Jes Baker whizzes through the door of Café Passe on North Fourth Avenue, a whirlwind of energy and focus. She does a quick lap to see if accounting volunteer Amanda Rogers has arrived, and, finding she has not, Baker nabs a table on the patio across from a tinkling fountain.
“We have several different committees,” Baker explains. “So now I need to meet with Amanda so she can tell me what’s going on, and what I need to do.” Baker has come straight from Cafe 54, where she works full time as a behavioral-health technician and certified recovery support specialist.
When Rogers arrives straight from her full-time gig at a bankruptcy law firm, they pull out notebooks and laptops, chatting about Baker’s newfound Pellegrino addiction and catching up on Facebook photos while they set up.
The talk is relaxed and efficient as they speed through items like hotel room rates, fliers and brochures. They laugh at how their recent frenetic work schedules have them misspelling words like “volunteer.”
“This is normally what it looks like,” Baker says, “give or take a few people.” Rogers says her group meets about once a week, and Baker says all together, about four groups of volunteer organizers in various roles are in constant contact.
The cafe has become a de facto headquarters for planning the Body Love Conference, a gathering expected to draw about 400 people to the University of Arizona on Saturday. More than 30 speakers from around the country are lined up to teach women about loving themselves just as they are, and changing a culture obsessed with body size and appearance. The notables Baker and her teams have rounded up include fitness instructors, models, performers, writers and Web personalities, among others.
“This is 1 million percent volunteer-run, and these women have been dedicating like 20 to 30 hours a week,” Baker says. “It’s incredible. It’s one thing if it’s your idea and you’re doing everything. It’s another when other people step up like that.”
Rogers found Baker, and the conference, through performing burlesque.
“My (stage) name is Irish Crème,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. “And one of the girls I dance with knows Jes.”
Baker is a visible figure in Tucson, with her bobbed and sometimes brightly-colored hair and prominent tattoos on her proudly plus-sized figure. Her blog, “The Militant Baker,” has had a cult following for quite some time.
But it was her open letter and accompanying photo shoot addressed to Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries last year that put Baker and her blog in the national spotlight. Jeffries epitomized many of the cultural stereotypes that Baker finds so damaging— telling Salon in a 2006 interview that he wasn’t bothered by excluding potential customers: “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids.”
Donning the clothes Jeffries had said some people just “don’t belong” in, she rebranded the iconic “A&F” logo to mean: Attractive and Fat. “The only thing you’ve done through your comments (about thin being beautiful and only offering XL and XXL in your stores for men) is reinforce the unoriginal concept that fat women are social failures, valueless, and undesirable. Your apology doesn’t change this,” she wrote. “Well, actually, that’s not all you have done. You have also created an incredible opportunity for social change.”
Her anti-elitist post went so viral that Baker landed on the “Today” show, CNN and the Huffington Post.
“My life kind of exploded since then,” says Baker, 27. What had been percolating in her brain as a workshop for maybe 50 people suddenly became a very possible, much bigger event.
And so the Body Love Conference was born, with the slogan: “Change your world, not your body!”
The goal of the conference is to make women aware of where their ideas on how they “should” look might be coming from, and that however they actually do look is just fine. More than just fine, in fact: perfect.
“I subscribe to the belief that every person deserves to love themselves as they are, no changes needed,” Baker said in a phone interview earlier this month. “Perfection exists, but it doesn’t look anything like we’re led to believe. ... And in order to wrap our heads around that, we have to have a conversation about why we’ve learned to hate ourselves and what kind of changes we need to make. ”
It’s that conversation Baker aims to bring from the world of online exchanges and small workshops, where she says it’s been going on for a while, to theater-filling reality.
The excitement is palpable on the Body Love website, where women are chiming in from Florida to Montana. “I want to go, but I’m too nervous...Crazy isn’t it!?” one posts. “Do it girl!” another encourages. “Everyone supports each other! You can look back one day and be like, yeah I did that! I was scared, but I did it!”
The exchange epitomizes the spirit of the gathering.
“I feel like this movement has so much momentum because it’s not about one body, it’s about everybody,” said World Famous Bob, in a phone interview from her home in New York. And yes, that name is right. “My passport says: first name ‘World.’ Middle name: ‘Famous.’ Last name: ‘Bob,’” says the self-described “female female impersonator.” She says she legally changed it eight years ago.
Even without actually seeing Bob spilling over her bustier in full drag-esque makeup it might come as no surprise that Bob’s specialty is self-confidence, which she’ll be teaching at the conference.
“I feel like confidence is like a muscle, it’s not just you wake up one day and feel confident and you’re good for the rest of your life,” she says. Loving yourself is an ongoing challenge, says Bob, who really began thinking about it when she was asked to speak at the New York School of Burlesque about 10 years ago.
“How do we create a base seat, a core belief system about ourselves that’s not affected by outside opinion?” Bob says. “It’s not just a size issue, or a race issue, or a queer issue. Everyone has a body.”
“Depending on the room you walk into, your stock can go up or down pretty fast,” Bob says. “And then there’s the health issue. If you have a low sense of self-worth, you’re probably not engaging in a lot of self-care.”
Jen McLellan, a certified childbirth educator from Denver who will be speaking at the conference, agrees.
“I think plus-size women have for years felt a lot of shame and oppression, and because of that, a lot of us have continued to make unhealthy choices for ourselves, and that can be extended down to our families,” says McLellan, whose Plus Size Mommy Memoirs on Facebook has more than 166,000 “likes.” She also offers guidance for plus-size women during and after pregnancy on her website, PlusSizeBirth.com
She believes pregnancy and giving birth can be a transformative time, and the self-love women might feel then can extend to the rest of their lives.
“I didn’t truly love my body until after I gave birth and realized how amazing it was,” says the mother of Braeden, 3. “And my quote is ‘I’ll no longer be ashamed of a body that can do something so incredible.’” She says if healthy choices can be taught at that crucial time, they may continue into the future. But she says plus-size mommies can face a lot of weight bias and shaming, even from their health-care providers.
“It started off when I was pregnant,” McLellan says. “I went online and there was a lot of negative misinformation. I wanted to provide women with a positive resource.”
Her talk Saturday will be about patient advocacy and finding size-friendly health care providers.
“When we look at this obesity epidemic and shaming women who get fat when pregnant, why don’t we change the conversation?” she says, to being supportive instead of blaming women.
McLellan, who is a follower of the “Health at Every Size” movement, says being both heavy and healthy is entirely possible.
Based on the research of Linda Bacon, a University of California-Davis nutritionist and physiologist, Health at Every Size maintains that each body has its own “normal,” that normal comes in many shapes and sizes, and that any of them can be healthy, even if it doesn’t look like a fitness model.
Baker says the concept is treating your body well because you love it, not because you want to change it. Part of that is eating “intuitively” and engaging in movement for celebration and pleasure and mental health as much as anything else. Baker takes an African dance class that she calls “soul-fulfilling.”
“So what ends up happening is that everybody’s body will not be the version that the media says is desirable, but it will be what your body is supposed to look like when you’re healthy,” says Baker, who is also working on a book proposal, leads a Body Positive book group at Antigone Books and travels to speaking engagements throughout the country.
Big bodies are far from the only focus of the conference.
“I think a lot of times people think body-positive is just for plus-size and fat folks, and I think it’s really important that people know that body positive is to see all bodies as capable and wonderful and beautiful.” says Shanna Katz, who self-identifies as both “fat” and “disabled.”
“It’s not a zero-sum game,” she says. “If we all work together then we create a better society.”
Katz holds a masters in human sexuality education and will be giving a talk at the conference called: “Hip to be Crip: Intersections of Sexuality and Disability.”
“I think that we don’t think or talk about people with disabilities, like ever,” Katz says. “You don’t see them in the media, as models, for example. And bodies with disabilities are just as beautiful as able-bodied bodies.”
But if the purpose is really teaching love for one’s self, why focus so much on the body?
“The way we view our own bodies impacts the way we participate in the world.” Baker says. “Things we see from people who hate their bodies are things like low self-esteem or putting their lives on hold, like ‘I’ll do this when I lose 10 pounds.’”
And putting life on hold is just not an option.
“Now is the only moment we have,” Bob says. “We’re in our bodies now, we’re dealing with these issues now. It’s the one common thread that all humans share, regardless of religion or race or gender.”