Sonya Renee Taylor
Author & Speaker
Founder Laura Jane Kenny talks to Sonya about her company The Body Is Not An Apology, how she started rocking being bald and how body politics are about more than self esteem.
Laura Jane: Can you tell me a little bit more about what you’ve been working on recently. I want to hear about how The Body Is Not An Apology was launched. Everything that’s on your plate right now to start.
Sonya: I’m in the editing process of a book about the work of my company The Body Is Not An Apology and the work of radical self love. The book is really synthesizing this concepts of, how do we create not just an individual transformative moment through this notion of radical self love but how do we use it as a model for social justice and social change? I’m the editing process of that, the first draft is back and I’m just starting to receive editing feedback, so that’s exciting.
I am also in the process of applying for a fellowship program out of New Zealand focused on social impact entrepreneurs who are working on global impact problems. And sort of incubating those things at least in part from New Zealand. I just got back from their New Frontiers conference which is an annual conference of social impact changemakers from around the world, sort of convening and talking about what are the solutions for the world’s largest problems. I was there talking about radical self love as one of the solutions for the world’s largest problems—I did a keynote and a workshop there.
The Body Is Not An Apology is launching a campaign this year called Bodies of Resistance, #bodiesofresistance, which is about connecting people who are interested in these ideas around body and justice to organizations in their community who need physical people to help build resistance around all of the entities that are jeopardizing a just, compassionate world right now. We are in the process of developing the roll out for that campaign which will be a year long. I’m excited to be tying people to places where they can put their specific energies in their communities.
LJ: Can talk a little bit about when you were a young person if you remember, first started thinking about your body as an entity? Do you recall when you first thought about your body as something that needed to be managed? What was your relationship with your body like when you were coming of age, when a lot of people start to feel the cultural expectations on their body?
S: So my first body based memory is I guess, I was about 3 or 4 and I got in trouble for playing ‘show me yours I’ll show you mine’ with my brother, who is older. I think that was the first message that was ‘oh there’s something bad’ about my body. That’s the first memory I have of that.
I would say that my biggest areas of body shame—the ones that were most impacting—was when I was teased in elementary school because I developed traction alopecia, which is balding. I started having hair balding on the sides of my head when I was in third grade. I got very severely teased about that. I don’t remember it going beyond third grade, but I certainly carried a significant amount of that shame with me for a very long time—years and years and years. It was actually one of the catalyst for one of The Body Is Not An Apology’s programs, Radically Unapologetic Health Challenge 4 Us. In my pre-teens, I certainty started getting messages about size, like what your body should be built like and weight. I also started getting messages about skin color, messages about my dark skinned and those sorts of things. All of those, I would say, happened between third grade and sixth grade. That is when all of those messages really started forming and embedding themselves.
LJ: Can you walk me through what was life like in between that and starting The Body Is Not An Apology? You mentioned it was a catalyst. Tell me more about the time between you working on these ideas and then decided to bring it to a place where you could talk about it on a platform.
S: There was many decades of in between time and I think what was happening in that in-between time is that, at least on a subconscious level, I was questioning these messages. I don’t think I fully bought them. While I was certainly grappling with it and I was, you know, chronic dieting and yo-yo dieting and using extensions in my hair and doing all those sorts of things, at the same time, I never fully accepted them. I was doing them because they felt like a social norm, but not necessarily because I really bought into it.
The inception of The Body Is Not An Apology was an idea that came from a conversion with a friend. A friend of mine with a disability thought she had an unintended pregnancy. When I asked her why she wasn’t using condoms with this casual partner she said because her disability made it difficult for her to be sexual, she didn’t feel entitled to ask that person to use a condom. My response to her in that conversation was ‘your body is not an apology.’ It is not something that you offer to someone to say ‘sorry for my disability.’ And when I said that to her, it just stuck with me. I knew that it would become a poem because that was my full time career at the moment. I was a performance poet—I still am a performance poet. So I wrote the poem and then five or six months later, I had a selfie in my phone of myself getting dressed for a performance. I had on a black corset and I really thought I looked sexy in this photo. I liked the photo a lot but I also had a lot of shame about it, shame about the idea of sharing it. I was definitely judging myself from that voice that said I was too fat, I was too dark, too, too, too whatever to share it. So it sat in my phone for five months. Then one night after seeing a plus size model’s corset photo online, I decided I was going to share my photo and I invited other people to share photos where they felt empowered and beautiful in their bodies. The next morning, I woke up and about 20 people had tagged me in photos of themselves and it seemed like an opportunity to create good energy to be in a space where we could affirm one another. I thought, I’m going to start a Facebook page and I’ll call it The Body Is Not An Apology after this poem that I’ve written and it’ll be a place where we can affirm each other and feel unapologetic in our bodies. That Facebook page just kept growing and growing and growing and people started coming and asking me if they could write or volunteer and before I knew it, I looked up and I had a company.
