What I’m Reading: The Body is not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor

Oh my. This book is short but dense and very rich. It’s like cheesecake.

It’s like a self-help book grew up and became a political manifesto.

Activist and author Sonya Renee Taylor was a guest on Brené Brown’s podcast back in September and it was brilliant. Their conversation was so full of “Aha!” moments. One that’s really stuck with me was the observation that we celebrate biodiversity as a concept in nature yet we shame differences in human bodies.

“…what’s interesting is we believe that in so many other areas of the natural world, and we don’t believe it in the human world, and that’s the thing I find fascinating. We believe it about trees, we believe it about dogs, and cows, and grasses, the variety and nuance of all of those things. We expect there to be millions of different kinds of trees.” (Sonya Renee Taylor)

“In order to have a thriving world, a thriving ecosystem that works in harmony, we need variance. We recognize that. We know that innately. And yet, because we are so far away from our own sense of inherent knowing of our enoughness, we’ve constructed a world where that’s not true for our bodies.” (Sonya Renee Taylor)

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, September 16). Brené with Sonya Renee Taylor on “The Body is Not an Apology” [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-sonya-renee-taylor-on-the-body-is-not-an-apology/ 

As a former science team nerd who loved biology, this blew my mind. There’s excitement about the differences we see in nature–when scientists discover a new species, they catalogue how and why it’s unique, and there’s no “shaming” or “othering” involved. Why can’t we be like that about humans?

I was very excited to finally read the book when the 2nd edition was released last week and I’ve nearly finished it already. It’s hard to summarise, but I would say the central takeaway is that it’s about loving (not just accepting) our bodies and other people’s bodies, and recognising that there is no hierarchy of bodies. There is no right way to have a body. We all have one–it is the one thing that unites us all. The political implications of understanding this are massive–if we love ourselves and others, it stands to reason that we must love (not just “accept”) those whose bodies are different from our own. We must work to eradicate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc. Loving our bodies also means taking power away from what Taylor calls the Body-Shame Profit Complex–the massive transnational industry that profits from our desire to change our bodies. Consumers are constantly being told their bodies are wrong, either directly through advertising or through the erasure of different kinds of bodies in our media. The default is a young, thin, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied person, and the further away from that default you are, the less likely you are to see yourself in the media. This is something we’ve discussed a bit in my Critical Issues in Media Theory module, but this book has inspired me to read up on it further. The book also takes it further–it’s not just an interesting point in a media theory textbook, it’s a call to action. Taylor’s work is revolutionary in its call for a different world, one where the hierarchy of bodies and the Body-Shame Profit Complex are dismantled and people can live in their bodies unapologetically.

The book also incorporated the concept of compassion–it surprisingly linked to & built on Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion that I’ve written about previously. I loved this passage about what body shame does to us:

(Taylor, 2021, p. 80)

One of the more painful but necessary exercises in the book is to think about the origins of our body shame–the times we were “berated and abused by others,” as she mentions here. Taylor gives examples of children being teased or overhearing parents’ concerns about their child’s weight, etc. Thinking back over my own experiences, I can vividly recall an incident when I was in 1st grade, age 6, when my classmate Kendra referred to me as fat and I remember being stunned and not understanding why she would say that (it didn’t have anything to do with what we were talking about), but also feeling ashamed and embarrassed about getting called fat–even at age 6, I knew it was an insult. There was also a time in 3rd grade when a little boy on the playground made fun of my “chubby cheeks” and I slapped him across the face. I’ve always been self-conscious about my “chubby cheeks”–reading up on hairstyles for round faces and what I can do with make-up and contouring and the right shape of sunglasses to wear–all to fix this flaw that some random little boy drew my attention to when I was 8. It was also when I started journalling, and it breaks my heart to read over my first journal entries about dieting and exercise plans, written in the messy scrawl of an 8-year-old. I came up with food rules like “No hot dogs”, which is actually pretty nutritionally sound advice. But I wish I had spent that time playing, reading, drawing, writing stories, etc. instead of designing diets that didn’t work and tracking my weight and measuring my waist and thighs and upper arms. I can look back now with compassion and love, and tell myself that Kendra and that boy were just projecting internalised body-shaming messages they picked up from parents/media/society, etc. If it hadn’t been my weight, bullies would have found something else to make fun of. There was never actually anything wrong with me.

The concept of radical self-love is what sets this book apart. It’s not the typical “body positivity” content you see on social media–the “brave” make-up free selfies, the bikini pics that show off stretch marks and “flaws”, etc. To be honest, I’m so tired of that content. It’s very common in postpartum Instagram posts–so “brave”, so “real”, showing the world that your pregnancy belly doesn’t disappear overnight, and women celebrating their “tiger stripes”. I don’t like this kind of thing for several reasons:

  1. Suggesting that showing your body off on a public Instagram page is “brave” implies that those who don’t engage in that kind of content are not brave. I’m not “scared” or “ashamed”–I just don’t want to post pics of myself in my underwear, and I wouldn’t have done it before having a baby, either! There’s nothing “brave” about wearing a bikini–I’ve literally never worn one in my life at any age, weight, pre-/post-baby, and I don’t think that makes me a coward.
  2. The Duchess of Cambridge also showed the world that your bump doesn’t instantly disappear after childbirth–but she did it fully dressed. Not necessary to bare it all. Also, the trend of showing this “real” side off on social media just proves how invisible the postpartum experience is in the media–people know what a pregnant woman looks like, but not what she looks like after the baby arrives. If television and movies accurately portrayed it, mothers wouldn’t feel compelled to engage in these posts.
  3. I had stretch marks long before having kids. They happen during puberty, another time in your life when your skin has to stretch quickly. Men have stretch marks. They are not tied to motherhood, and linking them with motherhood just body shames women who have stretchmarks but haven’t had kids (i.e. what’s their excuse for having this flaw?).

Taylor talks about how her editor became a radical self-love convert after working with her on the manuscript. He even suggested using the cover photo, which Taylor initially was hesitant about using. Admittedly, it’s not the kind of book I would have picked up—it sounds like the kind of body positivity stuff I don’t like, and that cover photo made me think it was referring to a different kind of “self-love”… But the book isn’t about that, or about a self-serving “body positivity” trend. It’s so much more political and transformative than that!

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