Body Revolution

When Jes Baker decided to accept her body, it started a revolution. And ground zero was Tucson, which is about to host the first Body Love Conference

To the stupid man who dumped Jes Baker a few years back and uttered the words, "Someday you'll find someone who finds you attractive," we want to kiss you right now.

All of Tucson plus all the cool chicks in the universe and the guys and girls who love them should buy you drinks. In fact, if you came forward right now, we'd buy you a dozen. Not that we necessarily want to wish alcohol poisoning on you, but we can't thank you enough for being the obvious asshole you are.

Without your asshole-ry, Baker may not have gone on the journey that made her a blog star, body-acceptance crusader and—with the help of a crew of volunteers—creator of the Body Love Conference. The all-day event at the UA Memorial Student Union on Saturday, April 5, is for everyone of every size, bringing together local and nationally known body-acceptance advocates and artists for a day of workshops.

"I have that relationship to thank for everything I have right now," Baker said, recalling that she asked her former boyfriend if he was dumping her because she gained weight during their relationship. His response was, "I can't say yes or no." At first she told him she would try to lose weight, but a moment later she told him to forget it because she realized it wasn't love and that it was time for them to split up.

So she started her journey, and part of that meant deciding that she was going to live her life as fat and sexy, and that when she dated that's how she would present herself. "And it worked," Baker said.

But it didn't happen until after months of soul searching. She read books and she took care of herself, not in some contrived Jenny Craig plan, but in a way that sometimes required spending time on a couch with cupcakes and a good cat by her side.

Then she took what she learned and unleashed herself on the blogosphere, eventually creating The Militant Baker ('s where the revolution began, even though an uprising wasn't exactly what she had in mind when she started. It was all about loving herself and feeling sexy no matter what that boy told her a while ago.

Nowadays, revolutions start by going viral

The Weekly first talked to Baker in May 2013 when her blog audience grew from around 20,000 readers to close to a million after several of her posts on body acceptance, one in particular featuring Baker in a bikini.

Baker, who works for a local mental health agency, says her blog was a necessary creative outlet and that she was inspired by other body-acceptance blogs from women like her living "joyous lives." Mostly her posts were about mental health and day-to-day life. But sometimes they were manifestos, with headlines such as "Things No One Likes to Tell Fat Girls, but I Will."

Yep, it went viral, with introspective tidbits like, "A guy can pick you up off your feet, and it won't break his back. 'Wait, whaaaaaa Jes? You're full of shit.' Nope. This just happened to me for the first time in ... six years? I'm considerably heavier than I was six years ago (like ... 70 pounds heavier) and so when I ran up to my friend Eric for a hug and he picked me up with my heels in the air ... it left me breathless. I had forgotten that it was possible; I had accepted a life void of being lifted. So exhilarating. Eric didn't suffer any injuries and walked away unscathed."

Or, "You don't need to exercise every day in order to feel better about yourself. Many believe that someone who's fat needs to exercise as much as possible in order to prove that they're committed to becoming 'less fat.' As if accepting one's body as is would be a sin, and that's just silly. Yes, exercising has wonderful physical and mental benefits, but you don't owe it to anyone else to make an effort to change your body unless you wanna. You do not have to alter yourself to be OK. Period."

As of the Weekly's press time that post had more than 2,500 comments. Some of the commenters offered diet advice and others were downright mean, but Baker said she's figured how to deal with the bad and not take it personally.

After all, she also discovered the good in going viral—getting published on xoJane and being invited on NBC's Today show after she posted an open letter to Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries, which experienced viral glory, too.

Baker, who was raised Mormon in Tucson, says her past life was the complete opposite of who she is today, but she considers that a gift.

"I have been the black-and-white opposite," she said. "I have been the religious zealot, perfect and pure, who followed the rules for so long. And it wasn't just something I played; it was something I really believed. But I am so grounded in what I believe now, and it is very progressive and very liberal and open-minded. So I understand and often see both sides of polarizing issues."