LJ: Can you talk a little bit about your personal relationship with your body during that time? Did you feel like you were sort of changing the way you felt about your body while you were developing this company?
S: Absolutely. Everything that The Body Is Not An Apology is has come from my own journey and my deep belief that my journey is not singular, it’s not individual. It’s not just like I’m having this isolated experience in my body and nobody else is having it. There is a part of me that has always been certain that if I’m experiencing it in my body, someone else is also experiencing it. This is always what has led me to share those moments. So when I shared that selfie on Facebook, it’s because I knew other people, somebody else, was sitting at home, listening to what we call the ‘outside voice’ inside of us, listening to this voice of body shame, telling them that they weren’t good enough or that they were too much and not celebrating themselves. So, my choice to celebrate myself was about me challenging that voice inside of me and my choice to invite other people was about having community and support around taking this new action.
About five months after I started the facebook page The Body Is Not An Apology, I started feeling conflicted because I was still very much living in a lot of hair shame. I was still wearing wigs, I had been wearing wigs at that point for probably about ten years. I had roommates and lovers who had never seen me without my wig on, because that’s how committed I was to that shame. I started feeling like a hypocrite. It became really clear that I couldn’t wake up everyday and tell people to love themselves unapologetically and then put on this wig because I did not love myself unapologetically. I knew that I needed to do something radical to get out of that space of shame and so I decided that I was going to take on a 30-day project around getting rid of my hair shame by being bald in the world, by deciding to shave off all of my hair. My core belief was that it was impossible to be beautiful because my hair wasn’t right. So I thought, I should challenge that by not having any hair. The plan was to do that for 30 days and I created what is called the RUCHUS project, Radically Unapologetic Healing Challenge For Us. RUCHUS was about transforming that belief of body shame by challenging it out loud, and so I created this 30 day transformational healing project and then had a very public component of it where I asked other people to sort of follow along and to think about what their own RUCHUS is in their own lives. Today, people around the country and around the world do RUCHUS projects around their own transformation healing. All of the things, all of the work that The Body Is Not An Apology does, has started as Sonya’s personal journey to get out of her own shame and my ability to see that if I’m experiencing it, I know I’m not alone.
LJ: Can you talk more about what that 30 days was like when you first created it?
S: It was terrifying. It started with a ceremony of about eight of my closest friends. They came to my house and they cut off my hair. Each of them cut a section of my hair and gave a blessing of what they hoped they were removing and then they laid their hands on my scalp to give a blessing of what they hoped would grow in it’s place. That sort of served as the foundation to kick off the 30 days. And then, everyday for 30 days, I did a video blog and posted it to YouTube about what it was like to be in the world bald. The reason why I did the YouTube portion was because a lot of times so much of the transformational and healing work that we do, we do very much in private. We do the work, then come back out in the world like, ‘Hey, I’m all healed,’ and nobody knows how it happened or believes that it could happen for them or understands the process. It felt important to me to remind people that I’m not some magical creature. This was hard and challenging and scary and there were days that I absolutely hated the fact that I was doing it and felt ugly and horrible and cried and all those things. And that all of that was just part of the human journey, but that I could move through it and so could they. At the end of the 30 days, I wouldn’t say that I was healed but that core belief, that belief that it was impossible to be valuable or important or beautiful in the world without hair, that belief was dispelled. It has been six years and I’ve never grown my hair back because I really like being bald now. But that journey is what started it.
LJ: That’s incredible. I wanted to ask you about social media and your presence on social media. What has it been like to put your story out? Have you experienced any trolling or do you find that you have supportive followers?
S: I kind of see our social media footprint as two-fold. There is The Body Is Not An Apology and the people who follow The Body Is Not An Apology, which is no longer run by me on a daily basis. Our Facebook page is very much one of the core pieces of what The Body Is Not An Apology does. It is community building and it’s about creating and figuring out how you do that in a digital realm. We have guidelines, what we call Community Conservation Agreements on our Facebook page that sort of serve as the structure under which we ask our community to engage in these ideas around body. We’ve been doing it for such a long time that we have a really great handle on a very large and well moderated digital presence. Every once and again something may fall into a ‘troll-hole’ as I call it, but that’s pretty rare. People actually engage the content using our agreements, and we talk through things. We help folks expand their perspective and there’s been really powerful process of people engaging from this ethos of radical self love with our content on social media.
