A non-exhaustive list of thoughts inside my head during my interview with Sonya Renee Taylor:
“Ok, I feel SEEN right now!”
“What the fuck, how did she just articulate what has been inside my brain so perfectly?!”
“Wow… I have never considered that perspective and now my entire position on that question has changed.”
There are many ways to describe Sonya Renee Taylor. Poet. Public speaker. Activist. Founder of the movement The Body Is Not An Apology. New York Times bestselling author with her 2018 book The Body is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self Love. An icon. One of the most profound voices of our time. Yes, all of those are true. She is also magnetic, generous, compassionate, witty; and profound and eloquent at 9am on a Sunday.
Over a span of an hour on Zoom, she managed to remind me of the power of community, made me confront my own thinking around my worthiness and existing in my fat body, and challenged my thinking by sharing a perspective I’ve never considered before.
Talking to her made me feel like I was watching one of her many viral IGTV videos – I found myself nodding, getting chills down my spine, wanting to take notes and soak it all in. Sonya is a brilliant, thought-provoking and approachable storyteller, so it’s fitting that she will be part of the opening event at the Auckland Writers Festival, a discussion on cancel culture alongside fellow writers David Cohen and Caitlin Spice at The University of Auckland Festival Forum: A New Power.
We covered a lot in this interview, including the movement she unwittingly started, the reasons that she recently left Instagram, her writing processes, cancel culture, and transformative justice. I wanted to publish the transcript in full, as I felt like editing it would be a disservice to Sonya and what she had to say. So grab a cuppa, settle in, and enjoy.
Jess Molina: Okay, let’s get started… Your movement, The Body Is Not An Apology. How did that start?
Sonya Renee Taylor: It started off as a conversation with a friend back in 2010. That's the first time I ever uttered the words, “your body is not an apology” - it was my response to a friend who was not making sexual decisions from an empowered place because of her disability.
When I said it, it felt true and like something I needed to know and practice myself. At the time, I was writing poetry for a living. And so I thought, ‘that feels poetic’. I wrote this poem - the body is not an apology.
And then it just began directing me. That's really how I feel about it: it started moving me in certain directions. It started challenging me in the places where I wasn't living that truth, where I was still very much apologising for my own body.
At the time, I had a selfie on my phone where I was getting dressed for an event and I felt really sexy. I felt powerful and beautiful. But I felt like I didn't have any business feeling powerful and beautiful. I felt like, ‘who am I to think that this fat, dark body is sexy and beautiful?’ So I hid the picture away for months, maybe six or seven months. Then, inspired by pictures of a plus-sized model online, I decided to share my picture.
I encouraged others to share pictures where they felt powerful in their bodies. The next day, 30 people had tagged me in photos. And I was like, this is amazing - maybe we just need a space where we're allowed to affirm ourselves and affirm each other? So I made a Facebook page called The Body Is Not An Apology, named after my poem.
So that's how we got started - a selfie and a Facebook page and a poem.
Isn't that incredible how three things can turn something so personal into a global movement? I have found that, as a writer and blogger, each time I'm vulnerable online, the energy I get back from people is incredible. The stories people share, especially when I talk about my insecurities, is humbling. People are so open to sharing their own stories that you feel less alone.
I love that you didn't start it because you just wanted to empower everyone. You wanted to do it for you. I feel that's more important than wanting to inspire everyone - inspire yourself first and the rest will follow.
Absolutely. I tell people all the time: you are like the refrigerator where I post a Post-it note, right? The world is the refrigerator and I needed the mess. I needed to be reminded that my body is not an apology. And so I posted this note on the refrigerator called the world so that I can continue to notice it.
I love that! So, I do a lot of fashion and beauty blogging. And clearly I'm a visible fat Asian woman. But it is quite hard to feel like I belong in this world. Sometimes I go to events, or I find things I want to wear from a showroom that would never fit me, and those moments make it so apparent that I do not belong here. I start feeling bad about myself; it makes me feel like I have to apologise for not being a sample size, for not fitting into this world.
But last year I posted a photo on my Instagram - it was just me lying in and enjoying the sun. I loved the way the sun was bouncing off the rolls of my thighs. So I took a photo and posted it. In the caption I talked about how there are a lot of those minimal/neutral Instagram pages: these mood boards where the cool kids get inspiration - but there are never any fat people shared on these pages.
