On February 9, 2011, Sonya Renee Taylor was wavering about changing her Facebook profile picture. She wanted to post a photo of herself wearing a black corset, but hesitated because she thought her “big, brown, queer, body” would be poorly received online. By deciding to post the photo, Taylor started a movement that focuses on radical self-love. Over the past seven years, The Body Is Not An Apology has empowered people around the world to move past body shame to return to who they were when they were born—a state of radical self-love.
Now, Taylor is offering up the wisdom that their organization has cultivated with The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love. Taylor’s book is a roadmap with insightful gems along the way for those who want to understand radical self-love and put it into praxis. In this interview, we discussed how the book came to be, how radical self-love differentiates from self-esteem, and how to make oppression about the impact of policies on bodies.
You created The Body Is Not An Apology in 2011, and it has grown into an international movement. Why did you decide to turn your radical self-love and body-empowerment movement into a book?
I don’t think I so much decided as it was decided for me, which is how so much of The Body Is Not An Apology has come. It’s a divine assignment that we’re going to make impossible for you to deny. I’d been asked by the Shift Network to be a part of an event called the African American Wisdom Summit. It was myself, Nikki Giovanni, and lots of other awesome Black thinkers, sharing ideas throughout the month of February about our work. I did a conversation about radical self-love and the work of The Body Is Not An Apology, and an editor from Berrett-Koehler, my publisher, happened to hear it.
They heard my talk, and found somebody who knew someone who knew me, and then reached out to me, and said they loved listening to these ideas and wanted to know if I’d be interested in writing a book. I said, sure, and I think by that time, the ideas of The Body Is Not Apology had been formulating. The company was already around. People around the world were starting to engage in the ideas, so it felt like it was time to gather all of these pieces and parts into one location where people can start the work from.
In the book, you define radical self-love as “natural intelligence or the idea that we are going to become the highest form of ourselves.” If you had to describe radical self-love to a person who is unfamiliar with the term, how would you explain it?
The first thing I’d say is that you don’t have to get to radical self-love. You came here that way. You have never seen a self-loathing toddler who says, “I really hate the way my skin looks.” Those are messages. We know these messages are external because these are things we adopt as we get older and people start to tell us stuff about our bodies. We didn’t come here believing those things. We came here unobstructed from understanding our divinity and awesomeness in these bodies. Over time, more and more obstructions are keeping us from accessing who it is we inherently know ourselves to be. Radical self-love is unobstructed access to the awesome you that you’ve always been. It’s unobstructed access to the amazing and enough human being that you have always been.
What would you say are the differences between self-esteem or self-confidence and radical self-love?
Self-esteem and self-confidence waiver. They change. They’re circumstantial [based on] whether or not I did well on a test or whether or not I look cute in an outfit or whether or not someone acknowledges me. Those things boost our self-esteem and self-confidence. We can also have the opposite experience. When someone tells you you’re not beautiful or not smart enough, it can lower your self-esteem or self-confidence. The fact that those fluctuate is how you know that it’s not radical self-love. Radical self-love is inherent. Also, radical self-love starts with my experience with myself, but extends beyond myself. Radical-self love is interdependent. Toddlers don’t just think their body is awesome; they think your body is awesome, too. They think elbows—all of the elbows—are cool [laughs]. All of the toes—not just theirs—are cool. So, radical self-love extends beyond us. Self-confidence and self-esteem are inherently individualistic and circumstantial. Radical self-love is inherently interdependent and immovable. It just is.
Throughout the book, you include these checkpoints called “radical reflections.” I love those sections because they allow the reader to step back and connect the book to their own lived experience. Was that intentional? And how did you go about building in those lessons?
It was absolutely intentional. I wrote this book with both theory and praxis in mind. It’s awesome that people want to think about radical self-love, but I want people to be able to actually live it. As I talk about in the book, a changed world is a thinking, doing, and being world. It means that we have to think about new things, but we also have to do some new things. I wanted to give people access to signposts and milestones along the way to get them out of the theoretical and into the lived. Radical self-love is a living thing. [It asks]: How do I move through the world? I wanted people to be able to find places within themselves where they could examine how they move through the world.
