As a body scholar and feminist, I hunger for ways to explore and inhabit our bodies that are not bound by shame, and Sonya Renee Taylor’s book, The Body is Not an Apology, delivers exactly that.
Long-time readers will recall that I delivered a conference keynote on the body in folklore, and that much of my research on fairy tales revolves around representations of (gendered) bodies therein. Studying trauma often means studying embodiment or lack thereof, as when people dissociate or feel disembodied as a part of their traumatic aftermath. I’m also a dancer and a foodie, so bodies are pretty much always at the forefront of my mind.
One year ago, before the world shut down, I was teaching one of my favorite courses, The Body and Society, housed in an anthropology department but informed by folklore studies, feminist theory, disability studies, and so many other wonderful frames. I was bummed when the course had to be shifted online, and when so many of us (students and teachers alike) were scrambling to find our feet in a suddenly uncertain and increasingly dangerous world.
However, I was also bummed that I had discovered The Body Is Not An Apology too late to assign it in my class. The book is that good. Recently, a publicist sent me a copy of the second edition of the book as well as the accompanying workbook, and so I decided to share some of my thoughts on these texts (you can find these books on the big A, yes, but why not consider supporting Bookshop?).
First, I love that the book is thoroughly intersectional, meaning that it attends to multiple overlapping experiences of oppression with a nuanced and critical eye. Body shame and somatophobia impact different people differently, and often, those already marginalized receive extra heaping doses of violence and negativity. Taylor examines the history of violence against marginalized bodies in the U.S., ranging from sterilization laws targeting the mentally ill and disabled to the enforcing of heteronormativity on differently-desiring bodies, such as how same-gender marriage was only legalized in the last decade.
Taylor identifies and attacks the Body-Shame Profit Complex (the variety of industries devoted to ensuring that we remain in forever fix-it-up mode regarding our bodies) as well as body terrorism: “the impact of being told to hate or fear our bodies and the bodies of others. Living in a society structured to profit from our self-hate creates a dynamic in which we are so terrified of being ourselves that we adopt terror-based ways of being in our bodies All this is fueled by a system that makes large quantities of money off our shame and bias.”
In short, it’s bad (and it has been for quite some time). Marginalized people as well as those with relative privilege are facing embodied violence of all sorts, violence that comes from the state (as with the disproportionate police killings of black and brown bodies) as well as self-directed violence (as with increased suicide levels for LGBTQ+ people). Eating disorders. Lack of access to basic resources for disabled people. Maternal mortality rates. The forms of body terrorism seem endless.
Luckily for us, Taylor has a number of suggestions for how to address these issues in our daily lives. She couches her framework in terms of radical love, which doesn’t necessarily sit well with me because I am not a very touchy-feely/emotional/vulnerable person, but her suggestions are all spot on (if anything, what this says about me is that *I* probably need to work on my own self-love since it makes me uncomfortable!). And for me, it is also a major plus that Taylor continues to use scientific and social justice-inflected language here without going into more spiritual or woo-woo territory; even as an atheist, I know that our self-image matters and impacts us. So I like that she stays firmly in empirical territory when recommending that we learn about fatphobia, transphobia, and ableism, and attempt to banish those attitudes from our lives as much as possible.
For instance, Taylor reminds us that making peace with our bodies is not simply about “finding some obscure pathway to the peninsula of ‘liking my thighs'” but rather by identifying how body oppression and shame impact us all:
Body terrorism is a hideous tower whose primary support beam is the belief that there is a hierarchy of bodies. We uphold the system by internalizing this hierarchy and using it to situate our own value and worth in the world. When our personal value is dependent on the lesser value of other bodies, radical self-love is unachievable.
I found it really thought-provoking to wonder how my own sense of embodied self and worth is predicated on my place in a hierarchy not of my own choosing, but one which I nonetheless work to enforce every time I make a judgment about myself or someone else. I will never be as slender as I was in my youth again (at least not with any semblance of health), so in some ways, I’ve slid down the Ideal Feminine Beauty pyramid a bit, though the hierarchy still gives me a boost for having pale skin and no visible disability and being cisgender (if not 100% gender-conforming). What can I do to disrupt these assumptions and these hierarchies, and to aim for a more just future for everyone?
That’s where the The Body is Not an Apology workbook comes in. Organized into four main sections – taking out the toxic, mind matters, unapologetic action, and collective compassion – the book gives a variety of prompts. Some involve journaling and storytelling, whereas others are more active. I haven’t made my way through the whole thing yet (busy semester, ugh) but I’m thinking I’ll do so this summer. As a lifelong journaler, I don’t tend to write in pre-scripted journals like this one, so it will be different for me, but I anticipate it will help me practice some of the activist and self-loving body beliefs that are difficult for me to translate into action.
If some of these ideas are new or uncomfortable, well, they probably should feel a little uncomfortable at first. After all, we’re being asked to question a lifetime of assumptions about hierarchy, value, and the worth of our own skins relative others. Taylor anticipates this sort of critique, knowing that some people will cry “identity politics” or “cancel culture” or whatever. She writes:
We should remind those people that they, too, have identities that are informed by their bodies. Their lack of awareness about those identities generally means their body falls into a multiplicity of default identities that uphold the social hierarchy of bodies. The luxury of not having to think about one’s body always comes at another body’s expense. We should, with compassion, remind them that oppression oppresses us all, even those who are default. Not even they will always have a body at the top of the ladder. No one wins in a world of body terrorism.
So yes, I am all in for these books. I wish someone had handed them to me when I was younger, so maybe I wouldn’t have spent so much of my adult life engaging in body terrorism against myself (the stereotypical thing about hating one’s thighs? yep, totally me). Moreover, I’m always finding that I have more to learn about social justice and how to be a better activist, advocate, and ally, and these books provide an incredibly helpful overview about the various ways in which patriarchal, white supremacist, heterosexist, ableist, etc. institutions do SO much harm, even to those bodies they supposedly cherish.
I’m a fan…perhaps you will be, too? I’d love to chat more about these books in the comments if anyone else has read them!