My personal space is comparable. I think the reason we were able to create that at The Body Is Not An Apology space is because that’s how I run my personal space. Across Facebook—across my fan page and my personal page—I use the space to have hard conversations with compassion, which is what i believe The Body Is Not An Apology is about. I am not opposed to engaging in dialogue with people of differing opinions. I am opposed to treating the internet like it’s the wild, wild west and all the rules of human engagement get to go out the window. I moderate my page in that way so that people are very clear that if you come here, you’re coming here to have a conversation, a constructive conversation, and if that’s not what you’re here for, if you’re here to just kind of do the YouTube comments section-version of internet, I’m not interested in that and I don’t hold space for that. People regularly follow my page and because they feel, at least they tell me, is that they learn. They expand their perspective about intersectionality, they learn about issues that are issues they maybe never considered before. They talk through perspectives that they might not have thought about. People come to me knowing that they can ask tough questions and that we can sort of wrestle with the nuances of things in a way that may not happen in other spaces. So I’m always kind of surprised by the lack of trolls I get–knock on wood–but I think it’s difficult to troll me because it’s difficult to troll radical self love. It just kind of makes you your worst self and I think a lot of people know that. So I think that’s part of it, I think part of it is there’s a level of invisibility that is a gift of oppression in the sense that I’m a fat, black queer woman and so the world isn’t really checking for me in the same ways that it checks other bodies that are more normative or mainstream about what it expects them to be.
A lot of times so much of the transformational and healing work that we do, we do very much in private. We do the work, then come back out in the world like, ‘Hey, I’m all healed,’ and nobody knows how it happened or believes that it could happen for them or understands the process.
LJ: Can you speak a little bit about what it’s been like for you to have those conversations, is it ever triggering to host such compassionate, real conversations? I’m curious of the weight that it takes on you to be fostering these conversations and how you keep going?
S: Absolutely there are times when it feels horrifically, emotionally draining and those are times when I stop doing it. My radical self love work includes radical self care. Which, for me, recognizes that I am not effective when I am giving from an empty well. So, if I am experiencing engagement as harming me, then I stop doing it. Sometimes it means, ‘Hey, this isn’t up for conversation right now, it’s too close to home.’ Sometimes it’s energizing. It’s really energizing when people get it, when people have transformative shifts in their thinking, when people see things in a way that interrupts cycles of body-based oppression. When people transform, it is totally energizing to me, which is why I still do it. It’s actually one of our agreements at The Body Is Not An Apology, is to take breaks for self care. I am not an effective changemaker from a place of trigger, so I have to go deal with me first, and care for me first, put the oxygen mask on myself first before I apply it to anybody else. So that’s the way that I handle that space.
LJ: Since you’ve been doing this for quite some time, I’m curious if there are patterns that you’ve noticed that are typical blockers for people or things that you feel like help a lot of people understand something that haven’t understood before in terms of radical self love..
S: Absolutely. So one of the key themes that sort of upholds structures of body shame is the perspective of our body as valuable only in relationship to a larger system of hierarchy, and resistance to acknowledging that. That so much of how we assess our own value and the value of other bodies is by a system of comparison and the reason that that comparison stays in place is because it goes un-interrogated. Part of the reason it goes un-interrogated is because we’ve done an excellent job creating a narrative that says to have certain thoughts makes you a bad person rather than acknowledging, to have certain thoughts makes you a person indoctrinated into a system of body shame and body terror. It creates its own sort of repetitive cycle where we have these ideas because were given these ideas, for social, political, and economic reasons but we are unwilling to look at them because we believe that to look at them, to acknowledge that we have them, makes us bad people. So we sort of secretly and to ourselves assign value to our own bodies and other people’s bodies through this indoctrinated system of social hierarchy. Which is why ableism and racism and sexism and transphobia and homophobia exists, is because we believe that some bodies must be better than other bodies. But if we acknowledge that some bodies must be better than other bodies, then were terrible people, so we’re not really allowed to say that outloud although we are walking through the world using that system to validate ourselves and others. That theme is everywhere. when you ask people where they got that message, like where did you get the message that you should be skinny? They really can’t answer it.The work that I do helps people begin to interrogate the message not only about their own bodies, but about other people’s bodies.
LJ: It’s so great to be able to talk about it as a system. So often body shame is talked about on a personal level and it’s hard to pull it out to talk about it on a systemic level and therefore is just thought of as a personal problem. Can you talk a little bit more about your experience as a black woman and as a black queer woman?
