The Body Love Conference debuted last year, riding on Tucsonan Jes Baker’s breakthrough success in body-positive blogging. Baker’s dating woes — and how they affected the way she saw herself in the mirror — sent her on a personal journey of body acceptance. Before long, the personal became political as she launched a blog called The Militant Baker, a place where could share with others what she had learned on her own journey. The Militant Baker soon reached a readership of about 20,000 — and then nearly a million as some of her content went viral.
We are maligned for wanting control over our bodies.
But Baker, along with a team of like-minded advocates and volunteers, knew that the movement needed something else as well: a safe but more public space for seeing, feeling, and asserting body love, where empowering words could translate into empowering actions. The Body Love Conference was their brainchild, and their months of preparation to make it happen paid off on April 5, 2014, with an event that drew more than 400 people.
The momentum continued this year with the second annual Body Love Conference, held at the Pima Community College West Campus on June 6. The message was the same, but a lot of things were different this year. Baker passed the torch to the other BLC volunteers so that she could turn her attention to her first book, slated for release on October 27. Meanwhile, the BLC team decided on a smaller, regional conference, so that they, too, could focus on something further out: a national “headliner” conference in 2016.
But at the same time that the BLC team was aiming for a smaller geographic reach, they were also aiming for a much wider reach in terms of audience age and identity. Last year’s BLC was for attendees who were 18 and older, but this year the workshops included an adolescent track. The team also wanted to be more gender-inclusive. “Last year was very cis woman focused, female focused. Initially, the idea was that it was, in fact, a woman’s conference,” volunteer Erin Jaye told the Tucson Weekly. Branding itself “A Revolutionary Event for All Bodies,” the 2015 BLC became an event where discussions of race, gender, sexual identity, and disability were part of the program — and where the diversity of people to whom those mattered the most were encouraged to participate. Finally, with a $25 registration fee — what many are used to paying just to park at a conference — it was priced to include people from more income levels.
My own involvement in this year’s BLC was very limited. I joined the vendor area to staff a table for Planned Parenthood. But the many people I saw and met (a good representation, since our table was at the tail end of the lunch line) was a testament to how wide-reaching the event was. I asked a yoga instructor from Canada how she had found out about a nascent conference in the U.S. Southwest. (It was Google, of course.) I also talked to a graduate student from Germany about Arizona’s weak sex education requirements — or lack of requirements, since schools are not mandated to provide it, and students have to get parental permission to participate in it. (In contrast, in her native Germany, sex education begins at age five and is mandatory — which might explain why its teen pregnancy rate is four times lower than in the United States.) People from Arizona and California were ever-present throughout the day and gave the conference much of its gender and ethnic diversity.
Between visitors to our table, I thought of how Planned Parenthood and the Body Love Conference were addressing two versions of the same story. Reproductive rights, ranging from insurance coverage of birth control to the availability of abortion services, have been under legislative attack across the United States. And reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out as a trans woman — derided as, among other things, a “science experiment” — are just the latest example of how gender expression is not a freedom that has been completely won.
When it comes to our gender identities, our sexual orientations, or our reproductive decisions, we are maligned for wanting control over our bodies. When it comes to our weight, shape, and general appearance, though, we are maligned for the opposite — for seemingly surrendering control of our bodies, for being perceived as giving up on navigating the myriad diet, exercise, and body care advice at our disposal. Body-shaming is the bludgeon used against those who fall short of the ideals our media put in front of us. In both cases, our bodies are used as battlegrounds to wage age-old wars of chauvinism and ideology, where our worth as human beings is treated as inseparable from how our bodies look and how we use them (or don’t) to reproduce.
The loser in all of this, from body shaming to the erosion of reproductive rights, is autonomy over our own bodies. Jes Baker, summarizing the reason for the Body Love Conference, put it this way: “The end goal is complete body autonomy and freedom to be who you are and know that you’re valuable just as you are.”