The Body is not an Apology is available in bookshops nationwide.
Seeing a fat woman on stage talking about how beautiful she is feels drastic – decadent – almost illegal. Experiencing Sonya Renee Taylor being genuinely not just okay with her fat body but loving it was a shock and an enlightenment. There’s another way. Body shame is neither natural nor compulsory. There’s another way. HOLY COW. At one point she joked ‘I’m not Jesus’, but I have to tell you, I’m not sure that’s true.
Taylor is a queer fat black American performance poet and businesswoman who’s residing in Aotearoa for a few years as part of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship. She is the creator and leader of The Body Is Not An Apology movement, which preaches radical self love. This session was programmed and chaired by Tusiata Avia, who opened by inviting us to feel the mana whenua under our beautiful bodies. Soon we were also feeling the aroha as we basked in Taylor’s and Avia’s combined presences.
Radical self love is related to body positivity and fat acceptance but has a wider remit and greater ambition. Taylor says that her goal is nothing less than to entirely dismantle the oppressive systems that tell us that some bodies are better than others: racism, ableism, transphobia, fatphobia, and so on. Radical self love starts by looking inwards – ‘We cannot create externally what we have not created internally’ – but is expansive and contagious. Unlike self-confidence, which is fleeting and individualistic, radical self love means that ‘I never doubt my inherent enoughness even when I’m not feeling pretty’. Radical self love is solid even when everything on top of it is shaking.
Taylor said that there is no such thing as a toddler with body shame: we are born ‘magnificent and full of wonder’. (Later on, British poet Hollie McNish would make the same point.) The shame we seem to all end up feeling is learned and comes from what Taylor calls the ‘body terrorism’ of the global body shame profit complex: everything from the diet and beauty industries to pat-downs in airports.
One of the hierarchical systems Taylor wants to destroy is the widespread belief that ‘healthy’ bodies are better than ‘unhealthy’ ones: ‘Health is not a state we owe the world.’ And in the meantime, while most medical institutions are operating on the mistaken assumption that being fat is inherently unhealthy, ‘fatphobia is killing people’.
Taylor is an extraordinary stage presence. She is loud in the very best sense of the word: confident, generous, and captivating. As with Comfortable In Your Skin (which Taylor was also a part of), it felt like one of those magical festival events where exactly the right people had found themselves at exactly the right event. We were a responsive audience, often clapping, clicking, murmuring agreement – even crying a little. We ran over time because Taylor and Avia both shared with us their poems: Taylor’s ‘The Body Is Not An Apology’ and Avia’s ‘Apology’, both on the same theme. We clapped and clapped and clapped, and then all rushed out to buy Taylor’s book and get her to sign it for us. Taylor has given us the gift of an alternative path, and I could feel her words go right to the heart of me. Ngā mihi nui e te rangatira.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
The Body is not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love
by Sonya Renee Taylor
Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers