With six words, Sonya Renee Taylor accidentally started a movement. When a friend with cerebral palsy confessed that her disability made it difficult to be sexual—so much so that she didn’t even feel entitled to ask a casual partner to use protection—Taylor quickly responded, “Your body is not an apology, and it’s not something you offer to someone to say, ‘Sorry for my disability.’”
A professional performance poet, Taylor instantly knew that those words belonged in a poem, aptly titled, “The Body Is Not an Apology.” What she didn’t know is that her words would soon become a groundswell for a radical approach to self-love, and a movement that has now gone global.
Approximately 100,000 people currently follow the The Body Is Not an Apology Facebook page, which Taylor tells The Glow Up began with a photo she was initially too shy to post:
I had a selfie in my phone of me getting dressed for a performance, [and] I felt really powerful and sexy in this photo. But I was still listening to the voice that was telling me, “Don’t share it. People will judge you; you’re too ugly, you’re too fat, you’re too black”—all of those negative voices that I call “the outside voice inside of us.” And it kept me from posting that photo for about six months.
And then someone shared [with me] a photo of a plus-sized model in a black corset ... and it inspired me to post my photo in a black corset. And I actually said in this photo: “I’m 230 pounds, I have stretch marks and a really bad tattoo, and I feel beautiful and powerful in my body. Post a photo where you feel beautiful and powerful in yours.”
And I woke up and about 30 people had tagged me in photos of themselves—of all different kinds of bodies, and different sorts of people with different lives, but all professing to live unapologetically in their bodies, at least in that moment. And I decided that we should start a Facebook page where people could celebrate themselves and celebrate living in their bodies without apology.
That was Feb. 11, 2011. In the seven years since, that Facebook page has grown into a digital media and education company of 32 people in four countries producing content that reaches approximately 1 million people each month. And it’s all in service of a singular mission: to promote the idea of radical self-love.
Now it’s also become a book. The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love isn’t your typical self-help book—namely, it makes no promises whatsoever. Instead, it offers empathy and insight into the dysfunctional relationship that many of us have with our bodies, with direct questions to help guide the process. For instance: “What have we been apologizing for? What if we stopped? When did we learn to hate [our bodies]?”
The cover features a naked Taylor, bald, brown and brazenly staring into the camera from atop a bed of flowers, as if a post-millennial reinterpretation of the Black Madonna (sans child). She shares that it was new territory for her publishers, who challenged their own preconceptions and unknown prejudices in the process:
They got to grapple with: “What does it mean to promote this book with this fat, dark-skinned, bald black woman on the cover of it naked? What are we saying about bodies? What do we have to deconstruct about our own ideas about bodies in order to let this book come into the world?” And I think that’s what I love the most about the work of radical self-love: When you mess with it long enough, it works on you. There’s no way around it.
Taylor’s message is also resonating deeply with readers. Says Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Movement for Black Lives: “The Body Is Not an Apology is a gift, a blessing, a prayer, a reminder, a sacred text. ... This book cracked me open in ways that I’m so grateful for ... ”
Kimberlé Crenshaw, founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum, wrote: “To build a world that works for everyone, we must first make the radical decision to love every facet of ourselves. Through lucid and courageous self-revelation, Taylor shows us how to realize the revolutionary potential of self-love. ‘The body is not an apology’ is the mantra we should all embrace.”
These endorsements are more than superficial. They speak to the work Taylor and her team are truly trying to do, work that extends far beyond what the now trendy phrase “body positivity” suggests:
At The Body Is Not an Apology, we talk about body positivity being part of what we do, but in no way the whole of it. Because there’s a way in which that language and movement has really been flattened to mean something that’s not nearly as expansive as what mean. We’ve made body positivity a very sort of middle-aged or millennial white woman’s experience about how she feels about wearing a size 16.
And there’s space for that—I want you to feel great about your size 16. And I also need body positivity to mean that black people are not afraid of being indiscriminately killed during routine traffic stops, because I need to be able to feel positive that my black body is safe in the world. I need trans folk to be able to use the bathroom that identifies with the gender they identify with, because that is part of being positive in their bodies. I need mental illness to be destigmatized because that’s part of being positive in one’s body.
Taylor is also very clear that the plus-size industry, while currently enjoying more visibility and validation than ever before, is still incredibly limited when it comes to true inclusion:
I think that as it relates to the plus-size market, there are still boundaries around what we decide is an acceptable body, even in that space ... which still leaves us firmly planted in a hierarchy of bodies—that there are some bodies that are better than other bodies; there are some bodies that deserve to be seen more than other bodies. And that’s the system I’m interested in seeing us divest from.
For black women in particular, Taylor echoes the sentiments of many that representation is key, recounting incidents from her own childhood to explain why little black girls—and women—are often made aware that the standard of beauty does not include them long before they reach puberty:
I think that black women absolutely are very much still grappling internally with whether or not we are beautiful. And much of that is because we still are struggling to find where we can see ourselves as ourselves. It’s the reason why things like Black Panther are important, because representation does matter. Representation reminds us that there are a million ways we get to be in our body and that all of those ways are beautiful, and they don’t have to be determined by the existing power structure.
And if Taylor seems to have self-love on lock, she’s quick to admit that she, too, is still doing the work of de-indoctrinating herself from the messages the external world has imprinted upon her psyche. “It’s not like, ‘And then I arrived at radical self-love, and I was good the rest of my life, and I love my thighs every day,’” she jokes.
Instead, she maintains that self-love requires vigilant interrogation of the systems that keep power structures and beauty standards in place:
One of the most important and powerful parts of the work of radical self-love is this key question that I ask people to ask themselves, which is: “Whose agenda is your self-hatred? Who gets to benefit from that?”
The answer is a whole heap of corporations—a whole slew of them—and a whole system of oppression that has existed because of convincing me and the rest of the world that I’m somehow deficient or lacking as a result of who I am. So the system of white supremacy wins real big when I hate living in this body, when I despise who I am. ... All ... systems—they thrive every time I continue to not question where my own self-hatred and self-degradation comes from.
Most of all, Taylor wants us to to know that radical self-love isn’t a “fake it until you make it” proposition. It’s our birthright.
We came here as radical self-love—I’m not asking you to figure out how to get something you don’t know how to get to. You already arrived on this planet as radical self-love; you came here as the source material of a human being who already knew that you were worthy and divine and perfect in your imperfections just as you were. And the work is not to figure out how to create that in you; the work is to figure out how to remove the obstacles that are keeping you from accessing that knowing that already exists. ... You don’t have to make it up. It’s already there.
The Glow Up tip: The Body Is Not an Apology is currently available for purchase on Amazon.com. Taylor’s next release, a body-positive puberty book titled Celebrate Your Body: The Ultimate Guide to Puberty for Girls, is due out in May.