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Sonya Renee Taylor on the fight to reclaim our bodies from shame

"As long as we live in a world that profits off our dis-ease with our own being, you can't opt out unless you live in a cave."

In a world where the concept of loving yourself has been co-opted to sell all things “female” - from health foods to magazines to soap - Sonya Renee Taylor is challenging people to make self-love mean something more powerful - and even uncomfortable.

A poet, writer, activist and entrepreneur, Sonya Renee Taylor’s new book The Body is Not an Apology - she also runs a digital magazine by the same name - is a manifesto for understanding our bodies as political battlegrounds, and winning the war.

In it, she urges readers to go beyond a wishy-washy positivity about their own appearance and confront the way they judge and oppress the bodies of themselves and others. She spoke to Charlotte Graham-McLay ahead of her appearances at the Auckland Writers Festival in May.

Charlotte Graham-McLay: You write about the way you think we’re under-served by this "love yourself!" message of body positivity when it goes no further than one’s own body. So I wondered whether your concept of radical self-love was an attempt to encourage people to risk something for others, to be sacrificial and generous.

Sonia Renee Taylor: I think you're spot on. Love means you have to do some shit, both internally and externally. A love that is inert is not love. It's saccharine; it's cotton candy.

It's not enough to just love yourself, because we're not alone in this journey called life. If I'm engaged in a process of love that brings me closer to understanding my own version of my worth - irrespective of comparison or hierarchy - then it also demands that I dismantle comparison and hierarchy in this world. If I decide that my value is inherent and intrinsic, I am not doing anything if I leave intact those systems that have had me so diminished in them. It means I haven't done the work.

I tell people every day in my workshops, "I love you, but I have very little concern about your individual confidence and self-esteem." I hope you feel good about yourself, but unto itself that will not change the world. Self-confidence will not make me able to live in this body in the United States without fear of being pulled over by the police. It will not unto itself make sure that when I go to the doctor, I can get an appropriate diagnosis and not have them diagnose me based on their fat-phobia, saying that whatever is wrong with me is because I'm fat. Alone, self-confidence does not change those things. Our clarity that those systems are in place because we have created a social code around what bodies are valuable and what bodies are not valuable - changing that? That will interrupt those things.

"Self-confidence will not make me able to live in this body in the United States without fear of being pulled over by the police."

And no one can live off self-esteem alone, right? No one anyone is strong enough to just choose to not be engaged with what society is saying about our bodies.

It's not sustainable. As long as we live in a world that profits off our dis-ease with our own being, you can't opt out unless you live in a cave. As long as you live in a world that sends the message every day that you're not good enough and not smart enough and not beautiful enough, your self-esteem alone will not stop you from falling prey to those messages. You need something deeper, richer, and more intense.  

One of the ways you explain that in the book is talking about making peace with your own body, and making peace with the bodies of others. That goes to the heart of what you're saying about being black in America, isn’t it? That you can't be safe until other people are at peace with your body?

We don't interrogate the messages that we receive about other people's bodies. We just think them, uninterrogated, throughout the day. I don't profess to be outside of this experience. The difference is that now, I ask myself why I'm making that judgement. I stop and say, "What is this belief?"

And then we have to follow those judgements to their potential furthest outcome. If I'm making the judgment that a black boy's body in Los Angeles is dangerous, the potential furthest outcome of that belief is death or incarceration. I call the cops, and now he's in jail, or I call the cops and they come and kill him. Because they come with the same belief that I'm holding, that this person's body is dangerous before I've even had an interaction with them.

I think about the Mike Brown case [the unarmed black teenager who was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014], and the fact that [police officer who shot Brown] Darren Wilson was able to stand in court and say, "He looked like a demon. He was super-human." That is the message that we give about the body of others. And then we use that language to exonerate us from killing them.

Making peace with the bodies of others isn't just saying, "Ok! Have your body!" It's asking, "What have I been taught to believe about all these other bodies? And how do I do my part to interrupt that?"