Why is that? And I realised it’s because they don't see people with bodies like mine as aspirational. But how are we finding inspiration in these pages when they’re not actually reflective of the world around us?
It sparked such a good conversation and was shared by so many people. So what you just said about how your movement started really resonates - I'll write this for me because I need to let it out. Where are you at with The Body Is Not An Apology now?
I think when I first started I didn't necessarily set out for it to be a movement, but some part of me was like, ‘I'm going to start a movement’. In some ways it's a thing you say, and not necessarily a thing you set out to do.
I didn't mean it in any concrete way after I started the Facebook page - we had 30 people on it and then we had 300, then we had 3000 and then we had 30,000.
Then we had folks asking if they could contribute writing to these ideas. I was like, sure. And then people were like, ‘Hey, I'd like to start a support group around these ideas’. And I was like, sure. And then that turned into people asking, ‘can I help run the social media page?’ And again, I was like, sure!
I looked up and all of a sudden it was, ‘Oh, I have a whole team of people working on this thing. Now it's a thing. We've made a thing!’
In 2015, I moved to formalise an organisation, so we became a digital media and education platform exploring the intersections of body and identity and social justice, using radical self-love as our framework. At that time there were 32 people on the team from six different countries. Our content was reaching anywhere from 300,000 to almost a million people a month.
Soon a publisher asked if I'd like to write a book. I guess today, The Body Is Not An Apology exists as a sort of digital media archive of content with over a thousand articles around these ideas about how body and justice sort of work together.
I wrote a second edition of the book and a workbook, the book is a New York Times bestseller. Millions of people now understand and, in some way, have been touched by the ideas of radical self-love.
I like that you've kept it as an archive because these feelings are so universal, in a way that's not just for our generation either. So many people before us and so many people after us will feel this way. No matter how much progress we've had, there will still be these feelings of not being good enough because of how we look, how we perceive our body in a modern context.
I wanted to talk further about radical self-love as your framework. What does radical self-love mean for you? Because it's such a personal thing. I guess you've been asked this a lot but if someone asked me, my answer would probably be different as I grew because it's an evolving thing, right?
I don't think it is. It doesn't feel evolutionary. I feel like the way that I manifest it is evolutionary, the way that I can access it changes and shifts. And the things that I have to muddle through in order to really be able to live in it - those things change and shift.
But radical self-love, at least in the way that we define in The Body Is Not An Apology, is pretty consistent. It is our inherent sense of worthiness. Enoughness. It's our inherent divinity.
It is the fact that we arrived on this planet in the right relationship with our bodies and in the right relationship with the bodies of others, and that the fracture points of those relationships were not things we came here with. They're not things we gave ourselves. There are things that were indoctrinated and given to us.
When we get through those systems, when we de-indoctrinate from those systems, what we're left with is our source relationship with ourselves. What we're left with is what we've always been, which is enough and divine and inherently worthy just as we are in the bodies that we have. That's what it is for me.
Oh wow, I just got goosebumps! Because that's been a huge part of my personal healing and work in decolonising my own views of myself and my body. The biggest thing I've been unpacking all month is around my worthiness. The healing is just how you described - that worthiness - being worthy of everything I desire is not because of all these external factors. Just because I am.
Just because. Because it's your birthright.
Exactly. I also love that you talk about the source and manifesting as well as social justice, because I feel like some people separate those things - but I think it's inherently connected.
They have to be connected. Someone on my Patreon mentioned the other day that they have a difficult time with this.I was talking about the idea of a story, and the ways in which our stories keep us from living into what it is that we really desire in the world. And she was like, ‘I have a difficult time thinking of things as a story because I feel like so much of what has held me back is sexism and the patriarchy. And I have a difficult time thinking that those are stories’. What I said to her was that they're not stories. I mean, they're stories in the sense that everything we live in is a story, but there are stories that have more power than other stories.
And there are stories that we have collectively bought into that shape our world like the patriarchy and sexism.
Radical self-love doesn't propose that there aren't systems. Yes, there are systems of oppression that we must contend with and we must fight against. What radical self-love proposes is that those systems aren't stronger than you.
