When Amy Purdy was 19 years old, she contracted a strain of bacterial meningitis. The illness almost ended her life. Before she finally beat it back, her kidneys had failed, it had claimed her spleen, and both of her legs had to be amputated below the knees.
But instead of spiraling into what would have been the most justifiable abyss of self-pity ever, Purdy opted for another tack. That devastating blow to her body would instead be a mere momentary setback, she decided; a unique opportunity, even. Hell if she was going to find a way to do stuff as well as everybody else—she was going to do it better.
She began working closely with a prosthetics manufacturer to design legs and feet that would enable her not just to walk again, but to run, snowboard, and, yeah, model. So she did. She now counts pro snowboarding medals, an appearance on ‘the Amazing Race,’ a viral TED talk, a fashion shoot with Nikki Sixx, and founding the nonprofit Adaptive Action Sports on her ever-lengthening list of achievements. She is 33.
And she knows as well as anyone that she’s not “normal.” She is not bashful about the fact that advanced prosthetic limbs propel her through civil society, and she does not need your pitying glances or cooed ‘awws’. Because she is a cyborg, and she knows it. Or better yet, call her a fembot. She does. Her blog, after all, is called Through the Eyes of a Fembot.
I caught up with Purdy at this year’s PopTech conference, where she delivered another standing ovation-garnering performance. We talked about the fembot’s life in modern America, owning bionic body parts, and embracing an altered, even enhanced, existence.
Motherboard: So you’re a fembot. You own it. What does the term mean to you—what’s your relationship to the idea?
Amy Purdy: I think it’s just having fun with your situation, and realizing it doesn’t have to be a disability or a disadvantage. Robots have universally been considered cool. And I can’t help that I look part robot myself. And that kind of sparked a cool instinct to me. The kids in the neighborhood would call me a robot, and I would think—that’s amazing.
I think what sparked the fembot thing – this is the first time that anyone asked me this – I think it was this little girl Amy I worked with. I called her mini-me because she has two prosthetic legs like me, and she really struggled with being made fun of at school. And she asked me, what do you do when people call you a robot? And I said, “Well, aren’t robots cool?” So I think that for me it was a desire to embrace this, and kind of share it in a different way. Instead of seeing it as a kind of handicap.
Totally. Certainly, from where I’m sitting, we’re at a point where those enhancements are beyond accepted, it’s embraced—it is cool. I was watching your talk, and I was like, wow—your legs look awesome. It’s …
[laughs] Like an accessory. It’s interesting because I kind of felt that way in the beginning. I went through the tragic response to losing my legs, but at the same time I felt like the same person. But I also couldn’t help to think this is kind of cool. I can still do what I love to do, but I have to do things differently. But the fact that I’m doing it with metal legs is kind of cool.
And I felt that inside, but I had no idea how to express that. And it wasn’t until I found adaptable sports that I started seeing this community of athletes doing the same thing. And we found people who were really cool. Like musicians with prosthetic legs. They were like, ‘we didn’t know where to go to find people like me.’ But now the community is flourishing because we are open with our bionic body parts.
It already feels normalized, when you’re up there talking on the stage. Do you feel a responsibility to be a spokesperson for the cause?
It’s not anything I would have ever known, or would have wanted to be an advocate for. This was the first time I talked about being a fembot, and hearing the response to that. This was the first time I called out the elephant in the room.
And people weren’t caught on ‘well, how does she walk?’ or those questions. I kind of realized, when I was doing the talk, that this was good for just anyone. Especially for young girls who grew up not embracing their differences and thought they had to be like everybody else. And I thought this doesn’t just effect people with just physical challenges—it’s helpful for anyone.
What’s your relationship with the robotics involved in your legs? Are you involved in improving the technology?
Yeah. I have a sponsor who makes my legs. Then I have a sponsor who makes the feet. So I work very closely with the foot manufacturer with developing new projects and testing out different feet. I’m very involved with the feet that are out there. But the thing that I find interesting is that, personally, I don’t think there needs to be any more development in the feet. But I guess it depends on the market. For example, here you have [amputee X-Games champion] Mike Schultz who developed his own leg for motocross because it’s not like any that are mass produced. And same for me—I made my own feet for snowboarding because there were no feet on the market that could help me snowboard.
So how did you do that?
Well, I should rephrase that, because it’s not like I sat in garage, like Mike did, and made my own feet. But I went to the prosthetist and told him what movement I needed to have and that there weren’t any feet on the market that were working for me.
So we kind of worked together and took random parts from different feet and put them together. And we took those parts and some wood and they worked perfectly. I still have to adapt; I don’t have a shock system, and they still need to be improved, but it’s kind of amazing how well I can snowboard with these Frankensteined feet. So within specialized sports we need to develop our special feet to work in the way we do. But on the other hand, when it comes to day-to-day legs, the technology is already there. As far as walking and running and doing all the sports I love to do, I usually have the feet that support that. And they really are at a very high level.
Do you still meet people that are surprised by how well the technology works?
Well, some people assume and automatically will say: the fact that you can snowboard in prosthetic legs must mean you're in some badass prosthetic legs: it must be the legs. And then little do they know, I’m actually snowboarding in wooded feet with rusted bolts and duct tape, and it’s actually as low tech as it can get.
So with the whole Oscar Pistorius Olympic thing right now, people assume that his prosthetic feet are what’s making him the top notch athlete he is. But I guarantee you can put him in wooden legs and Oscar would still be breaking records. So that’s why I say it’s not just the technology that moves us forward—although it helps—it’s the user of the technology that moves forward.
We are more advanced than our prosthetics. But then there’s the other side, where people are fascinated by what the prosthetic industry has done, and what we are capable of doing with them.
Right. So what is your relationship to the robotics in the leg? On a day to day how do you regard them?
I mean, they are my legs, and that’s what I wanted off the bat. I think, being a massage therapist [oh yeah, she’s also a massage therapist; did I not mention that? –ed.], I’m very aware of my body. I knew right away that if I’m mentally accepting of my legs, I would be able to physically accept them.
I started doing yoga and Pilates right away so I could really connect with my legs. I didn’t want them to be a burden; I wanted them to be my legs. Because I didn’t want to be like, “I have to put on my legs every morning.” Because that’s how It felt at first.
Because I can’t just get out of bed, I have to put my legs on. And that drove me kind of crazy, to know I was just relying on them to do normal stuff. So I just wanted to shut that voice up as quickly as possible, and I did every activity possible that connected me to my legs. And now—there, it’s interesting, unless I’m talking about it, it doesn't seem strange to me. I wake up and I put my legs on, and I do my routine and it’s not until I really talk about it that I realize, ‘holy crap I have prosthetic legs.’ Really, that’s crazy.
What do you see yourself doing in the future. Are there any boundaries that you still want to push ?
Sure, all sorts of stuff. For one, I’m training for the prosthetic snowboard team. So yes I want to train for the 2014 Paralympic Games, and beyond that, it’s continuing to grow the organization and also work in a handful of causes and I’m just so touched by so many causes. I know that once you do work in one sector where you’re helping you can’t help but want to do that forever.
To spread the fembot gospel.
I just wanted to throw it out there. I wanted to show that, on a daily basis, I do have fun with it. You have to have fun with yourself.