You go into what you call your toolkit quite a bit in your book, but what's one or two things that someone just getting started on radical self-love could start with, just as a teaser?

I think Dump the Junk, which is tool number one, is a great place to start. It asks you to think about the media you're taking in and the messages you have to listen to every day. We often let ourselves listen to them uninterrogated as our own internal chatter, without realising that they're not our chatter - they're an external world's chatter that we've been listening to for so long, we think it's our own voice. So becoming aware of that chatter and then being intentional about what you take in is dramatically helpful. Think about how many crappy messages you get about your body in a day and start to switch off every time you hear one.

That's the tool that's your internal work. The other one is in the section of the book titled A New World Ordered By Love, where I talk about implicit bias as being like speaking French. If you grew up in a Francophone household you would speak French. You wouldn't have to pick up a book - you'd just speak French. And if you wanted to learn another language, you'd have to be really intentional about it. Our world speaks body shame, and speaks it across all kinds of bodies.

You need to learn the ways in which you speaking body shame. What are the messages you have internalised about other people's bodies? You have to raise that to your consciousness and then interrupting that in yourself.

And neuroplasticity can change the way we think, right?

Absolutely, by acting differently and raising those thoughts to consciousness, by practising a meditation programme and disrupting your old neural pathways. There are things we can be doing every day to rewire our brains towards radical self-love. One of my tools is to meditate on a new mantra, where we can decide what thought we want to replace a particular thought with.

Can you talk about how these ideas play out in the body positivity community? There's a big community on Instagram that encourages self-love but it seems as though the range of bodies displayed there is quite a narrow one.

One of the biggest tropes that happens in our space is someone posting a picture of a large body, and someone else saying, "But what about their health? They're not healthy!"

I think that’s such a fascinating policing of bodies, because it's not like people are going around tackling jaywalkers. "What about your health?" Snatching cigarettes out of people's hands! Nowhere else is that happening in the world except for the bodies of fat people. Which says to me that it's not really about health, it's about your body conforming to whatever standards I think it should conform to.

Part of the challenge in the body positivity community is that it's often about being positive about bodies that don't fit too far outside the parameters of what we deem acceptable. What the framework of radical self-love does is ask us what has created those boundaries. Rather than determining who people are because of how their bodies look, what does it mean to look at behaviours and thoughts and use those as the markers for how we get to wellness?

We could be having weight-neutral conversations every single day. We could be having conversations that have zero things to do with the pounds on a scale, and still be talking about people's wellness. Because there are other indicators, like cardiovascular health and mental health.

For me, the question is little about what we do, but more about why we do it. If you're posting that photo on Instagram to show that you still feel socially acceptable, if it’s about that external okay-ness, then you're still in that body-shame loop. It's not so much validation that’s the problem - it's okay to want validation; I like being validated! I want you to think my outfit's cute - I put thought into it! But am I just trying to minimise having to deal with the world deciding that something is not okay with my body?

And we all do that. We try to minimise feeling “other” or feeling like an outsider. And when we shield ourselves from that experience, we leave that experience standing for other bodies. So for the bodies that are never going to look socially acceptable - the body that's been dieting for years and never lost a pound; the body that's always going to be black or always going to be queer or visibly trans - they can never opt out of feeling othered. So our complicity of trying to find comfort in that system - which I deeply understand - absolutely means that there will always be other people left out.

Clearly the sociologist in you sees this as a social, economic and political issue, not just a cosmetic one. If you see body hatred as just a cosmetic issue, it's easy to just shame the often young women who end up buying into it. And sure, we should challenge ourselves about why we buy into it. But surely it's too easy to say, "If 20-year-old women bought fewer lipsticks, or respected their own bodies, the system would fall"?

