzword came about a few years later. It's definitely helped in a lot of ways to bring a more radical movement to the masses—and it's also sort of watered it down in a lot of ways too.
But regardless, people began liking what I had to say, and liking my words, even though a lot of them hated my words, and didn't like what I had to say. There were enough that did. And I had a local following. I started a group called the Boise Rad Fat Collective—rad short for radical—an online, and in real life group that started with eight other people I knew here in the area in Idaho who were done with diet culture too, and wanted a safe space on the internet, on Facebook
And then just six years ago now, I did this pretty famous, super accidentally famous public performance art piece in a black bikini and a blindfold with a handful of washable markers and a chalkboard sign at my feet that I called The Stand for Self-Love. And the chalkboard sign said, "I'm standing for anyone who suffered from a self-esteem issue like me. If you believe all bodies are valuable, draw a heart on my body." I stood and stripped down into a black bikini in the middle of the busiest place in Boise, which was our Farmer's Market six years ago, and had a photographer there to take some pictures. I thought it was going to be a disaster and it wasn't. I didn't think the photos would capture the humanity and the beauty that happened in that hour in the market, but they did. And quickly, the local news picked it up within 24 hours. I think the national press had picked it up from there. And then within 72 hours, it was international and it's been seen a lot and it continues to be seen a lot.
I was handed a microphone by a lot of press, which is how I'm here today, honestly. They seemed to like what I had to say about bodies and a different way of thinking.
LA: Obviously, our lives have seen a massive shift in the past year and a half due to the pandemic. How have you both noticed the way we talk about our bodies change in the past year and a half? Do you think there's been a noticeable shift in the way we talk about both our own bodies—and I guess other people's too?
SY: It's been an interesting one for me personally because over the last two years... So I live alone and during the pandemic, I had to move apartments twice. So the stress of moving apartments, but then also living alone, not being able to see my family for nearly a year, and all of these stresses and things like that actually made me lose quite a bit of weight during lockdown. It's not something that I tend to talk about, or voice, especially being in the space that I'm in, just because I know that sometimes talking about weight loss and talking about diet culture or exercising and things of that nature—regardless of the intention—sometimes it can be triggering for those who have had previous history of eating disorders or some kind of trauma regarding extreme weight loss. So for me, it's interesting because I finally got to a point where I have accepted how I look, and I'm so happy, and just content in me as a person.
So when I noticed that I'd lost quite a lot of weight, there was a part of me that thought I would feel happy, or relieved, or positive about it. And that was the old internalized fatphobia that I thought would come back and be like, "Oh my gosh, you've lost this amount of pounds or whatever. You should be happy," but actually, I just felt very nonplussed about it. I was just like, "Okay. Don't really care," kind of thing. So for me, it was actually quite surprising that I quite liked my reaction to that. I liked that I didn't care about the fact that I'd lost weight. My self-worth didn't change based on the fact that I'd lost this amount of weight.
I guess in contrast to that, online, from what I've been seeing from my followers and other peers in the industry and with the media and publications, there has been... I won't lie. I feel like it has been incredibly fatphobic with regards to the messaging, especially when we read articles or we look at the press and we see that everybody is just talking about COVID weight gain and “here are some movements that you can do in the gym,” or “here are some exercises that can get you back to your pre-COVID weight,” or in the U.K. anyway, when we had, so I think last October, we had a break. I think it was like a two- or three-week break period where lockdown was lifted before it got relocked down again, where we had all of these articles that were talking about, "Okay, so before Christmas, try and lose this amount of weight, or this amount of weight." And then also with the July that's just gone, where our lockdown was lifted, there were loads of discourse in the press regarding, "Okay, now that lockdown is over, get your ass to the gym. Get your bikini body. " All of these kinds of things. And I just think that this reinforcing of these Westernized sort of body ideals is so damaging to those of us that have been working for years and years and trying to really project the notion of self-love, and not equating your worth to your body, or the numbers that you see on a scale. I feel like it's really just pulled it back because these same articles and press that have been talking about body positivity and highlighting influencers and journalists and people with platforms who are making real moves when it comes to self-love have now just reverted back to talking about weight loss and the diet industry and what diets to test out.
[Also,] there has been this notion of a lot of people being triggered by what's been happening in the news, people that have historically always been very small or thin, suddenly putting on a lot of weight, and not really knowing how to navigate their new bodies, not knowing what to wear, not knowing how to feel because they don't want to be fatphobic, but then also, they don't know how to navigate this new body. They don't know if they feel unattractive, but then they also think, "Well, if I do feel unattractive, then that's me being fatphobic. So then I don't really know. How do I sort of fight these two things?"
So for me, I've spent a lot of the time this pandemic advising people and talking to other women and just trying to, I guess, offer reassurance. Because I think lockdown has been hard on all of us and our bodies have just been trying to cope. In a way it is a kind of trauma, especially for those of us that live alone, or are quite isolated. Of course, it's going to be natural if you're not out and about every day and you're at home most of the time, there can be some weight gain and I think it's just been important for us to hold space for that, and to have grace and compassion for our bodies just trying to make it through a pandemic, and doing whatever it needs to do to have that fuel, and to have that energy. And if it means weight gain, then so be it.
But weight gain is not the worst thing a person can have, or a person can do. And so for me, it has been a lot of people very frightened and very scared and very confused about how to feel about this weight gain. I just think that what we're seeing in magazines and online articles about weight loss is not helping those situations at all.
LA: Amy, what have you noticed during this period?
APB: Yeah, much of the same that Stephanie talked about, and from the get-go, of course, when COVID-19 was sweeping across the world, I knew immediately—as happens with any sort of illness or medical malady—that fatness would be somehow to blame. Somehow that would come in there. I literally called it. I said these words to my scientist husband when it was almost hitting America and said, "Watch, being fat is going to be a reason here, a cause of getting COVID-19," right? That's going to be a fear that's going to come out because being fat is literally the problem for everything, right? And I know this, as a fat person who's grown up going to the doctor and medical providers, and I am what would be called like a small fat. There's sort of a scale of fatness—there are all sorts of scales of body sizes, right? I'm not super fat. I'm not. I don't live in a large body. I'm not marginalized in a lot of other ways like other people's bodies are based on their gender, or their skin color, or their size. But I have experienced medical fatphobia my entire life. And I've heard stories from people in my Rad Fat Collective, and other followers, and other fat people I know who experienced extraordinary medical fatphobia all the time for everything. A sprained ankle is because they're fat. A sinus infection is because they're fat and they leave with this prescription for a diet and a pamphlet for bariatric surgery. It's a very common thing. And so I knew that with COVID-19, one of the sort of causes or one of the high risk associations would be "obesity." And sure enough, that was the case. And so that just fed into that fatphobia that we already all have internalized, and everyone was terrified of getting COVID, and then being fat was just another… Now your likelihood of getting COVID is even greater. And of course, they've since sort of luckily, a lot of research and data as we have it so far has sort of debunked that, but it's taken a little bit of time. So that just fed into the fear of COVID from the get-go.
And then like Stephanie was talking about, we already had this fatphobia, and culturally, that people were afraid of gaining weight. And immediately I started seeing jokes, like literally within three weeks of the virus hitting the United States, jokes about gaining the “quarantine 15,” which is in the U.S. there's this saying about girls in particular going off to college and gaining the “freshman 15,” which is like a weight gain that often happens probably because their bodies are changing at the age of 18 or 19. But people like to say it's because they're eating poorly in college, out of their parents' homes, right? So this is a big joke is “freshmen 15” and “quarantine 15” was the take on that. And/or this joke about memes were going around about gaining the “COVID 19,” in regards to the 19 pounds that you would gain. So that I noticed right away. And of course, like Stephanie mentioned, that has continued and perpetuated and in fact, some people have gained weight during the pandemic because they are locked down. They might be eating more. It might be a trauma response. It might be a number of things that are happening, but they've also likely lost weight, like Stephanie mentioned as well, because that's life and that's what our bodies do.