This is the benefit of writing a book after you’ve already built the plane. Today (February 12) is The Body Is Not An Apology’s anniversary. [On this day seven years ago], in four more hours, I will have posted the very first photo that started The Body Is Not An Apology. It’s a very strange day [laughs]. Over the years of doing workshops, creating content around this, and sharing these ideas with the world, keys questions have come up among the thousands and thousands of people that we’ve interacted with. For instance, comparison is a structure of body shame that we are always validating or invalidating in our relationships with our bodies. So, one of the checkpoints is: In what ways am I still comparing myself to other people as a way of measuring value or non-value?
In terms of the “Unapologetic Inquiries,” we have content and curriculum around the 10 tools of radical self-love, so a lot of pieces in the book have existed already in the elements of The Body Is Not An Apology’s educational programming. So, we’re bringing some of those pieces that live on our platforms into a practical, everyday guidebook that you can use. We’ve pulled a lot of that from those spaces.
It very much felt that way. The book was a cultivation of knowledge in a way that’s accessible for everyone, no matter where they are on their radical self-love journey.
That’s what’s been so awesome. I’m really grateful that this happened in the order that it did; it was divinely constructed that way. The first part of this journey was for me to be in conversation and engage these ideas with myself. The next part was to enroll my community in it. Then, we grew this online platform where people get to talk about it. Then, we took these educational ideas and shared them in the world to get feedback. We’ve been collecting seven years of data from hundreds of thousands of people who’ve interacted with our site. The book is best practices culled from hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of hours of anecdotal research about how radical self-love gets employed in our lives.
In the book, you talk explicitly about the “Global Body-Shame Profit Complex.” Can you describe what that is and how people can become more conscious of what is being sold to us through the avenue of media?
One of the key questions I ask in my workshop is, “Whose agenda is your self-hate?” We have to start thinking about who is making money from us not liking ourselves and from this self-loathing relationship we have with our bodies. Who’s benefiting from that? Of course, the people who are making money are invested in that. We’ve made that connection with the prison-industrial complex. For-profit prisons are wrong because people are making money by sending people to jail, so they will send more people to jail to make money money. Apply that exact same framework to the way we think about our bodies.
Of course people are marketing to us things that tell us we’re in deficit because they make money when we buy things to fix our perceived flaws. Follow the money, and it will lead you back to the same corporations that are investing in a lot of the things that are oppressive and unjust in our society. The point I make in the book that I think is important is that we can interrogate that without having shame. Where I can do no harm, I can do less harm, and I can only do less harm when I’m in full awareness of where that comes from. What is the relationship among what I’m buying, why I’m buying it, and who benefits from it? When I buy diet pills, who’s invested in me buying diet pills and why? What do they get out of me buying these diet pills? The weight-loss industry makes a lot of money off of us buying diet pills with a three to five percent chance of having sustained weight loss. They know there’s a 95 percent chance that I’ll have to buy it again. This is great for them. Do I feel better when I’m done? Does it feel good to me? No, I feel awful. When I gain the weight back, I feel ashamed again.
All of the process around de-indoctrinating ourselves from shame is about getting into a practice of inquiry about our own motives and the motives around us. It’s hard, but it’s necessary.
Can you define “body terrorism“ for those are unfamiliar with the term? Where does it originate?
The term came from digging into this work, and recognizing that our relationships with our bodies are a personal, social, and structural reality. There’s the way we operate in our own bodies. There’s the way our society operates around our bodies. And then there are the structures—government and economic entities—that operate with our bodies. Body shame is the personal realm of disliking one’s body and feeling like you’re inherently bad or wrong in the body that you have. Body-based oppressions, body judgment, and body bias live in the social realm. When we create legislation, social access, and resources around whose bodies get to live unobstructedly, that’s the realm of body terrorism. Body terrorism is the structural, political, and social realities of living in a world of body-based oppression.