Those systems don't get to singularly define whether or not I get to have joy and love and connection and respect and dignity in the world. Because I came here with those things, and systems of oppression don't get to strip me of those. They will always be things I have to contend with, but I don't have to believe them or what those stories tell me.
That's where the manifestation comes in. It’s not just, how do we fight the systems? It's also, how do I fight the systems in me? How do I fight the part of me that had believed it? And then consequently, let it run my life.
Yes! It all really starts in the mind. It's about how you view yourself as well as the external work. Yes, it's important to eat well and move your body, get enough sleep etc. But if you're not feeding your mind, if you're not thinking about yourself in this light, if you're not writing this story about yourself in your head, then it's not gonna fully work.
Yeah. We say on a regular basis that we can't build externally what we haven't built internally. And so there's not a world we're going to build outside of us that will be sustainable if we don't figure out how to build it inside of us first.
This reminds me of one of your last posts on Instagram before you fully leave the platform this week.
Peace out [laughs].
Mic drop [laughs]. It’s the one where you talked about ending the game. Let me quote you back to you, because I feel like that post is connected to what we were just talking about: “If you're not living in a liberatory imagination, then you're playing the game, you're only moving the pieces inside the board. When you're inside of a liberatory imagination, you are always calculating, how do I end the game?”
I forgot I said that [laughs].
Haha! I remember saving it when I first saw it. But it’s so close to what we were just talking about.
It's ‘can I see myself outside of the system and what is that imagination? What does it take to see beyond the circumstances that the world has said are inevitable?’
I think it's important to remind ourselves that we may not always be able to see that and that's fine, but that's why community is so necessary because if we're not only relying on our eyes, we can be relying on other people who can see.
That's what I love about the fat liberation movement as a space. There were fat people who already understood that it was fine for them to be fat.
And maybe I could never imagine that, but I could certainly look at this person who did imagine that and be like, ‘oh, well, let me go with it. That seems like a good idea”. We don't have to figure it all out ourselves. We just have to put ourselves in enough community that, between us, somebody's got the liberatory imagination to get out of the game.
That’s such a valid point. A lot of activism that I've seen on social media is very much focused on the individual. It's very much, “I, I, I” but actually we do need community, we need other people.
Often I think that’s what stops people from taking action or from really doing something about an issue that they care about because they feel like it's this overwhelming thing that they have to solve on their own.
It's like when someone says they want to end racism – which is great, but we can’t achieve that on just an individual level. But when we go to a community which understands what we're trying to do and trying to do the same thing, that’s where momentum picks up and that's when a movement happens.
Definitely. I am grateful for the instinct that I've always had, which is if it's for me, then it's for somebody else. Because there are 8 billion people on the planet and I can't be the only one. My people are out there waiting to find me and I'm waiting to find them. That's been a really powerful process.
And social media has helped you a lot in terms of finding those people and that community?
Absolutely. I mean, for all of the critiques that I have about social media - and I have many - what I know to be true is that it has drastically changed our ability to locate one another. To find our people and to find like-minded community and to spread ideas to the far corners of the planet. That's been a tremendous gift. The Body Is Not An Apology wouldn't be a movement if it were not for social media and its ability to spread an idea.
On that note, I want to talk about fat activism and body positivity on social media. I feel like sometimes, it's just so co-opted by straight-sized people contorting their body to have rolls.
I’ve started thinking, is there a gatekeeper for the movement? I don't even know how to answer that, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that we need to remember who it is for.
Well, it's important that we remind ourselves of where things started. I think part of the way that things get co-opted is that we lose their origin.
Generally when we lose their origin, we lose their radical roots and the truth of the matter is that body positivity didn't spring out of thin air. It came as a diluted capitalised version of fat liberation work done by queer and often POC, fat folks. That is where that work began and that's what that work was for.
My position is that we should be cautious of anything that doesn't have a politic. If it doesn't have a political perspective with it, then it's just capitalism, then it's just been co-opted.
Fat liberation is a political alignment. It wanted full rights and dignity for fat people. It wasn't just about feeling good.
And I think this speaks to your point about how things become so individualistic, because individualism doesn't have a politic. Individualism is capitalism. And it's important if we don't want to lose things, then we can't forget the political point for their existence.
