For the past few years, I’d been hearing about this book “The Body is Not An Apology”. When I read the synopsis (and, let’s be honest, saw the gorgeous cover of the author gloriously splayed atop larger-than-life flowers in her birthday suit, and decorated with strategically placed flowers, the whole thing arranged to look quite yoni-esque) I knew I wanted to read it. No, I had to read it. It promptly went on my wishlist and two holidays ago, I received it as a gift. To be honest, I was surprised at how slim it was. Surely, a book with this much clout would’ve been….thicker? Contain more? I was especially curious and slightly confused after I listened to Brené Brown’s glowing and astounding podcast with the author, Sonya Renee Taylor. Seriously….this teeny tiny little book, all 116 pages of it, was causing all this commotion? I mean, I know a book doesn’t have to be War & Peace length to have a great message, but 116 pages? Clearly, I was not prepared for what a wallop those 116 pages would pack. (Note: There is an updated edition that contains an extra chapter. This review is based on the original version)
The prologue opens with a little bit of history of how Taylor got to the place of a digital media and education company and a radical self love movement. How it all began with a woman named Natasha, a “thirtysomething year old woman living with cerebral palsy”, in a hotel room one night while the author and her team mates were preparing for a National Poetry Slam Championship Tournament. Through conversation, Natasha shared that she was afraid she might be pregnant from a sexual encounter with an occasional fling. Taylor asked her why she hadn’t used a condom, and Natasha responded honestly that her “disability makes sex hard already, with positioning and stuff. I just didn’t feel like it was okay to make a big deal about using condoms.”
When we hear someone’s truth and it strikes some deep part of our humanity, our own hidden shames, it can be easy to recoil into silence. We struggle to hold the truths of others because we have so rarely had the experience of having our own truths held. Social researcher and expert on vulnerability and shame Brené Brown says “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” I understood the truth Natasha was saying. Her words pricked some painful underbelly of knowing in my own body. My entire being ran gin resonance. I was transported to all the times I had given away my own body in penance. A reel of memories scrolled through my mind of all the ways I told the world I was sorry for having this wrong, bad body. I was from this deep cave of mutual vulnerability that the words spilled from me, “Natasha, your body is not an apology. It is not something you give to someone to say, ‘Sorry for my disability.’”
This blew my mind. Also, mind you, the book hadn’t even officially begun yet! This was the prologue! The actual page count of one wouldn’t hit for another three pages!
It also brought up a whole reel of my own, all the ways I have apologized for my wrong, bad body over the last four decades. With partners, terrified to see disgust in their eyes the way I had once. With friends, cringing every time someone worried about getting fat with that tone that said that was one of the worst fates ever so clearly they couldn’t do that. With family, for being afraid to come out as queer. With myself, when my inner critic had a field day calling myself stupid for mistakes I made, ugly for not having an hourglass figure or because my tits were too small and my stomach was too large. And especially when it came to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or C-PTSD. If only I could control my body and make it better. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Again. This was in the prologue. I began to understand what I was in for over the next 116 pages.
The composition of the book makes it easy to break up into bite-sized reading pieces so you can actually absorb the enormity of Taylor’s message. There are five sections:
- Making Self-Love Radical
- Shame, Guilt, and Apology – Then and Now
- Building a Radical Self-Love Practice in an Age of Loathing
- A New Way Ordered by Love
- Your Radical Self-Love Toolkit
Within each of these sections are between two and six subsections to help break down the message even further, and within each section, there are “Radical Reflections” that help you start to think about the messages and how they affect your own life, and “Unapologetic Inquiries” that ask questions to delve even deeper into your journey of radical self-love. Taylor tells us that “racism, sexism, ableism, homo- and transphobia, ageism, fat phobia are algorithms created by humans’ struggle to make peace with the body. A radical self-love world is a world free from the systems of oppression that make it difficult and sometimes deadly to live in our bodies. A radical self-love world is a world that works for every body. Creating such a world is an inside-out job.”