The questions for us are: In what ways am I perpetuating body terrorism? In what ways am I complicit in body terrorism? And in what ways am I being victimized by body terrorism? There are things to be thinking about to help us answer these questions. What resources and powers do I have as a result of my body? And what resources and powers don’t I have as a result of my body? The places where our resources and powers are limited because of the ways that the world views our bodies are areas of body terrorism. The fact that I am less likely to get an accurate diagnosis because I’m a Black woman in a fat body is an act of body terrorism. The fear that Black people have about going to the doctor because our bodies have been used as medical practice without our permission and confirmed consent is an act of body terrorism. The sterilization of people with disabilities is an act of body terrorism. The lack of access that people with disabilities have to reproductive health because they’re assumed to be asexual is an act of body terrorism.
Limiting a person’s resources and power in their own lives as a result of their bodies is body terrorism. Privilege means that we’re benefitting and we’re complicit in a system of body terrorism unless we’re actively working to dismantle the system that privileges us over others.
So often, the body positivity movement fails to account for injustice across the intersections of identities. In the book, you make it very clear that injustice happens to and around bodies. How can we make that connection more explicit for those who are newly entering body positivity and radical self-love? How can we make it clear that body positivity cannot be divorced from fat acceptance, racism, sexism, etc.?
The body is such a powerful tool for [discussing injustice] because it visually gives you all of those things. I often ask people, “What are our bodies made up of?” Our bodies are made up of what society judges us for. We judge people about race, age, size, gender, and sexuality, so all of a sudden, you can see that all of those things are about the body. Even when the structures of oppression are not about the body, their site of impact is the body. So, if we’re mindful when we talk about oppression, we realize that we’re talking about how people get to live in those bodies. That’s how we remember to make that connection. Whose body is impacted by this particular thing we’re talking about? Whose bodies am I not thinking about? We’re often just thinking about our own bodies.
What I love about intersectionality is that Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw invented it as an exploration because we were talking about sexism through one particular body’s experience of it. Crenshaw said wait a minute, my body also has Blackness and femaleness on it, and those things are both at play here. If you really want to be intersectional, you have to consider what other things are at play here. What are the other ways that my body is showing up? What are the other ways that my body shows up that are awesome and that I don’t have to worry about? That also informs me of who isn’t in the conversation. Every day I wake up, roll out of bed, and walk with my two legs, which means that I’m ambulatory. There are people in the world who are not, which means that there are ways that my body can easily move through the world and it’s not easy for someone else.
We have to constantly think about who we’re not thinking about. That’s critical to everything.
In one of your radical reflections, you write “we must strive to create difference-celebrating culture where, we see diversity as an intrinsic part of our everyday lives.” What’s the first step in creating that culture?
You have to think about who’s not in the room—every single time. What are the things that are preventing them from being in the room? Every time I ask that question, it brings up a whole new set of questions. Trans people are not in this room because everything we’ve said is super cisgender-centric. That’s why they’re not in this room. People with disabilities are not in this room because I just had to walk up six flights to get in here and there’s no elevator. Black people are not in this room because everyone else in this room is white, and the conversations they’re having assumes the demographic we’re reaching out to are white people. When we ask “who’s not in the room?” we get to why they’re not in the room, and then we can dismantle the barrier. Inclusion invites you to a party that nobody is prepared for you to come to. When you get there, you feel unwelcome because nobody has asked “how have we made this space not available to the people we want?”
People invite those who aren’t there without doing any analysis about whether or not the space they’re inviting them to is welcoming and congenial. That’s the place where we create a difference-celebrating world. What are the things that are between the invitation of and welcoming of difference? That requires resources; that might mean that you can’t use the building that you’ve been using because it isn’t accessible. It might mean that you need to invest in some training because right now you don’t have a proficiency in gender identity. People don’t ask those questions because then they’ll have to do some work. When we start to ask those questions, we make ourselves have to do the work to be the kind of space that people want to be in—whatever that space is.