Yeah, that's just a victim-blaming tool. It's telling a person who was manipulated by an entire system that they're the reason why that system stands. In this podcast I love, calling Seeing White, they disassemble the notion that racism is a function of individual behaviours, and that the individual behaviours created the system. It's not like someone decided a black body was bad, and that created slavery. Instead, it was an economically viable model to form the new world: take bodies and have them work for free. And they validated taking those bodies by saying those people were less than white bodies. And then we create the narrative to justify the economic behaviour we're engaged in.

The economic behaviour now is capitalism: how do we make the most money? We tell you you suck and that you're terrible without lipstick or losing 50 lbs and then they sell you the product. You didn't want lipstick because someone was mean to you. The system said you needed lipstick, a bunch of people adopted the belief for themselves, and then we pass it around to each other. People didn't invent cosmetics because girls didn't feel pretty enough. People invented not feeling pretty enough as a way to make money, and then created a product to sell you to validate that. If we're not starting with the structural first, because all oppression started with the structural first, and that structure almost always leads back to capitalism.

Taylor's new book urges readers to go beyond a wishy-washy positivity about their own appearance and think about how they judge others. Photo / supplied


What can and should we demand from our media then?

We should demand representation, but representation is not enough. I don't want to just see myself. I want to see myself in the multiplicity of ways in which I exist. I don't need more shows with fat women as the comedic lead or the disabled person as inspirational overcomer or the black person as the person who robbed you, or the funny urban sassy person. When we decide that all the stories that we live should be visible, and we create the opportunities for these stories to be told by the people who live them, then we're getting someplace. Because we're not only creating opportunities and revenues for the communities of people who live those lives, but we're also changing the way in which people interface with identities that are different to their own.

I think we also need a media code of ethics, with a willingness to say, "No, that is fucked up and dangerous and we won't run that ad." We only engage that at the most extreme end. And part of that is because there's not a diversity of ideas and experiences and identities in the boardrooms making these decisions. I think about Dove's commercial recently where the black woman takes off her shirt and she's a white woman underneath. And nobody caught that! There's obviously entire perspectives missing in your organisational process if that was able to get out into the world.

There's so many layers to this work, and that's why the conversation, for me, has to be both personal and structural and systemic. You cannot do one without the other, because there's some creative executive who manages hiring who has only been hiring people who look exactly like them, and that's why that boardroom looks that way. And then that boardroom hires whatever branding company they always hire, and those people look all the same, and that's how you get there.

But if that creative director had reflected on whether they were making a world that looked exactly like them, a world bereft of nuance, then that reflection interrupts the whole chain reaction. That person hires someone different and there's different people in the boardroom, so that commercial suggestion may still come to the table, but not without someone saying, "Actually, that's really offensive." These systems run off our lack of willingness to change them. Our lack of action is still an action.

It can be really hard for marginalised people to break into media spaces. Can you talk about what you’re doing to address that?

Part of the work is creating an alternative media so that people just don't engage with the stuff that sucks anymore. Starve the beast. It's part of the reason that The Body is Not An Apology created a magazine platform. We needed those stories out in the world and I can sit here and be mad that they're not, or I can create the space. The more that we do that, and the more that folks who aren't in those senior boardrooms say "never mind, I'm not waiting to come to your table, I can make my own," the more we redirect the conversation.

Can you give a few examples of stories you're really proud of that you think might not have been done elsewhere?

Absolutely. We have a piece about why romantic love is killing us, by a writer called Caleb Luna. It explores the way our notions of partnership inherently disadvantage some bodies. Relationships are an example of things we think are completely our own individual choices. But in a world that tells you that fat bodies and black bodies and disabled bodies and queer bodies are completely undesirable, choosing to place a premium on romantic partnership over all other kinds of partnerships will exclude and isolate a whole host of bodies in the world. So what does it look like for us to raise and value other connections which are not inherently romantic - politically, socially and economically?

There's another piece called 6 Ways I Was Taught to Be a Good Fatty (And Why I Stopped), which talks about all the ways we're taught to apologise for being in fat bodies and all the things we do to mediate that, like only wear figure-flattering things or black. All the things we do to avoid our fatness being invasive in space and all the things we can do to interrupt that.

