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Book Review: “The Body is not an Apology” by Sonya Renee Taylor

As we all know from our Facebook timelines, the New Year is a time to reflect and set goals and resolutions. Often, many of those include changing our bodies. While it isn’t a bad thing to strive for better health and long-term habitual changes, there is a lot to be said for how we approach those changes. The book “The Body is not an Apology” by the fabulous Sonya Renee Taylor offers a guide for how to navigate the relationship we have with our bodies – it is the most practical and grounded guide I have stumbled upon regarding this topic. It is gentle, it is aggressive, and it provides prompts (called Unapologetic Inquiries and Radical Reflections) to create a framework for your own exploration and thinking. In this blog I’ll give a brief review of this magical tool, and leave it up you to add it to your reading list for this year. 

The book starts with the most beautiful of poems, written by the author herself. You can hear her read it aloud here. This poem sets the tone for the entire theme of the book: something Sonya calls Radical Self-Love. 

The book is broken into five digestible chapters that introduce us to the concept of Radical Self Love, and then teach us how to be intentional in practicing it. 

Radical Self Love IS:

  • Gratitude
  • Joy
  • Contentment

Radical Self Love IS NOT:

  • Self-esteem
  • Self-confidence 
  • Self-acceptance 

“Concepts like self-acceptance and body-neutrality are not without value. When you have spent your entire life at war with your body, these models offer a truce. But you can have more than a cease-fire. You can have radical self-love because you are already radical self-love” (3).

Sonya encourages us to look beyond models of relationships that provide acquiescence  (like self-acceptance) or ego (self-confidence and self-esteem); the goal is to look toward feeding the soul inside of you that was once a baby admiring their toes, or a child amazed by their own ability to run, or a mother carrying life. She places emphasis on the fact that living in this world is not easy: there are systems of oppression in place everywhere creating obstacles based on our bodies – it can even be dangerous simply because of the kind of body you were born in to, based on things like race, gender, ability, or any other factor that tries to classify your body. “Living in a…body, is to awaken daily to a planet that expects a certain set of apologies to already live on our tongues” (11). 

Through her intentionally constructed prompts, Sonya asks us to explore things like the intersections of our identity, how often we compare ourselves to others, in what ways we are asked to apologize for our bodies, and if we’ve ever tried to erase others’ identities ourselves. I kept a journal while reading this book, to record all of my responses to the prompts throughout the book. What I found myself writing in reaction to her questions were pages and pages of stories and memories from my childhood and adult life – hiding birth control at school, straightening my hair for years because of peer pressure, removing body hair, undereating to appear “lady like,” hiding menstrual maskers at home and in public…the list went on when I realized how I had been apologizing for existing in my body over the years. Some things were small, some were life-changing when I realized how much I had invested in them, and how little joy I found in those alterations when all was said and done. Sonya made me realize something: “Your body need not be a prison sentence” (23). 

The book continues to talk through body shame in a very gentle way, and highlights something called the Body Shame Profit Complex. There are more than a few pages dedicated to pulling apart the system that profits off of us feeling uncomfortable and unworthy in our bodies. “Earnings for the global beauty market reached an epic $460 billion in 2014, and are expected to reach $675 billion by 2020…To offer some perspective, $460 billion is more than the gross domestic product of 167 nations…it means we are collectively spending more on lipstick, shampoo, and tanning spray than the entire economic infrastructure of three-fourths of the planet’s countries” (40). This part was extremely intriguing to me, because it was so obvious to me how this worked as soon as it was pointed out. The same industry that tells aging women to dye their gray hairs away is telling 20-year-olds to dye their hair gray because it’s trendy and looks mature – that’s the Body Shame Profit Complex in a nutshell. “Our relationship with our money often mirrors our relationship with our bodies” (43).

Sonya goes on in Chapter 3: Building a Radical Self-Love Practice in an Age of Loathing, to build a framework for us to start using in our daily lives. She includes four pillars of practice to focus on:

  1. Taking out the Toxic
  2. Mind Matters
  3. Unapologetic Action
  4. Collective Compassion

You’ll have to read the book to really dive into each pillar – the detail of these practices deserves to be enjoyed first-hand through Sonya’s words. As she moves onward with the Radical Self-Love toolkit, she takes time to establish the importance of community, the true definitions of bias, and our active role in society in Chapter 4 – these help set the stage for activating your toolkit when it’s introduced in Chapter 5. A favorite quote of mine, which Sonya borrows from artist and activist Lilla Watson, is presented in Chapter 4 related to the above-mentioned topics: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have some because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”  

By the time Chapter 5 arrives, you have already done some serious work seeking to understand the systems of oppression that have led you out of a life of Radical Self-Love, internally explored how your life has been impacted by those systems, and started working with a few basic tools to heal. The Radical Self-Love Toolkit is the last resource that Sonya presents in her book to help us establish a healthy relationship with ourselves and create sustainable habitual change, to bring us back to creating a world of Radical Self-Love. The Toolkit contains ten steps that bring us closer to eliminating the toxicity in our lives that create loathing. She talks about detoxifying our media, establishing a “right now” mantra, exploring the terrain of our bodies, banishing binary “either-or” thinking, being in movement, curating community, and finding grace. Once again, I would strongly advise reading Sonya’s own words regarding her ten-step Toolkit, as they are encouraging, compelling, and wholesome. 

It took me an entire year to read this book – it’s only 116 pages, but those 116 pages dig deep. Actually, they don’t just dig; they fully excavate your life and your relationship with your body. The personal stories that Sonya shares throughout the book brought me long pauses in reading as I sought to understand my own privilege in my own body, compared to others. The Unapologetic Inquiries and Radical Reflections throughout each chapter initiated writing that went on for weeks, and recalled memories I didn’t know I had locked away in my brain. The direct and compassionate writing were emotionally stabilizing while it gently untangled years of confusion about how I was supposed to exist in this world, and led to long periods of rest and practicing gratitude before returning to the book. Diving deeply into the Body Shame Profit Complex ignited anger in me that provoked research on becoming independent from a dangerous industrial complex present everywhere in our society. Every page made me think, feel, and act in unique and unexpected ways. 

As you settle into a new year, I would strongly advise that you locate a copy of “The Body is not an Apology” and use it to guide you through any goals and resolutions you have in mind. Resetting my relationship with my body has redefined my relationship with money, food, friends, and romantic partners – it has reached into every corner of my life and ignited sustainable positive changes that for once, feel natural and correct for my lifestyle. This book has been the most helpful guide in establishing my own glorious world of Radical Self-Love, and I am so excited to share it with others. 

“Liberation is the opportunity for every human, no matter their body, to have unobstructed access to their highest self; for every human to live in radical self-love” (116).

Happy Reading,