LA: Our entire lifestyles have changed. To expect that our bodies wouldn't change with that is extraordinary.
MC: So this is kind of looping in a little bit with what you guys talked to Megan about [in the advice column], but this summer saw a lot of us traveling with friends, or with family for the first time since early 2020, which is an experience that can potentially bring up a lot of insecurities about the way we look or feel in the company of others specifically. What is your advice for starting open conversations with friends if we're not feeling a hundred percent our most confident selves? Like you were saying, Stephanie, it being kind of like a day by day thing, how do you talk to other people about that?
SY: I think for me, I feel quite fortunate with the fact that a lot of my friends are also fat, so they get it, and the ones that aren't are very... I don't want to use the word “woke.” I hate that term, but they're very clued up on recent discourse surrounding self-love and body image. But there have been instances where, and I always say this is, is that I think it's so important to place boundaries, and to sort of instigate boundaries with your friends regarding anything to do with weight. So, one thing that I hate people saying, and the thing is, a lot of the time friends won't even know that they're being fatphobic when they say certain things. They might think that they are being motivating or inspiring or they think for the most part, it comes from "a good place," but they won't realize how inherently fatphobic it is until we tell them. So when people say things when they haven't seen you in a while, or you may have lost weight, you may have put on weight, and they say something like, "Oh, you look amazing. You've lost weight." Something like that, it may sound harmless, but to kind of have that notion that somebody looks better because they've lost weight is not the best way to kind of go about things.
And just in general, nobody should be commenting on the bodies of anybody. Whether you've lost weight or put on weight, nobody should be commenting at all. And then just sometimes it's even like in the little phrases or words that we use that may sound harmless at first, but sometimes it can have insidious roots, as well. So I don't know, even with things like if you were asking your friend what they thought of this bikini or something like that, like for me, I'm very much a fan of not trying to go by dress size numbers or clothing size numbers. I just wear something that I think would fit me, and if I don't, then I'll size up. If it doesn't fit, then I'll size down. But I don't like to place so much weight—no pun intended—on the number on the clothing item, because it doesn't matter at the end of the day. I think we have such a spiritual bondage with clothing sizes and how much they determine our worth. It doesn't matter at the end of the day. And so I think with friends, it is important just to have those boundaries and just to say if you are feeling uncomfortable, to tell them that you would rather not them have these conversations around you. And if they love you and care for you, and want to respect your wishes, then they will do that no questions asked. But if they kind of react in a bit of a bitchy, weird way, then it can say a lot about the friendship, or it can say a lot about how they view fat bodies in general.
APB: Yeah. All of everything Stephanie said, I totally agree with. That is the least interesting thing about us, how much weight we've gained, or lost, or what our body looks like. Hopefully, we've all come to realize that as we've been through something pretty traumatic, are currently going through something pretty traumatic. We are losing a lot of people, and lives, and livelihoods, and jobs, literally, to this deadly pandemic, right? And you'd think it would maybe more fine tune what really matters in our lives, which is spending time with people that you love, doing things that we're all lucky to do every day, going to a cabin, or swimming in a lake, or putting on a bathing suit and feeling the sun, or having coffee in the morning and conversation, that there are a lot more important things to talk about than, again, like Stephanie said, the number of the tag of the bathing suit we're wearing, right? Or what our bodies look like. But turning the conversations to more important things about what we feel.
LA: Amy, one of the tactics you suggested in the advice column was to follow women of all sizes on social media and to fill your feed with all kinds of bodies. Who are the women you would both recommend we all follow right now?
APB: Oh gosh, there are a lot including the two of us here talking today. Actually, there's so many people now. That's the greatest thing about social media. There weren't that many in the beginning when I first found this movement, but now there are so many that you can really tailor your feed to people who look like you, right? Have the same body size and shape as you, the same gender as you, have the same interests as you, even, right? Are the same age as you.
And while that's super important because representation matters in such a big way, right? It's really powerful to see people who look like you living their best lives on screen. I also caution against curating your feed too much to be too like you. It's important to me to have a lot of people with different perspectives than me that live different lives because I learn a lot from them, a lot.