Body positivity isn't my realm because body positivity is apolitical and the work that I do is not apolitical. It's at its core. Its point is to create a more just and equitable world. That's what I'm into this for. Not just so that people can feel good about themselves and their size 14 jeans. I wouldn't be dedicating my life's work to, you know, tending to people's individual jean concerns.
You’ve explained that so eloquently in a way that I’ve been struggling to articulate. I’ve seen a lot of the body positivity movement on Instagram and it doesn't feel like it’s for me. I think people are also afraid to get political, especially on social media. Or even just think about the political reasons for why things exist.
I mean, it's designed to make you fearful. Because we're afraid to lose access. We're afraid to lose what little bit of privilege we might have, we're afraid to be disruptive or not be considered nice or whatever. All of these things.
But I would offer that all of those things are also how we stay not only deeply indoctrinated into our own sort of shame and self-loathing, but it's how oppression continues. And I'm not interested in being nicely oppressed. I'm interested in not being oppressed.
That is actually a great opening to my next question. You're speaking at the Writer's Festival in a forum around cancel culture, and you also spoke recently in a TEDx talk about this.
But I feel like so many people don't speak up or say they don't want to be political because of cancel culture. They're afraid of being ‘cancelled’, and that stops them from truly leaning into their beliefs and truly saying what they need to say or fully supporting a movement or an idea, because they're afraid.
One of the critiques that I have about the idea of cancel culture is that I think it has been manipulated to do exactly what it's doing, which is silence people, right?
We didn't call it cancel culture until we started cancelling white men with power who indiscriminately harmed people for years and decades. Once enough of them got called out on their behaviour, all of a sudden it was like, ‘cancel culture is bad’.
And I'm like, ‘hmm, you mean the thing y'all been doing forever in silencing people, firing people when they had a political opinion that disagreed with the structures of domination?’
I think people in power have been cancelling everybody who doesn't align with them for all of time, but it wasn't a culture until people started demanding accountability for them. This is something I say on a regular basis - you can't shame me for nothing I ain't ashamed of.
Cancelling is complex. Right now I'm co-teaching a class with Professor Loretta J Ross who is one of the founding thinkers around reproductive justice and just an overall brilliant woman. We are co-teaching a class around calling in the call-out culture.
And inside of this, what I think it offers is a dynamic where we get to think about what are the conditions and circumstances that make calling out appropriate. When is it appropriate? When is it needed? When is calling in appropriate, when is it needed?
I have been developing this framework that I've been calling 'calling on'. When is that most appropriate; if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail, right?
That is one of the issues that we see - right now, we're treating everything like one-size fits all. If somebody makes us mad, then they need to be cancelled and called out.
I think that's what happens when we don't have enough tools, and we don't understand how to use the tools that we have for the appropriate job.
That's part of what we're being given the opportunity to learn right now. What are the nuances? How do I have different strategies, depending on what I desire the outcome to be? How do I move from that space?
But also, how do I not be afraid to speak truth because somebody is going to be mad at me? Because that's human history - there's always been a cost to being a truth teller. The question is, is the cost worth it? And for me, the answer is yes.
I think the main discourse when it comes to cancel culture is that there’s this confusion around calling out versus accountability. How would you differentiate the two?
One of the things that I've been saying that I really, really believe, and I think we've got to spend some time with, is that you can't make someone accountable.
Accountability actually is a thing that we have to choose to be accountable. The only way that you can make someone be accountable is inside of a system of punishment. Accountability without relationship is just punishment. If I don't have a relationship with you and accountability isn't something I'm willfully taking, then the only thing you can do is punish me for the thing you say I did. That's what prison is. There are a bunch of people in jail who are like, ‘I didn't do it’. And they're still in jail. Because our society is saying, ‘we're going to make you accountable’.
For me, that is not a model that works. It's not a model that I value. It's not a model that's humane and it's not a model that actually moves us towards creating a world where accountability is a thing people want to step into. Because if accountability only needs punishment, who the fuck is signing up for that? Nobody, right?
But if accountability begins to mean a reconciliation to relationship, if accountability means being brought back in, belonging again, rather than being othered, then that's the thing that I think humans at their most core level desire.
I think we're at this moment where we're doing things that are necessary. Challenging systems and challenging individuals who are abiding inside of these systems in a really intentional way; we are naming things that for years, we were very quiet about.
All of that is important. But again, it's a place where we have old tools trying to do a new thing. And so we're messed up in terms of what we're trying to create because the old tool that we have is punishment. The old tool that we have is carcerality.
So we're doing this new thing where we're like, no, let's interrupt harm, let's name when things have happened, but what do we do then? What we do then is say, ‘Oh, well, I guess we'll just have to use the hammer because that's the only tool we have’.
We need new tools. But the truth of the matter is, the new tools aren't all that new. They're actually really old indigenous tools. The principle of Ubuntu in the African community is about how we belong to each other, such that when someone makes a mistake, we see that as them having forgotten that they belong to us and we call them back into that.
What does transformative justice look like? People say transformative justice is unrealistic or unsustainable. I'm like, how do you think, particularly in the US, how do you think Black people haven't killed all of the white people in the United States of America? Transformative justice! The ability to figure out how to live amongst, forgive and still in many cases, love and marry and procreate with people who have caused you great, great harm is actually something marginalised communities around the world and figured out how to do every single day.
To say that it can't be done is to just lie and ignore what is very present in front of us. It's time to shift the way that we approach these issues. We are at a moment now where we're like, let's, yes, let's dismantle it and interrupt harm and oppression. But if we're going to do a new thing, we need a new tool to do it.
I can see that your cute dog Baldwin is ready for a nap, but before you go, I want to talk a little bit about writing. What’s your process like?
It depends on what the context is of the writing. Long-form writing is so torturous for me. It's really difficult. Book writing is hard.
For me it requires a real emptying of my brain so that whatever wants to come through, wants to come through. Those are things that I find happen when I have spaciousness - and it's hard to get spaciousness in this world. It's hard to get outside of the clutter and the chatter and all those other things.
There’s this complexity around writing in those ways that I'm still working out everyday; trying to figure out what's the best way to navigate that.
What's interesting is the quote that you were talking about earlier is a spoken quote. And that's the fascinating thing for me - it's far easier to talk than it is to write.
I’m the exact opposite...
What I've been playing with more often is, how about I say it and then edit it. Speak it and tweak it is my new philosophy!
My process is ever evolving. I'm a poorly disciplined writer! Toni Morrison would say, you just need to sit down every day, put your butt in the chair and dah, dah, dah. I've never been good at that. And I'm not going to pretend like I am.
My discipline as a writer sucks but when it cracks open, when I get there, it can be a really transcendent experience.
Have you read Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert?
I have not.
Oh. My. God! I’ll send a copy your way. There’s a part where she talks about this transcendent experience when she’s writing, and I feel the same way most of the time. When I’m typing, writing, sometimes I don’t know where this is all coming from; it’s coming from a source outside of me. It’s the first book I’ve ever read that perfectly articulated how divine that creative experience is.
One last thing before we finish. We briefly talked about you leaving Instagram but what does that mean?
It means that I no longer use Instagram as a platform of communication. It's like a pinboard. Instagram is now kind of my Pinterest. So I would post things there, share videos there, but the comments will be disabled. It's not a place of engagement.
I've taken the app off of my phone. Because I still want people to be able to access the ideas that I share and all of those things; I'm still interested in creating a space for people to get to the work. But it's not where I want my community to be. I'm not building community on Instagram.
What made you decide to choose Patreon as a platform?
Right now Patreon just happens to be an easy tool. I'm not a fan of any platforms where somebody else owns it. Years ago, when I first built The Body is not an Apology, we built it as a space with a social media site on it because I was interested in having our own space. I think it was an idea that was too early for its time.
It would probably do much, much better today, but my desire is to be in a community that at least I control, where I'm not the product. So at least with Pateron, I know like the relationship is I pay them a portion of my proceeds and they leave me alone and I can do what I want to do. That's not reality with Instagram.
I wanted to be someplace where I could actually have the kind of community that I desired, and the people who are there are those that want to be there. Not people whose algorithms ran them into my page, so that they can troll me. Because that's good for Instagram, right? I found the platform to be toxic. I was like, ‘Oh, I'm not leaving here feeling good. So why am I here?’