There's so many I could choose! We've published more than a thousand pieces in the three years we've been up.

Have you been able to pay your writers?

Yes, absolutely.

Was that particularly important?

It's super important. And I think it's an interesting pickle; it's a quandary. Publications not paying marginalised writers is an example of oppression as this Russian nesting doll of really fucked-up systems. If there's a start-up digital entity run by a fat, queer, or black woman - inherently, that platform will get less funding support. The average white male-run startup receives $1.3 million in funding. The average black woman-led startup receives $36,000. That's the disparity you're starting from, and then you're hiring people who are marginalised and figuring out how to pay these people to build the thing we need to interrupt the system that marginalises people. It's an intricately woven system.

A lot of people who have not had leverage into journalism or writing spheres just want to get their byline out there and start getting experience, so they will be happy to write for free.


So how have you made it work financially?

I bootstrapped the company. I'm really blessed to be able to say that my poetry career pays to run a digital media platform! I might be the only person in the world who could say such a thing right now. It's been amazing but it's also been exceptionally stressful, and we're still at the place where it's not a sustainable business model. We're looking at how we shift that, and part of that is having conversations with funders and asking how interested they are in interrupting the status quo that they say they're interested in interrupting. If you keep funding the same models you've always used, you'll get the same people you've always got.

For young women of colour who want to read more and learn more about feminism but feel like they're shut out of feminist spaces because they don't see people who look like them there, where would you recommend they go to start hearing their stories?

Definitely start at The Body is Not an Apology! In general, if a site isn't explicitly talking about being intersectional, it's not going to be for you. But also, for us at our site, it's not only about hearing your own stories, but also about hearing stories outside of yours so you can maybe connect the dots. So look for places where there are a multiplicity of identities talking about a story. Those kinds of things always have a deeper level of nuance to them because people can't just look through a story with one lens.

In terms of platforms that I like, Everyday Feminism is actually our sister site - they actually built our website. There are a lot of sites that are women of colour or person of colour specific that have a feminist lens to their work - Blavity is one, and there's a new site called Cassius.

The folks at [magazine publisher] Condé Nast just launched Them.us which is a queer and trans media platform. Condé Nast has gone a million miles away from where they used to be. Some of these traditional platforms that are seeing different leadership are starting to look different - like Elle, which has Melissa Harris-Perry writing for them. Teen Vogue is producing phenomenal content right now.

You've been in New Zealand for a while now on an Edmund Hillary fellowship [the fellows are given Global Impact Visas, a work visa with a pathway to permanent residency for selected entrepreneurs]. What have you been doing while you've been here?

The fellowship is three years long, so luckily that gives me a lot of time to get to know the country and build relationships. I've had the opportunity to speak for a group of young Māori entrepreneurs, and talked to them about entrepreneurial endeavours as a person of colour.

I went to Taranaki a while ago and did a community workshop and korero for [Māori common good organisation] Tu Tama Wahine. It was beautiful, folks from all over the community - we probably had about 65 people in this tiny little room, listening to radical self-love. We talked about how radical self-love could form a framework for some of the issues Māori people are facing.

What's the feedback you're getting to work like that?

Folks are immediately finding the application for the radical self-love framework - not just for issues facing Māori but Aotearoa in general. Questions like: what are conversations that need to be happening to address this really epic suicide rate in New Zealand? I'm seeing connections with how we talk about people as being valued or not valued, which is something that plays into why some people decide to take their own lives.

The young entrepreneur group I was speaking to were doing a five or six-month project around governance. So we talked about how a radical self-love model impact governance amongst iwi - particularly when they are deciding about settlements. How does going into these conversations with a different mindset about what gets done with those resources, and interrupting our ideas about what we value, impact on how we distribute those resources? It's been met with amazing reception.

Charlotte Graham-McLay is also appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival in May.