SY: I just feel like, like Amy said, I feel like there are so many people who, depending on how you identify, or your beliefs, or whatever the case may be, I feel like there is like a person for every single box, which is amazing. So I guess, for me, one of them is Gabi Gregg. She used to go by Gabi Fresh and she is on Instagram and she is, I guess, I don't know if she's the founder. Maybe, but she really made popular the idea of the “fatkini.” So she creates these beautiful swimsuits and fatkinis for plus size women, and lingerie as well. She has this collaboration with a lingerie brand in the U.K. and she just creates these beautiful bits of lingerie that I've always thought would be inaccessible for larger women. So whether it's like peephole things, or lace, or bralettes, and things like that, so she has been instrumental in me learning how to love myself loudly because I love buying lingerie now, and just seeing how I look in it, and feeling confident. And I know that a lot of other women have been able to really find that confidence in being able to wear things that everybody else is able to wear.
Jessamyn Stanley as well is a huge advocate of mine. She's a yoga teacher and she is just incredible with everything she does. She kind of proves and tries to teach people that you can be healthy at any size. Oh, she's just incredible, and just so funny, and strong, and she's just great at giving really, really good advice as well.
Who else? Jes Baker, as well, is an amazing writer and somebody that I've been following in the field for a really, really long time. I think even in the U.K., some of the influencers that I sort of knew growing up were people like Callie Thorpe, Danielle Vanier, who are more on the fashion and lifestyle side of things. Bethany Rutter, who's an author, and so she's like a sort of fat positivity, but then she does a lot of writing, and writes romance novels and things like that. So there's a box for everybody, which I think is amazing. But yeah, I can't even like... Oh, Sonya Renee Taylor, as well, is amazing. Yeah, there's just so many people. I can't even think.
APB: And in addition to people, there's lots of organizations, that are essentially groups of people, doing great things and doing great work. I mean, in regards to body-positive parenting, which is something I talk about a lot, and get a lot of requests for, pages, and organizations and websites like Feeding Littles is one, Sex Positive Families is one, Amaze.org is another one. So there are great resources out there too for all sorts of facets of body image and body positivity. Like you said, if you're into fashion, or you're an academic, or a writer, or a parent, whatever it is, there are lots of great resources now.
LA: Lots and lots of stuff to dive into.
MC: Yes, exactly. You will be able to find links to everyone and every group mentioned in the show notes, so be sure to check them out for yourself. If people want to find you, Amy, and you, Stephanie, on the internet, where can they find you?
SY: So for me, my website is just my full name stephanieyeboah.com, and my Twitter and Instagram is also @stephanieyeboah, but I'd probably advise just following my Instagram because my Twitter, I mostly spend my time on there arguing with fatphobic people, and racists, and all of that great stuff. So the Instagram is more aspirational and positive than the Twitter.
MC: And, Amy, how about you?
APB: I also love Instagram. The handle is @idaho_amy, which lots of people call me, Idaho Amy. Otherwise, my website is also my full name, amypencebrown.com. Facebook, of course, I've used for a long time. You can find me there at Amy Pence-Brown, Writer, Artist, Body Image Activist, and also the Boise Rad Fat Collective is on there as well. It is open to people from all over the world, and all genders, and sizes, and it's currently full. I cap that group at 3,500 to keep it safe, and intimate, and manageable, and there was a long wait list, but everyone is welcome if they're open-minded, and can post positive, and have a little bit of radicalness in them, they are welcome to join that. And I mentioned Twitter, I've been there the longest. It's also not really for me, but I am there. Occasionally I'll post.
MC: Well, be sure to follow them and follow Women Who Travel on Instagram @WomenWhoTravel. If you're looking to continue the conversation about the intersection of travel and the body positivity movement, I'd recommend going back and listening to an episode we recorded last January with Women Who Travel contributor Laura Delarato, and Annette Richmond, creator of the Fat Girls Traveling. It'll be linked in the show notes as well. Be sure to also subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter and I think that is all. Thank you both so much for joining us and we'll talk to everyone else next week.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler