Radical self-love, body hierarchy and intersectionality by Sonya Renee Taylor
When I first found out about Sonya, after numerous people asked for her to feature on Storyo, I started following her Instagram account. I was so grateful to have such a brilliant outspoken confronting woman in my feed who made me question my thoughts and kept reminding to love myself. Sonya is a founder of The Body is Not An Apology platform that promotes radical self-love and body empowerment. She is a poet, author, speaker, and has had many awards behind her name. Recently, she re-located from the US to New Zealand as part of the Edmund Hilary Fellowship and currently resides on Waiheke Island.
Sonya has recorded her answers, below is the transcript of the interview.
Sonya, you are leading one of the most wonderful movements - The Body Is Not An Apology. Could you please tell us a bit about its main mission and how has it evolved since the conception of it?
The mission of The Body is Not An Apology is that we believe inequity, oppression, and injustice are in many ways a manifestation of our inability to make peace with the body - our own bodies and other people's bodies. And through information dissemination, education and community building we foster radical, unapologetic self-love, which we believe translates into radical human love in action and service towards a more just, equitable and compassionate world.
The long and short of it is, is that we believe that our relationships with bodies, our own bodies, and other people's bodies really are some of the foundational bricks of oppression. Transforming that relationship is how we create a transformed world, and that all oppression is experienced on the body. Even when it isn't about the body, it's experienced on the body. So using the body as a site to begin to dismantle oppressive systems just seemed like a no-brainer to me.
That's kind of been the vision since the beginning. I think very early on it was clear that through these fractured relationships with our own bodies, the beliefs of inherent unworthiness and beliefs about other people's bodies, we're causing great harm and that felt like a place where I could offer my lens and perspective and hopefully shift the needle in oppression.
When doing my research on you, a lot of it pointed to the post you made on Facebook (Bad Picture Monday). What was your background before that?
So the first picture that I posted was not Bad Picture Monday. This was actually Good Picture Wednesday - the photo that I took when I was getting dressed for an event and had on a black corset.
It actually wasn't about like: "Oh, let me embrace this picture that I don't look great in." It was actually: "I feel beautiful and powerful, and what is the voice inside of me that is telling me that somehow I should not?" And that is what made me post that picture. And that’s what sort of started the movement.
Prior to that, my history has been mostly in the nonprofit sector. HIV, mental health and youth work are the spaces where I've done the most work in. So that was what I was doing in the professional world and then after I stopped doing those things in non-profits, I became a full-time performance poet and traveled the world doing that for many, many years, nearly over a decade. And then The Body is Not An Apology actually grew out of, I would like to think sort of mixing all of those other elements of my life like cake batter and The Body is Not An Apology is the cake that came from that.
In your book, you talk about ten everyday tools for radical self-love and care. They are referenced in a lot of your interviews. Have you had any surprising responses about a particular part of the book that resonated with people?
There's a podcast called By The Book where they take self-help titles and then live by the instructions of those particular books. One of the hosts of the show said that the book actually kind of kicked up her eating disorder issues and she found it to be really unhelpful and it sort of took her down a really negative spiral trying to live by the book... I was shocked by that.
I thought that was really, really odd. It was one of those places where I could see that there was a way in which she was interpreting this with sort of literalist's perspective with this sort of control and rigidity that often belies some of the underlying issues of eating disorders. And so I wasn't surprised that because she was taking it on in that way, that it was coming up as a challenging space for her to work through. The content was uncomfortable for her in that way, and I would have loved to have spent a bit more time with them and help them reframe what it was.
I think when I wrote the book, the pieces that felt the strongest to me were the pieces that I've been cultivating forever. I mean, what I loved about this book is that I was asked to write about something that I'd been honing for years since 2011 and the book deal did not come along until 2015 and the book did not get turned in for a first draft until 2017. So I really had a lot of time with these ideas, running an entire company and hiring people, and really promoting the ideas. And so by the time I sat down to write the book, it felt very clear to me what it was that I wanted to get across.
The pieces that jazz me the most is I really enjoy making a distinction between self-esteem and self-confidence, and radical self-love. It feels so important to me that people really grasp that these are not the same things. I intended to write a book that met people where they are. And people absolutely read this book and get from it something based on wherever they are.
This book takes you as far as you're actually willing to go in exploring this content. And one of the things that I really want to encourage people to do, or at least folks have told me they've done that's been helpful, is to come back to reading the book later because the richer and deeper your own journey is, the more gems seem to come out of this book for people.
You talk about intersectionality a lot. Could you define what that means?
Intersectionality is a term coined by legal scholar and professor Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, and it speaks to the way in which a multiplicity of identities complicate the experience of an individual as it relates to structural and systemic oppression. So one of the things that Dr. Crenshaw talked about is a legal case in which a black woman was suing her company for discrimination. And her company said, "Well, that's not true. We hire women. And our company said, oh, we hire black people." But the problem was they didn't hire black women.
And it was the unique intersection of her identity as black and female that complicated the narrative and the experience of oppression. And so to be intersectional for me is to be constantly looking at the ways in which the multiplicity of our identities impact, shift, change, direct our experience with structural and systemic oppression and injustice.
We have been talking about better representation and diversity in groups that make decisions, in groups that put things forward, run ads, edit books, fund movies, hold the power. But the people with power do very minimal of what’s needed because they had the privilege of not experiencing oppression, racism, sexism, and ableism. Without these people putting more work in, the change will keep happening slowly. How do we get these people on board?
I don't believe that it is marginalised people’s job to convince people with privilege and power to decide to do right. I believe that is ought to be one's moral imperative if they desire to actually have their ledger balance out at the end of their days in the scrolls of humanity. And one of the things that I think is true... Here's what I tell folks all the time, is that nothing grows without discomfort. And so if someone's position is that they stopped pursuing social justice because some marginalised person wasn't nice enough to them. That means that they never really cared about social justice to begin with because people don't change their entire world framework because someone wasn't nice to them.
You've never gone to McDonald's and had a bad experience and then decided you were never going to eat again, right? You might not go to that McDonald's, you might not talk to that individual who made your food, but you didn't make an entire decision about your relationship with food forever based on one bad experience in McDonald's. And there is not anything different about pursuing justice in the world. If you're committed to that, if that is really who it is you say you are, then the work is to do the work regardless.
One of the things I think is most important is to tell people up front that they're going to be uncomfortable. For me, that's been one of the most liberating parts of my work is that I get to tell folks every single day this does not feel good. And part of the reason that the world looks the way that it‘s looked for as long as it has is because some people had been allowed to feel good at the expense of others’ discomfort.
And so actually, in order to get to the world, we say we want, everybody's going to have to get uncomfortable for a while. And so that is actually what I believe in telling folks and everyone's work is not the same. My work is absolutely to talk to us, humans, about the way in which our identities and bodies impact the identities and bodies of other people and impact the identities and bodies of ourselves. And that's my calling, but that's not everybody's calling. And other people are not bad people because they don't feel like educating more privileged people all day.
The last thing I want to say about this question is that there is no place on the train to justice where someone can get on at this point without stepping on someone's foot. People had been waiting for the world to shift and change, and move away from harm and violence forever. And folks who are just awakening to that process have to acknowledge that they're late, and that their lateness comes in at expense of other people’s identities. And they're going to have to make room for the fact that folks are pissed off about that.
And then the folks that are on the train actually are still going to have to express that they are mad and then scoot over so that we can get moving toward a just world.
Actually, the last, last thing I want to say about that is one of the things that I like to remind people is that actually oppression oppresses everyone including oppressors. I say this all the time. Oppression oppresses everyone, including the oppressor. That what you will always exchange for the luxury of privilege is the fullness of your humanity.
The luxury of privilege never rewards you with the full range of human connection. And so if you want to be in the right relationship with the world and right relationship with others, if you want to stop having this inherent sense of lack in dread and not enoughness, if you want to stop feeling disconnected, get on the right side of history, get on the right side of doing the work of fighting systems of oppression. Otherwise, you're always going to feel lost.
You have the most heartwarming and wrenching poems about your personal experiences with fear, sex, abortion, body image. Stories like that resonate with so many people and help others heal. Have there been any negative effects for you personally because of what you share publicly?
I've been really lucky and every time I say this, I knock on wood, because I am clear that other people who do the work that I do in the way that I do it, have had heinous experiences. They've been boxed and people have harassed them and people were cruel online and people have done all sorts of things. The truth is that my stories have been met with such generous love and such sweetness, community, and camaraderie. I've only had positive experiences about sharing vulnerably in the world. Yeah, it is only ever brought me more connection, more opportunities, more joy, more love.
Do you believe that people choose plastic surgeries as an act of self-love?
This is one of the things I say in the book and I think it is important to remember: it is almost never about what we do and almost always about why we do it. And in order to answer this question, we've got to really be willing to ask ourselves some deep self-reflective questions. And generally, more often than not, those deep self-reflective questions give us a clue about where the engine is in our behaviours, what's driving them.
And so things like "Oh, I want to get breast enhancements." What do you think you will receive as a result of having bigger breasts or lip fillers? What does the world say about that? One of the things that I ask people to ask themselves as they're trying to gauge whether or not their behaviours and active radical self-love is in a system of bodily hierarchy: am I changing my body in ways that the system will reward me for?
And generally if we are trying to be rewarding in an unjust, violent, hierarchical system, we're not operating from radical self-love, we're operating within a system of oppression. So it's less about what I believe and it's more about asking people to really be honest with themselves about the motivation behind such decisions.
You often talk about being lucky but also about challenging and stretching yourself. When you look from the outside at a person who is successful (whatever that means for each person), it is easy to assume that they have it all figured out. What are some of the recent examples of challenges you have experienced?
Oh, yeah… No, I don't have anything all figured out. I'm a hot mess! (laughs) I am challenged all the time. When I moved to New Zealand, I wasn't really sure why I was being directed here and what became clearer and clearer is that I was being directed here because too much of my existence had become externally defined. I was starting to understand myself based on what I was doing and not based on simply being. And so I had to practice that. I had to be moved away from community and be put in real isolation so that I can return to learning what it is to be valued just for being by myself, to learn to value myself for just being...
I was so alone. When I first got to Aotearoa, I was really struggling. That was absolutely one of the challenges. As long as we live in an oppressive terroristic society that institutes shame, stigma and trauma on bodies based of a system of bodily hierarchy, we will always be challenged in our relationships with our bodies. I still live in a deeply fatphobic, racist, ablest, ageist world. And I am an ageing, black, queer, fat woman who lives with a mental illness.
So I live in a body that the world is constantly telling me is not okay, and I would be dishonest if I pretend that as if that never impacted me. Of course, it does. Of course, there are days I really struggle and that's also part of the journey. I love myself through the challenges. Even when it feels like I'm faking it, that is the work.
What’s it like for you in NZ? What are some of the main cultural differences you notice between NZ and US in the line of your work?
New Zealand is very different culturally, particularly in a nation that has cultural notions like tall poppy syndrome. This idea that it is dangerous and undesirable to be seen, which can stifle people's sense of self and their sense of value. And it's interesting to watch what seems to be some of the manifestations of that in the social realm in New Zealand: high suicide rates, high family violence rates.
This sort of inward violence in a society telling people that they should not be the fullest most vibrant expressions of themselves. I meet people who love the ideas that I'm sharing and are terrified to step into them fully because of the cultural context in Aotearoa. It's been beautiful watching people try on radical self-love and how that might fit for them in their own lives here.
We all talk about how terrible this singular beauty portrayal is in the world. We all agree on this topic (or so it seems). Why the hell do we still have this very singular thin, white, tall body type representing human beauty?
The short answer is white supremacy, which is a global phenomenon put forth through the functions of colonialism that have assigned certain images physically as more beautiful than others, and then have propagated that as a function of power and control.
It's there because it continues to work in a system of power and control. And so we can't talk about beauty without talking about colonialism and white supremacy. And we can't talk about fatphobia without talking about colonialism and white supremacy. This is one of those places where intersectionality matters. All of these issues are entwined and they impact each other. If you pull one thread, you got to pull the whole ball of yarn.
When was the last time you changed your opinions? Something that you had strong beliefs about and after a conversation with someone or reading / watching something, you changed it?
That's a good question. Let me think on that one… So this is an old one, but it was a powerful one for me. I come from an experience of drug abuse in my childhood and a parent who was deeply steeped in addiction. And in my early 20s, I took a job doing HIV prevention with street-based sex workers in Washington DC. The model, the framework by which this agency did its work was called harm reduction. And it was the idea that it was possible to use drugs and reduce harm and still having functional, manageable life.
And that was so foreign to me. The idea that someone could use drugs and it not be utterly devastating to their existence and to the existence of all of those around them was incredibly powerful. And by working with drug users and working with sex workers, and working with folks engaged in a labour that is often criminalised in the world, it was really powerful for me to realise that these conversations are so much more nuanced. So not binary.
So complex and complicated, and not necessarily the worst-case scenario narrative that I experienced and lived in and assumed was everyone's experience. It was pretty powerful. Harm reductions. Amazing.
What is your main focus right now and is there anything you would like the audience to help you with?
I invite people to go to Sonya Renee Taylor on Instagram and Sonya Renee Taylor on Patreon and sign up as a subscriber, follow and support these fantastic What's Up Y'all Radical Self-love short video lessons that I give every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
I am working on a memoir project right now and I'm sort of deep in the writing and it's been beautiful and illuminating. I invite folks to keep your eyes out for that book. It'll be awhile.
And The Body is Not An Apology is launching retreats in Aotearoa, and these are going to be very limited engagement: five day-four night transformational healing retreats using some of the most powerful and poignant work from The Body is Not An Apology, and certainly all structured under a radical self-love framework with beautiful food and lodging and accommodations.
The first one launches in January. We only take seven people per workshop, so literally there's space for 28 people a year to participate. So keep an eye out on my website, on The Body Is Not An Apology's website and on Instagram for more details about when we will begin enrolling in our first five-day radical retreat.
Whose story do I want to read about here?
I really want to keep hearing about the lives of genderqueer, indigenous youth, Maori young people, disabled, indigenous people living at the intersections of multiple marginalisations, and the way in which they're navigating the world because I believe there are so many gems for how we get free in the stories of these folks.