1 Sep 2018

Sonya Renee Taylor: radical self-love and accepting every body

From Saturday Morning, 10:40 am on 1 September 2018

The perception that some bodies are 'bad' because of gender, race, age or disability is at the root of the world's ills, American author, activist and performance poet Sonya Renee Taylor says.

Sonya Renee Taylor, author, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love

Photo: Supplied

cover of the book "The Body is Not an Apology" by Sonya Renee Taylor

Photo: Supplied

Now based on Waiheke Island, Taylor is the author of The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love.

A self-described fat, black, queer, neurodivergent woman, she now promotes "radical self-love for everybody and every body" through her digital media and education company of the same name.

'Radical self-love' is not about self-esteem, confidence, loving yourself or being kind to yourself, she tells Saturday Morning's Kim Hill.

"Self-esteem and self-confidence are ... fleeting, like depending on whether or not my outfit is cute today or not cute today may impact how I feel about myself.

"Radical self-love is about how do we change the circumstances in our society so that no one has to suffer through believing that they are not enough for whatever element of their identity exists."

"The other piece, right, is how do we move those obstructions so that everyone is allowed to be, unapologetically, who they inherently are."

Separating ourselves from the external voice of shame

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Toddlers tend to be accepting of themselves and others, Taylor says. Photo: Pxhere.com

Toddlers who have good parenting are unapologetic and empowered, loving who they are and appreciating the people around them, Taylor says.

"The distance between that and where we end up as adults is about conditioning and indoctrination, it's about the labels and messages that the world puts on us."

"I'm interested in how do we dissolve those so we can get back to inherent selves."

We must learn to separate the voice in our head – the voice of negativity and shame – from our true selves.

"[These are the voices] that we've been listening to for so long that they sound like our voice.

"We've been listening to those messages for such a long time that they sound like ours. But they're not actually ours, they're the voice of indoctrination and body shame that we've been honing for decades."

We can get some space from the voice by that paying attention to it and reflecting on what it's telling us about our mental state.

"I notice it. So this is my favourite thing to do when I have … an early morning flight, I hate everyone, and I hate them for things that have nothing to do with who they are because I don't know them – I'm on the plane."

"What I do is I say 'Oh, I'm being very mean and judgmental, what's going on with me? Oh, I'm uncaffeinated and I only slept three hours last night, okay'."

37072008 - interior of airplane with passengers on seats waiting to taik off.

Photo: 123RF

Body terrorism

Body shaming amounts to body "terrorism", Taylor says.

"I can't think of a word that better describes the act of chattel slavery because you were born in a black body than a terroristic act. The idea that because you were black we would go to your country, strip you away from your families, put you in chains, sail you across the ocean where many of you die and then enslave you for centuries. That strikes me as terroristic."

It's not just about race, but also gender, age, disability and sexual orientation, she says.

"It's about all the ways that our bodies show up and all the ways that the world has said 'here's a right body, and here's a wrong body'."

Writer and activist Sonya Renee Taylor

Writer and activist Sonya Renee Taylor Photo: InnoNative / Patrick Shannon / Nang Ḵ'uulas

Men are affected as well as women, just in a different way, Taylor says.

"Differently afflicted, but absolutely afflicted … I think that we aren't tuned into the ways that these issues show up for them.

"When you look at the fact that the suicide rate for men over the age of 50 increases by double, and that they [have] the highest rate of suicide across the world, what we are looking at is a society that has externalised what makes men valuable – whether or not you can make money, whether or not you're strong and virile ... is my car nice enough, do the young hot women want me.

"All of those things shift as we age, and so what is the connection between ageing men and not seeing themselves as valuable enough to stay on the planet anymore."

While men can be affected, negativity and shame are more associated with some bodies than others, Taylor says.

"If you really look at the systems of inequity that exist in our society, you are actually looking at what are our relationships with bodies.

"When we're talking about racism we're talking about how do we value, or not value, bodies – and which bodies have we decided are better bodies.

"On a global scale, we have decided that white, cis, able-bodied … male bodies are actually the best body to aspire to – and that everybody else falls somewhere underneath on that ladder of social hierarchy."

Neurodivergent - different brains that work in different ways

Self-shaming can extend beyond the immediate physical body, Taylor says.

She uses 'neurodivergent' as a term that describes her depression without ascribing a value to it.

"Because as a society we have decided that brains that don't have depression are better than brains that do.

"We have decided that mental illness is a horrible thing, and there's stigma attached to that – as opposed to 'people have different brains that work in different ways, and what if we didn't have value judgments about how people's brains work."

Taylor says she used to fight her depression but then changed tack.

"It used to be a thing that was like a battle … and then I realised that it didn't actually get me anywhere and it left me in conflict all the time and feeling like I was failing."

Sonya Renee Taylor

 Sonya Renee Taylor says she's stopped treating her depression as something to fight and is instead using it as a signal from her body that she needs to look after herself.  Photo: Supplied

"I decided that I was actually going to treat it … from a lens of radical self-love.

"What does it look like if I treat my depression as a guest, as a house guest, that came to visit? What would I do – I would make them comfortable, I would care for them in really kind ways and I would trust that eventually, they would leave because I didn't ask them to stay.

"So treating my depression as signalling me to do things like rest more, to slow down, to reach out for greater help and care and to lovingly and gently treat myself was a far more sustainable and kind way to manage my depression than any other way I've been doing it in the past."

Sonya Renee Taylor recently appeared at the WORD Christchurch Festival.