When it came to body image, Baker said she was always a chubby kid and that growing up, she never thought she would think of herself differently. "I thought you just hated yourself and that was just the way it was," she said.

A girl in her fifth-grade class nicknamed her "Hippo" and she recalls that when her mom told her that a shirt she loved was unflattering to her arms, "I couldn't wear it any longer."

Baker said it wasn't until a few years ago, when she got out of a bad relationship and started reading body-positive blogs, that she realized for the first time that "I didn't have to hate myself for the rest of my life.

"You have to get to a place where you don't hate yourself, which is very difficult," she said. But when you finally reach that place, it "is truly transformative; that's where the magic truly happens."

Baker recognizes that her revolution also started because she became part of a community of politically-minded women doing their own work to change the world—women like Tucson photographer Liora K. Dudar, with her Feminist Photographs project on body autonomy; Tucson Fashion Week founder and designer and CandyStrike owner Elizabeth Denneau; and Tucson photographer Jade Beall, co-founder of the Movement Shala and Fed by Threads, whose book A Beautiful Body Project is a collection of images celebrating mothers' bodies that challenges how society looks at women and beauty.

All of these women have been collaborators on Baker's journey. For example, when Baker wrote the letter to Abercrombie and Fitch's CEO, Dudar took amazing photos of Baker wearing some of the company's clothes that the CEO said weren't for heavy folks. She posed, sexy and curvaceous as hell, with a male model. A more recent collaboration is Lust Worthy, a series of mock perfume ads that also challenges beauty myths, with Baker giving it her all and proving to be pretty damn lustworthy.

The collaborations, what she's written on her blog and her appearances on news programs— as well as a new gig on the college lecture tour—form the backstory for next month's conference.

"The reality is that the way we view our bodies is the way we participate in the world, and that affects every fucking thing we do," Baker said.

She said it was difficult to get corporate sponsors for the conference because the concept is so new. But because Baker has her own track record, it wasn't hard for her to convince many of those in the body-positive world to come to Tucson and speak at the conference free.

"So speaking your truth and putting it out there, even when it goes against everything we've been told, is always, always the right thing to do," Baker said.

When you start a revolution, be sure to invite your friends

If Baker is the philosopher of the body-love revolution, Dudar is one of its foremost chroniclers.

In March 2012, as the Republican Party was attacking birth control and abortion rights—even banning the word "vagina" from being said aloud on the House floor and dishing advice on putting an aspirin between the legs to prevent pregnancy—Dudar says she grabbed her camera to respond in the best way she knows how—by creating art.

The Feminist Photographs show mostly women, mostly unclothed, with different phrases painted on them: "I have a sex life," "Rape is not a blessing" and "End slut shaming," for example. As she shared the photos, reaction grew and they went viral on Upworthy, Marie Claire magazine, The Feminist Wire, Unite Women and, yes, The Militant Baker.

Dudar says she met Baker in 2012 at a Denim Day rally in Phoenix, with Baker recognizing Dudar's name from the Feminist Photographs project. The word "feminism" had never seemed contrived or negative to Dudar, who grew up in a home where feminism was part of life—including going to pro-choice rallies with her sister, mother, grandmother, aunts and cousins.

Dudar said collaborating with Baker was a natural extension of her beliefs as well as the beginning of an important friendship.

"We just really hit it off. She told me about a blog she was starting called Militant Baker and from there we started working together. I love photographing her. She leaves it all behind and goes for it," Dudar said.

Dudar said the Feminist Photographs project was an extension of her interest in body autonomy and reproductive rights. In 2012 she found herself getting angry and frustrated, and just signing a petition didn't seem like it would have much impact.

"It's troubling that these issues are starting to resurface again—a woman's body and who can claim it—it's the great unsolved crisis," she lamented.

While Dudar is the opposite of Baker in terms of size, the photographer says Baker has helped her better understand her own body issues growing up and as a young adult.

