Body Shame and Transformation
We’ve been indoctrinated to feel shame about our bodies, and to thoughtlessly shame others about their bodies. That’s an accepted societal norm with devastating impacts that writer and activist Sonya Renee Taylor names “body terrorism.” In her groundbreaking book “The Body is Not an Apology,” now in a bestselling second edition, Taylor introduces readers to a practice of thinking, being, and doing to change how we relate to our bodies—and to every body around us.
Have you ever run into someone many years after the last time you saw them only to discover that they had undergone some phenomenal inner transformation? I am not talking about weight loss or a new haircut. I am talking a brand-new life. Perhaps they got sober after years of addiction. Maybe they healed a relationship that appeared completely irreparable from the outside. Whatever the transformation, when you saw them, you were flabbergasted. I am guessing your next thought was not, “Hey! I could totally do that!” For most humans, transformation does not seem achievable from the distant shores of another person’s life. From far away, transformation looks like a miracle, or the result of magical powers possessed by the transformed person. Transformation is not magic. It’s hard work. But it is also doable work. When we can see another person’s labor toward their transformation, we know it is not some secret sauce but instead a daily commitment to a new way of life.
Up close we can also see that they are not doing the work alone! Transformation and healing demand that we open ourselves up to others. For many of us, this is the highest hurdle on the radical self-love road. Body shame and body terrorism have made us profoundly distrusting. We’ve been judged and mocked too many times. We have vowed to never subject ourselves to such hurt again. I want you to know I understand. But learning to trust others is indivisible from learning to trust yourself. You will need to practice both to get back to radical self-love. If you are working to rid yourself of years of body shame by being Clark Kent in a phone booth, I am sorry, love, but you will not come out as Superman. You are going to need someone to lean against while you pull up those tights. Truthfully, radical self-love is not the work of superheroes but of community and connection. We must learn to be with each other if we plan to get free.
Before body shame stripped us of our inherent sense of self-worth, it stripped us of compassion. We saw failure in every mirror; we judged our every thought. We berated and abused ourselves because we were berated and abused by others. We thought the outside voice was our own, and we let it run roughshod over our lives. And then we judged ourselves for judging ourselves, trapped on a hamster wheel of self-flagellation. Oh, honey, that is no way to live. Without compassion for ourselves, we will never stay on the road of radical self-love. Without compassion for others, we can only replicate the world we have always known. Radical self-love is not about getting it right. “Getting it right” is a body-shame paradigm. Radical self-love is honoring how we are all products of a rigged system designed to keep us stuck in stigma and shame. The only way to beat that system is by giving ourselves something the system never will: compassion.
The four pillars of practice will support our personal radical self-love journeys, offering light along the road, helping us correct course when needed and building a daily thinking, doing, and being routine of radical self-love. We do the work to transform our lives, and then take on the world!
A World for All Bodies Is a World for Our Bodies
I have an agenda to which I am obnoxiously wedded. It’s a simple agenda. I want to change the world by convincing you to love every facet of yourself, radically and unapologetically, even the parts you don’t like. And through this work, illustrate for you how radical love alters our planet. Radical self-love is an internal process offering external transformation. How we show up to life reflects how we show up to ourselves. When we strip away the veneer of self-reliance and individualism and allow ourselves access to our most vulnerable truths, we can’t help but be heartbeat present to the fact that our relationship with other bodies mirrors in tangible ways our relationship with our own body. Yes, we have been cutting and cruel to ourselves and have watched our internalized shame spill over into how we parent, how we manage employees, how we show up to friends and family. Yes, we believed that our bodies were too big, too dark, too pale, too scarred, too ugly, so we tucked, folded, hid ourselves away and wondered why our lives looked infinitesimally smaller than what we knew we were capable of. Yes, we have been less vibrant employees, less compassionate neighbors, less tolerant of the bodies of others, not because we are bad people but because we are guilty of each of those counts against ourselves.
Our lens to the outside world is an interior lens projecting our experience in our bodies onto our external landscape. A shame-clouded interior lens can only project shame and judgment. Employing a radical self-love ethos is like squirting glass cleaner on our daily lives: Suddenly we can see ourselves as employees or employers, as parents and friends, as neighbors and community members, as leaders, thinkers, doers—as humans, distinctly connected to other humans. Applying radical self-love to each facet of these roles and responsibilities alters the very fabric of humanity, ultimately creating a more just, equitable, and compassionate world.
This edited excerpt from The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor (Berrett-Koehler, 2nd edition, 2021) appears with permission of the publisher.
Sonya Renee Taylor is the founder and radical executive officer of the Body Is Not an Apology, a digital media and education company promoting radical self-love and body empowerment. Her work has been widely covered in the media, and she is a regular collaborator with numerous organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Association for Size Diversity and Health, Binge Eating Disorders Association, and Greater than AIDS.