S: It's difficult to parse out those elements. There’s no way to make my blackness separate from my queerness separate from this woman-ness separate from whatever other parts of me. I live in the amalgamation of those identities. I think there are some themes that are interesting to navigate as a result of those identities. One of them is certainly erasure and invisibility. which like I said, there are gifts in that. I really appreciate that I don’t have 1000 people telling me to kill myself everyday on the internet and the reason I don’t have that is because that society and online trolls—of what is mostly cis, white, straight men—don’t have an expectation about my body, don’t think about my body, they don’t think about my existence. So there’s no reason to target me because they just don’t think about me. Which is nice, sometimes. But it’s difficult other times. For example, I think that black female lead startups receive less than 1% of all the available funding opportunities in the world of startups. That’s an erasure that lives at the intersection of my blackness. The fact that white women make 76 cents for every dollar that a white man makes is more than the 59 cents a black woman makes to that dollar. And it’s lower for a Latina woman. There are these intersections where the impact of oppression and marginalization are felt more intensely. Same with my queerness, I think there is a way in which we expect the performance of identity and we struggle when it is not there.. I’m a queer woman who identifies as bisexual—I think I’m still grappling with the language of my sexuality—but there’s certainly an experience of I would say, erasure as a cis woman who is still attracted to cis men sometimes, from the queer community and then there’s an invisibility of my queerness when I’m having those relationships. I think there’s a lot of nuance and complication that kind of lives inherently in those intersections.
LJ: You have had The Body Is Not An Apology since 2011 and have been a part of the conversations about bodies in society that have been happening for a while. In recent years, it’s sort of exploded in the mainstream area and crept in from corners of the internet. What has that been like since the conversation about bodies in society has shifted to the mainstream?
S: My critique of most body-based movements, which is why The Body Is Not An Apology exists, is that they’re myopic. They look at the body through a one-dimensional lens, whatever their particular issue is. I would also say that—and I think this is true historically of the fat acceptance movement—if that movement had seen its connection to and overlaps with movements of race and gender and sexual orientation, there would be a greater network of solidarity happening around it. I think that the body positivity movement suffers the same dynamic which is that in its attempt to sort of become mainstream, mostly by a function of companies figuring out how to make it profitable and commodify it, it has become how do cis, straight white women not hate being a size 12. That myopic lens is apolitical and non-transformative. I tell people all the time in every workshop that I do, that I have very little concern about your individual self esteem and self confidence. Not that I don’t want that for you, but self esteem and self confidence unto itself doesn’t change the world. It actually sort of relies on the paradigm of individualism which is already a destructive force in our world. I’m much more interested in what does collective change look like and collective change requires interdependence. A movement that doesn’t look at the connection between fat stigma and weight bias and undocumented Latinx people, a movement that doesn’t look at the murder of transgender women of color and the incarceration of black men to me is not a body positive movement. That’s a white women feel better about yourself movement and I’m good off of that. That’s great, but that doesn’t change any of the systems and structures in our society that create injustice and inequity. For me, this work is social justice work. I’m using the site that is the most impacted by social injustice, which the body.
LJ: In thinking about women’s bodies in particular and the pressure that society puts on them, what advice would you give for people or communities to push back against the expectations or the shaming put on women’s bodies?
S: I think that the first thing is to be in inquiry, right. One, to be in inquiry about the messages that we have received as individuals about our bodies. What do I believe about my own body? Who told me to believe that? Why am I still choosing to believe it? What do I believe about other people’s bodies? Who told me to believe that? And why do I still believe it? That inquiry gives us access to a different way of being. The Body Is Not An Apology offers a webinar called 10 Tools to Radical Self Love. It lays out the system called body terrorism which are all these systems and forces that indoctrinate us into body shame and then use that for the purpose of political and economic exploitation. What are the individual everyday things I can do to de-indoctrinated myself from that system? So it’s about practicing different ways of being in our bodies. Practicing moving from a culture, particularly feminine culture of body shame as affirmation, where I talk about how awful I would look in that so I can tell you how great you look in it. I downplay my physical self so that I can uplift you, which is also rooted in this model of scarcity and individualism, which means that we can’t both fully shine at the same time. So it’s about seeing where we received these message and then acting in opposite action to those messages in every day really small ways. One of my assignments for 2017 to myself is that in every space that I am in is to ask myself who is not in the room. In order to ask myself who is not in the room, I have to think about all of the bodies that are on the planet. I have to think about other people’s bodies, because the only way to make a world for every body is to actually know everybody as much as we can. And so, noticing who’s not in your room, who’s not in your space, whose identities and lives do you not think about and how do you figure out how to add that reservoir of knowledge to your daily existence? I think that’s how we get to the world we really want to live in.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Do you see body image work as social justice work? Tweet at @bodyposproject to keep the conversation going.