During a photo shoot they organized in Tucson last year, bringing together 68 women of varying sizes and shapes, Dudar did something she'd never done before as a photographer. She had asked the participants to take off most of their clothes for the shoot, but then realized that for some, it was asking a lot. So she went topless for the remainder of the shoot and received a healthy round of applause.

"That 68-women shoot was the first time I broke out from what I normally do, the mechanical thinking of being a photographer," Dudar said. "Photography topless— I'd never done that before. That day was an opening up and a great sense of revealing. ... It was a great environment and everybody cheered."

Dudar has read the personal attacks that Baker has been subjected to online, and they are often related to their collaborations. She describes some of the comments as well-meaning but still fat-shaming, a reminder to Dudar of why their work is so important.

"I've learned that you don't change when you are unhappy. You have to love yourself first," she said.

"Body acceptance affects everyone—there's fat-shaming, fit-shaming, skinny-shaming—there's everything. But look, you have one body. You do with it what you want. Everyone has different goals and you have to learn to accept who you are."

Dudar is hoping that the Body Love Conference will help attendees begin to look at their own bodies differently.

"It's an emotional and difficult process to say, 'I am not ashamed for being myself,' but I think the conference will be the first step for many people."

Revolution meets wardrobe; toss out your copy of Vogue

Elizabeth Denneau jokes that her activism really isn't that radical.

"My role as an activist in body acceptance is clothing people and clothing them in interesting things, not just, like, sweatpants from Walmart."

Denneau is a local fashion designer. She founded Tucson Fashion Week and ran it for two years. These days, she's busy making handmade clothing that's available at the online boutique CandyStrike.

Denneau traces her start in designing unique clothing to movies from the 1980s.

"I came of age in the '90s, but growing up, my aunts that I lived with were all teenagers and they watched a lot of John Hughes movies," she said. "The first one I saw that made a huge impact was Pretty in Pink. Because here's Andie: She's superfashionable, she's superpoor, and she makes her own prom dress. I noticed how she ripped apart one prom dress and put it together with another one. It's probably the ugliest prom dress known to mankind. But I just thought it was the coolest thing, and I was like, 'I can do that. I can go buy a $5 dress at the thrift store.' I owe a lot to John Hughes."

Denneau laughs when recalling her mother's dismay at seeing her rip up new clothes that her grandmother had given her.

"I was always ripping things apart. I was always bigger, so I had to learn to be comfortable in my own body. I wanted to be very fashion-y and there were fewer options then."

 Those limited options eventually led to Denneau starting her own fashion empire.

 "As soon as I learned I could be the prom queen at size 18, which I was, I didn't see any reason why anyone else couldn't," Denneau said. "I always said, you couldn't tell me I couldn't do things because I'm black, because I have a vagina or because I'm fat. As soon as you tell me I can't do something because of that, I'm going to do it."

CandyStrike caters to women of all sizes, and Denneau and her small team make all of the clothes by hand. Love her Bee Print Shirt Dress but have concerns about how it will fit your chest? No problem. She'll make it right for you.

"It became a little bit like, well, I don't want to call it therapy, but a place where women could sit and talk to me about what their problems were," Denneau said. "If people are a little nervous about a design, I explain that I can make it custom, you know, if they have problem areas."

Denneau said her brand of clothing draws a bold clientele.

"You're coming there knowing it's going to be off the cuff. Most of the time, I would get these kind of fearless, awesome, fat girls coming in," Denneau said of the days before CandyStrike moved strictly online. "There were, however, still women who came in beat down by their previous shopping experiences ... so when that happens it becomes my mission to find them something that they like and that they feel good in."

Denneau blames the fashion industry and the media for setting standards that most women will never meet.

"I love fashion, and there are large designers that I love, but I really hate big fashion. I don't really like Vogue magazine. I think Anna Wintour can suck it. I really don't like the lack of accessibility for any size," she said. "In my mind, straight sizes and plus sizes are conjoined. It's all women."

During her talk at the Body Love Conference, she wants to clue women in about their power as consumers in the fashion world.

"You don't have to bow down to what Vogue tells you," Denneau said. "My workshop really focuses on being able to redesign things that you already have in your closet or picking out things that you really like but you're afraid might not fit you."

Denneau said she is fighting against the unattainable ideals that too many women are seduced into believing they must achieve.

"We deal with it every day," she said. "Some of us have more armor than others. The Body Love Conference will give these women armor to feel good about themselves."

And, really, that's what fashion should be about, Denneau said. "Fuck Joan Rivers. Who cares what you're wearing as long as you like it."

The revolution starts by looking at a picture, no Photoshop needed

Because she grew up in a small Mexican village without electricity, you'd think that local photographer and dance teacher Jade Beall would have been able to start life without feeling pressured to look like a fashion model. However, weekends in the city were enough to start her thinking about body-image issues when she was just 10 years old.

Beall was confronted by a beauty ideal that she, with her dirty feet and secondhand clothes, simply didn't fit. Things only got worse when she moved to Tucson for high school.

"TV was, like, where the 'important people' sent their messages. My parents told me I was beautiful, my family was incredibly supportive, but media was way more powerful for me. I believed it more," Beall said. "Some people escape from that but a lot of us don't."

As she grew up and started a family, she found the societal pressures becoming even more destructive.

"I gave birth, gained 50 pounds, wasn't able to shed it, and was suffering from postpartum depression," Beall said. "I decided to do some images of myself and they resonated with a lot of women. Women started reaching out and wanting to tell me their stories about giving birth and loathing their bodies. ... It wasn't until I was well into that, that I realized body work could be pretty powerful. Being photographed is empowering."

Her book, A Beautiful Body Project, is a collection of images celebrating mothers' bodies—pregnant, just after birth and years later. Beall credits that work, and the hours she spent poring over the photos, with her ability to accept herself.

"Taking photographs of hundreds of women, strangers most of them, has allowed me to really love myself," Beall said. "Looking at every line, every detail, every roll, every bone, well, you can't deny it. The diversity is amazing and that is the truth. I couldn't have predicted that taking those photographs would be so healing for myself."

The book is due out around Mother's Day. There have been more than 1,000 preorders, and there's a fair amount of interest in international publishing rights. Beall says the reaction to the photos, along with the images themselves, allowed her to see the honest and natural beauty in bodies.

There is a "relentless selling of insecurity by corporations that want to make money off of low self-esteem," Beall said. "You can't sell these things to a woman who is like, 'I like my wrinkles, I'm totally good here,' or a teenager who isn't obsessed with her weight." Beall thinks the culture is moving beyond that. "You don't have to be a prisoner to the scale anymore. You don't have to buy products to help your wrinkles or your acne or all these things you think are unworthy of being on your body. They're signs of life and they're precious."

Beall said that after giving birth, her acceptance of her body was at "an all-time low." Her goal is to show a more honest, less damaging story about motherhood.

"It's about changing how we think about our bodies and how we think about other women. We've been fed this really destructive lie that if we don't bounce back after birth, that we're failures and we're no good," she said. "That needs to change because being a mother is absolutely hard enough."

Beall's talk at the conference will focus on loving your post-birth body, which she says ties into loving your body always. "Your body is precious and worthy of being photographed without Photoshop," she said. "It's about loving one's every molecule."

Beall said that when she looks for beauty in other people, it helps her see it in herself.

"It's not a perfect thing. I have about 20 years of self-loathing to undo so it's not like 'Oh, I love myself. We're good now.'

"It takes practice, and there are bad days. But that's OK and I honor that, too. I allow myself the bad days and really rejoice in my fluctuating body," she said. "Everyone walking down the street has something completely authentic that is irreplaceably beautiful."

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