Unapologetic and proud. Those are just a few words that come to mind when you hear spoken word artist and activist Sonya Renee Taylor perform, especially when she explores themes like self-image, body shame, and radical self-love. She spoke with the California Report Magazine’s host, Sasha Khokha, about her new book, The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
On an epiphany she had after taking a picture of herself that she was reluctant to post on social media:
"I’m wearing a black corset. It was me in my skivvies. There was this internal dialogue happening inside of me. Part of me felt beautiful in the selfie I had taken. And then there was the internal chatter about what the external world would say."
"So [six months later], I posted the photo, and I wrote, 'in this photo, I’m 230 pounds. I have a really bad tattoo and stretch marks, and I feel beautiful in my body. Post a photo where you feel beautiful in your body.' The next morning, 30 people had tagged me in photos. And I thought, maybe we need a place where we can celebrate ourselves. Maybe we need a place where we are allowed to feel unapologetically powerful and beautiful in our bodies."
On body shame, which often starts in childhood:
"I was teased unmercifully as a little girl because I developed traction alopecia in third grade. It’s permanent hair damage and hair balding from stress on the hair follicles, from my mother braiding my hair very, very tightly. That made me a target. I was already living in a world that told me my short, kinky hair as a dark skinned black girl was not OK. And the little bit of not OK hair I had was also missing in some places. That shame really baked in the notion that I was inherently flawed. I wore weaves and wigs from the time I was in seventh grade until about six years ago. One day I realized, 'I wake up every day and tell people to love themselves unapologetically, and I won’t leave my bedroom without a wig.' I was like, 'what’s the scariest thing I can do to get over this giant hair shame?' Challenge the belief that I can’t be beautiful because of my hair."
On her poem, The Body is Not an Apology, which later became the name of her organization and her book:
"I was a slam poet with a team of folks in Knoxville, TN, competing for the Southern Fried poetry slam. I was having a conversation with one of my teammates who was afraid that she might have an unexpected pregnancy. She also has cerebral palsy. I’m kind of nosy, I get in people’s business. So I asked her what made her decide to have unprotected sex with this person that she wasn’t into in a serious way. She was transformatively vulnerable with me in sharing that her disability made it difficult for her to be sexual. She didn’t feel entitled to ask this person to use a condom. What came out of me was, 'your body is not an apology. It’s not something you offer to someone to say sorry for my disability.' She heard it, but I also heard it as a message I was giving myself."
On the importance of radical self-love as a tool to change the world:
"I believe that the world we want to see, a world that is just, equitable, and compassionate, requires us to develop a just, equitable, and compassionate relationship with ourselves first. We can’t build externally what we can’t build internally. I hope this book connects the dots between radical self-love and the systems of oppression that we see in the world. The ways in which violence and inequity against a multitude of bodies exists. And how our individual transformation can change the world, by practicing loving ourselves."
"Let’s start with a shared reality. We all have a body, and if we learn how to make peace with our bodies, and everybody else’s body, we actually have a shot at dismantling some of those systems."
On taking the first step toward radical self-love of your own body:
"I want people to ask themselves some questions to begin the journey. We think we came up with these ideas about all the ways our bodies are wrong. 'I hate my thighs because I hate my thighs,' or 'I want to bleach my skin because I want to bleach my skin.' We haven’t interrogated who gave us the message. I was in a conversation with a friend, a tiny petite woman, who said, 'I just hate this pooch. I just wish my stomach was flat.' Who told you your stomach should be flat? Where did that message come from? Who’s benefiting from all the ways in which I think I’m deficient? People profit off my self-hate. Let’s start investigating the things I’ve been told about my body."
On the #Me Too Movement:
"We can’t talk about #MeToo without talking about the ways in which society says women’s bodies should be treated. The messages we give men about what to expect from a woman’s body, and her time, and her energy. We have to start interrogating all of the messages that we’ve received about bodies. Our interactions with our own bodies, and with other people’s bodies. There’s some really rich learning we get to do when we start asking those questions.