“The Body Is Not An Apology:” On Body Objectification, Body Shame, and Refusals to Apologize
I live in a rural area in Wisconsin, about midway between Madison, Milwaukee, and the Fox Valley/Green Bay region. My proximity to bigger cities in Wisconsin means I can attend literary events I wouldn’t otherwise be able to if I lived in a more far-flung area. Last Saturday, the brilliant, wise Sonya Renee Taylor spoke and read at Boswell Book Company, one of my favorite independent bookstores in the country. I grew up in the City of Milwaukee, first on the south side, blocks away from the beloved Leon’s Frozen Custard, and later on the far west side, near County Stadiu—er, sorry—Miller Park. Most of my extended family still lives in Milwaukee, and I’m very close with my mom’s sisters, my two aunts, who helped raise me as my then-single mom worked multiple jobs and attended college full-time.
My Aunt Becky and I attended Taylor’s talk at Boswell, and we came away inspired to commit to radical self-love. Taylor, a poet by career, started a social media movement several years ago, now accompanied by an excellent book, The Body Is Not An Apology. Her work and ethos concentrate on the concepts of radical self-love and challenging our engrained societal culture of body shaming. I’m only on the first chapter, but I already am harnessing, analyzing, and trying to let go of the swirling emotions—anger, self-loathing, guilt, indignation, doubt, bewilderment—I have felt so many times in my adult life when I’ve apologized for the way my body looks, acts, feels, or is interpreted by society.
I laugh about it now, but at the time, these comments—made by both women and men with the intent to objectify me and make me feel self-conscious or apologetic for my body—often stung, angered, or perplexed me:
“Women above a size 4 shouldn’t wear crop tops.”
“Yeah, I can picture you in that, with your boobs all smushed up, like a (insert busty stereotype here: German bierhall girl, Xena warrior princess, Baywatch babe, Bettie Page, etc.)."
“She can pull off those short-shorts. You can’t.”
“It’s so cool that your (insert partner term here: boyfriend, partner, SO, fiancé, husband) likes curvy women,” as if my involvement with an average-weight, average-height man was surprising and, that by being above a certain size, I am automatically unattractive to certain portions of the population.
“She’s one of those ‘body positive’ types,” accompanied by an eye roll. The implication here was that the woman in question was larger than the man talking about her would have liked in a sexual partner, and that she was using “body positive” terminology as an excuse and an apology for her supposedly imperfect body.
“You shouldn’t really wear a scoop-neck shirt in a professional setting.”
“Are you sure you want to wear skinny jeans?”
And, my all-time favorite:
“Just turn around and let me see that ass.”
This one was made by someone I was, uh, involved with for the evening, and I could tell he wasn’t keen on the fact that I was audacious enough to have a brain and a personality, in addition to breasts, thighs, and buttocks! My opinionated intellect annoyed him, and he felt it necessary to physically spin me around by the hips to shut me up. Anger welled, and I remembered a friend’s dating advice. People who say they have a physical “type” are not all that interested in what you—the human being who may happen to fit the shallow, measurement-based, flesh-centered, characterless attributes of that supposed “type”—have to say as a person.
In frustration, I responded somewhat nonsensically (because who would procreate with that jerk?), but with comedic panache:
“You suck at this. I hope your firstborn child is ugly.”
And then I left his apartment. I like to think my exit left an impression on him, but the shamed idiot was probably just checking out my butt as I left. I only recently realized the problematic part of my own body-shaming insult; 21-year-old me essentially declared that a child born "ugly" is a human's worst possible fate in our appearance-obsessed society. Clearly, I have some work of my own to do.
Unrealized hookup digression aside, navigating the world as a woman with body parts is difficult. It’s even more difficult for people of color, people who have a disability, or people who identify as a gender different than the one they were at birth. Taylor’s illuminating words on intersectionality in The Body Is Not An Apology book resonate with me on a cellular level:
“Intersectionality has become a term often revered or repudiated depending on the source. Put plainly, none of us are mono-dimensional. We are not only men, fathers, people living with lupus, Asian, or seniors. Some of us are aging Asian fathers who are living with lupus. Those varying identities impact each other in ways that are significantly different than if we were navigating them one at a time. Radical self-love demands that we see ourselves and others in the fullness of our complexities and intersections and that we work to create space for those intersections.”
These complexities and intersections make our world a beautiful, if difficult, place. I try to keep intersections in mind when communicating with people, especially those I don’t know well. This constant awareness of intersectionality is important, challenging, and ongoing work.
On a lighter note, I’ve seen two movies in theaters in the past week, a welcome respite in my word-saturated headspace from creating stories of my own. I saw Isle of Dogs after seeing Sonya Renee Taylor on Saturday, and Ready Player One last night. I found Isle of Dogs confusing in parts, transcendent in others, and culturally appropriating in still other scenes. Overall, it was cute, and I deemed it worth my time because I love dogs and Wes Anderson’s charmingly quirky animation. Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is a delight. If you like stories about the struggle between lower and middle socioeconomic classes and fat-cat corporations, awesome action scenes, and witty futuristic sci-fi drama—or even if you just like solid storytelling and excellent world-building—go see it! Also, Marcus Cinemas’ $5 Tuesdays are a great, cheap way to see new releases.
Some parting words from the incredible Sonya Renee Taylor, less harsh than those I dispensed on that dumb dude:
“Radical self-love invites us to love our bodies in a way that transforms how we understand and accept the bodies of others. This is not to say that we magically like everyone. It simply means we have debates and disagreements about ideas and character, not about bodies. When we can see the obvious truth inherent in body activist Hanne Blank’s quote, ‘There is no wrong way to have a body,’ we learn to love bodies even when we don’t like the humans inhabiting them.”
Until next week.