In 2006, when I was nineteen years old, in my sophomore year of college, I decided to apply for an internship with People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Virginia. I was a vegetarian off and on throughout my childhood and a vegetarian when I applied for the internship. I became a vegan during the internship. I applied, because it was the footage that PETA collected which inspired me to stop eating animals and wish to help them from human cruelty and consumption.
My application was accepted and in the Summer of 2006 when I was twenty years old, I flew from my college dormitory in Portland, Oregon to the PETA intern house in Norfolk, Virginia. PETA provided food, housing and a weekly budget for interns in their program.
Aside from animal rights, another thing I have been passionate about for a long time is women’s rights, and that includes the right not to have to wear a brassiere in public or cover one’s breasts out of fear of experiencing negative stigma and harassment from other human beings. I stopped wearing a brassiere in my late teens, and actually wrote a novelette about a fictional character who doesn’t wear a bra and gets chastised for it, which I included in my internship application to PETA as an example of how I would do well in their writing department.
PETA did not allow me to work in their writing department, and most of my day was spent in a cubicle doing data entry. One of the staffers noticed that I don’t wear a bra in my cubicle or on my way to the copy machine and bathrooms. Whoever this staffer was, I still don’t know, complained about me to human resources. I was called in to talk to someone named Angela Conant, who was the intern coordinator. Angela explained to me, in her Southern accent, how I needed to start wearing a bra around the office. On that particular day, I was also wearing khaki shorts with red tights underneath. Angela said I needed to go to the intern house to change into more office appropriate attire, and that an employee named Matt Rice would be able to drive me back and forth within a few minutes. I was to go to my cubicle and gather my things before Matt was ready.
I cried in the passenger seat of Matt’s car as we made the short trip back to the intern house, and then I said I wasn’t interested in returning to work for the rest of the day. Matt insisted that things would only become more unpleasant if I did that, and urged me to return to work. I did return to work, where Angela praised me at the end of the day for wearing more appropriate attire. I was wearing a long skirt and a t-shirt from Forever 21. I wasn’t wearing a bra, because I did not own any, but the shirt had a bow around the neck with ribbons that fell in front.
In the PETA office building, there is a special room dedicated to Pamela Anderson. It is called The Pamela Anderson Room. There is a photograph at the entrance of the room, where she is wearing a lettuce brassiere and looking as though she is posing for a pornographic photo shoot. Her enormous fake breasts are peaking out of the top of the pieces of lettuce, and colored orange in a fake tan. I thought it was terribly strange that Pamela Anderson’s large, orange, fake breasts were used in PETA advertising and animal rights activities, while seeing my nipples as I walk to and from my cubicle was a cause of concern.
PETA is famous for nude protests, wherein they utilize the bodies of mostly young white women, sometimes interns, to get attention and spread their message of animal rights. When I was interning with PETA, I said I would be willing to do a nude protest on the paperwork that asked. I certainly don’t have a problem with nudity– indeed, I was already a dancer at that point for several months and have since traveled the country as a stripper and stripper rights advocate.
I was called into the human resources department of PETA a few more times to talk to Angela Conant about how I was unhappy with being told to wear a brassiere. Angela explained to me that on the day an employee complained about me, I was wearing a white shirt and, as Angela described it in a whisper, even though it was just the two of us in a room, “your nipples were showing.” Even if my nipples were showing, so what.
I was very upset for the rest of my four week internship, so PETA thought it would be a good idea to have celebrity animal rights activist Bruce Friedrich to speak with me about looking normal for the public and sacrificing what he called “purity” for the sake of selling the message. I was not comfortable sitting in an office room with Bruce Friedrich while he used euphemisms to discuss looking office appropriate, so I kind of just grunted and tried to get out of there as quickly as possible, back to my cubicle, where I cried and surfed the internet instead of doing work.
I was happy to leave PETA after my four week internship was over with, and fly back to Portland, Oregon, where nobody had a problem with a bra-less breast. At that time in my life, I didn’t have as much perspective as I do now, so I actually wrote Bruce a nice letter and continued to leaflet for PETA and protest Kentucky Fried Chicken for quite a while. I facilitated an event for a PETA activist named Pulin Modi to come speak at my college, and then a restaurant called Veganopolis accused me of not paying them for a bunch of sandwiches for the event that PETA reimbursed me for, even though I did pay for them.
Eventually I grew to dislike people associated with PETA and their odd hypocrisy. I didn’t like the type of control that they attempted to express over me and other young women who were trying to help animals as best we could. In a world where women are already controlled and censored enough from freely expressing ourselves, I didn’t think it was right for PETA to continue doing that and damaging the small number of animal rights activists who exist. PETA’s systematic murder of stray animals in the Norfolk area was another reason why I stopped associating with them. I decided that my time and energy could be more useful elsewhere. Long term, it was better for my self-esteem and self-worth to not associate with PETA.
Over the years, I have struggled with whether or not I should publicly talk about my time interning with PETA. I have been concerned that maybe it would hurt the animals they do help. I don’t want people to think that all animal rights activists like PETA or share the same values as them. It is also part of my life experience and one that I am happy about finally sharing publicly.
Brandi Campbell is a 30 year old vegan, writer, feminist, labor activist and free speech advocate. She writes about stripper labor rights at StripperLaborRights.com and tweets @StripperRights. She was born and raised in Chicagoland, has a bachelor’s degree in English from Portland State University, and has been traveling around the country for most of her adult life.