Thankfully, she doesn’t just leave us with our brains quietly imploding at the enormity of this concept, but helps to break it all down for us. But be prepared for a rather fast pass through some really huge concepts. By page twenty-six, she dives into “Body-Shame Origin Stories” so we know where a lot of our own body shame likely came from and how we’ve integrated that into our being and our views of other bodies. By page thirty-six, she ties in how the media plays a large part in these messages we absorb, and introduces what she calls the global Body-Shame Profit Complex (BSPC) and by page forty-one talks about “Buying to Be ‘Enough’”. She talks about how “we humans are masters of distraction, using makeup, weight loss, and finely curated self-image to avoid being present to our fears, even as they build blockades around our most potent desires.” She goes on to talk about ways we buy things to avoid the bigger, harder things in our lives, yet she also is clear to not condemn all beauty products or purchases completely.
“We are not ‘bad’ or frivolous people for buying beauty products. Nor am I proposing that lipstick or any other such purchase is innately evil. Personally I love a good MAC shade. (Film Noir is poppin’!) I am proposing that reflecting on our purchases gives us an opportunity to investigate whether we are in alignment with our own unapologetic truth.”
By page forty-five, though, she jumps from the media to how we should have “A Government for, by, and about Bodies.” She talks of how “our leaders made and uphold systems of body government that directly affect our experiences of body shame and body-based oppression…the power to create laws also endows governments with the power to influence which bodies we accept as ‘normal’ and which we do not, all through the validation of legality.” She takes us through some staggering facts of what types of bodies are still legally oppressed throughout the world and in our own country and page fifty gets real blatant with the section titled “Call It What It Is: Body Terrorism.” In fifty-six pages, she points out things I had thought I understood but reframed it all to show me how much more interconnected things like racism, sexism, ableism, homo- and transphobia are.
Page fifty-seven through the rest of the book begins what feels like the enormous task of starting to come to terms with all she just skillfully unpacked and laid at our feet. The rest of the book gives you tools to begin your own practice of radical self-love. There are pretty much three key components, she says:
- Make peace with not understanding
- Make peace with difference
- Make peace with our bodies.
No big, right? Simple as that. But if you’re anything like me, I read that list and as Brené said in the podcast had happened to her a few times when she was reading the book, wanted to throw it across the room. I honestly feel reasonably confident in my ability to make peace with difference. However. I detest not understanding and….I have some issues that I likely should make peace with regarding my body. So this was a rather tall order. I also imagined other people reading this book. Like, I don’t know if anyone else does this, but I start thinking of what would happen if that sexist co-worker read this, or that racist family member, or that even friends whom I love dearly but also sometimes have their own struggled with some of these concepts. Then I start thinking about who to recommend the book to and then I realize I might be avoiding the actual message of the book and try to make my brain go back to my own journey and what I was learning. Which, y’know, was a LOT.
Thankfully, Taylor walks us, if not gently, lovingly through ways to practice these key compenents with The Four Pillars of Practice, which are:
- Taking out the Toxic
- Mind Matters
- Unapologetic Action
- Collective Compassion
She expands on what each of these entail and by page eighty-six, she covers “Unapologetic Agreements” we can can use to to transform ourselves to “a radical love that creates justice and equity in the world.” She acknowledges that that may seem like “a tall order” but points out that by this point, we are “already on [our] way.” And she’s right. By the time I got to chapter five on page ninety-three, I felt ready to open my radical self-love toolkit. Taylor breaks down the toolkit into ten pieces, and explains which parts of the Pillars of Practice they fall within.
Overall, the book covers so many important, massive concepts but does so in easy to understand, humorous, warm, caring, intelligent ways. I felt shifts happening within me as I read, as I answered the unapologetic inquiries and actually reflecting on the radical reflection snippets. I’m so grateful to this book, to Taylor as an author and activist, and can’t recommend it highly enough.