Posted at 15:00 on 29 Dec 2020 by Pandora / Blake
A few weeks back I wrote a very personal post about body shame, gender dysphoria and bodily autonomy that is up there amongst of the most raw and emotional things I’ve written for this blog. It was difficult to write and a little nerve-wracking to post, but it felt important both to me personally and as a wider topic for discussion.
While all that was stewing in my brain, my therapist and I talked about the things I was struggling with . She recommended a book called The Body Is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor, and an episode of Brené Brown’s excellent podcast ‘Unlocking Us’, in which Sonya Renee Taylor comes on as a guest to speak about the book. I’ve not had a chance to read the full book yet, but the podcast alone has blown my tiny mind. All of the questions I asked in that post have been addressed simply by hearing Sonya Renee Taylor speak.
Her approach centres around a concept that she calls ‘the ladder’. The ladder is the hierarchy of bodies upheld by our oppressive society: the colour of your skin, whether you’re thin or fat, whether you’re disabled or not, how closely you conform to society’s beauty standards, your age, your transness or cisness. I hadn't realised it before, but most oppression in our society is based on the body, and on judging other people based on what they look like. Even wealth and class is often rooted deeply within the body; our size, appearance and how free we are to climb the ladder and gain status based on our body varied depending on our financial and social power.
Taylor traces all oppression in our society back to the idea that some bodies are fundamentally better than others. It is this notion of that excused the transatlantic slave trade, that causes people to think of men as being worthier and more powerful than women, that fuels the intolerably high levels of abuse committed against members of the LGBTQ community. "All of our systems of -isms," Taylor says, "of oppressions based on the body, are attempts to navigate the ladder of social hierarchy [...] And those systems that live within that ladder are the systems that we’re talking about fighting when we’re talking about social justice."
So where does this hierarchy, this ladder, come from? It’s not an inalienable fact of the universe; it’s a social structure. And it originates in comparison: in comparing one body to another and deciding which one is on a higher rung.
Some of these comparisons have huge, earth-shaking consequences. At too many points in history a group of people with power have decided that a whole category of bodies are inferior, with horrifying results. Many of these comparisons, though, seem almost harmless; they’re the stuff of everyday life.
We all create the ladder anew in our minds, every single day. Every time you look at someone else’s body - in a photograph, or on the street, or amongst your friends - and think they’re thinner than me or I’m glad my hair isn’t like that or I wish I still looked that young, you’re making the ladder a little stronger.
And this was a punch to the gut for me to hear, because I do this all the fucking time. Just scrolling through my Twitter feed I’ll find myself making these comparisons over and over again: Wow, I'll never be that pretty. Those shoulder muscles are so much more toned than mine. I wish my bone structure was more like that. Sometimes, much less often, I even catch myself thinking I’m better looking than someone I see in passing. These comparisons are the consequence of being socialised to uphold the ladder of oppression. They are rooted in shame and judgement, and each and every time we do it, we reinforce the ladder. For one person to be inferior, another has to be superior - and vice versa.
So I have a new mantra now, one I repeat to myself any time I find that I’m falling into this old habit: comparison IS the ladder. Because the only way we can create a world that doesn't have those hierarchies of oppression is to stop building them in our minds. To stop deciding that people, ourselves included, are more or less valuable as human beings based on some artificial, arbitrary pecking order.
I’d like to share with you here a quote from the podcast that touched me deeply - so deeply that when I read it aloud to my partner at the dinner table I started crying all over again. Here’s how Sonya Renee Taylor describes what the ladder has come to replace:
"When I don’t need the ladder to assess my sense of worthiness, of enoughness, of inherent divinity - when I don’t need that ladder, because I understand it as my birthright, I understand it as how I arrived on the planet, I understand it as my own unique form of natural intelligence - then the ladder is of no use."
Getting off this stupid ladder isn’t easy. Taylor explains that the best way to dismantle it is via something that many of us find nigh on impossible: radical self-love.
I was so struck by Sonya Renee Taylor’s concept of self-love. Sometimes in social justice circles it almost seems like love for yourself and love for others are set up in opposition to each other, which just plays into that old Puritan idea that self-shame and self-denial are virtues. Taylor shows how loving ourselves is as important a part of a fair, just society as loving each other is. It's more powerful than self-acceptance, and it's our biggest antidote to shame.
For Taylor, self-love can look like having compassion for yourself, understanding your own limits, knowing when you need to be pushed a little, nurturing yourself, taking good care of yourself, and ensuring that your body experiences pleasure. It also includes behaving in a way that makes you proud of yourself and that is in accordance with your values - such as by showing compassion for everyone else as well. She calls radical self-love “an internal journey that impacts our external reality”: it is a radical and political act.
I'm sure I'll have more to say about this after I’ve had dived deeper into this remarkable manifesto - I haven’t read the book itself yet. But this whole concept has already been transformative for me, and at one point in the podcast, Taylor and Brown tackle the exact question I raised in my Fat Transmasculinity post.
How can we strike a balance between celebrating bodily autonomy - essentially, the idea that I can do whatever the hell I like with my own body and it’s nobody else’s business - and creating a society where we don't need to change our bodies to be happy? If you want plastic surgery, it's your body and you can do what you like - but wait, isn't it more radical to imagine a world where we weren't taught to feel ashamed of our bodies? Gender-affirming surgery is a wonderful thing - but don't we also want to move towards a society where our gender doesn't have to depend on the way we look?
Taylor and Brown propose that what really matters in these decisions of the body is why. Pretty much any choice about your body can be made for a good reason, or for a bad one. You can make a decision based on shame, or you can make a decision based on love. If you decide to stop eating some particular food because you hate your body and want to be thinner, you're trying to climb the fatphobic ladder and reinforcing it in the process. But if you stop that same food because it makes you feel sick and your body feels better without it, that’s an act of self-love. It’s about the 'why', not the 'what'.
I’ve actually done this very thing recently. I started eating less of a particular food, because I realised it was making me feel sluggish and lethargic. Since I made the change I’m feeling much more energetic and good in myself. This probably sounds like a tiny thing to a lot of people, but for me it’s huge. Apart from the decision to become vegan a few years ago, which was motivated by reasons that had nothing to do with my body, it's the first time I've consciously chosen to eat less of something for my own sake, not out of self-shame and self-hatred, but instead out of self-love and self-care.
I’m proud of myself for that. And I’m excited to take this model and apply it to my thinking about how I want to express my gender identity in the future: to make any decisions not from a place of disliking my body, but from a place of loving it and wanting to serve it as best I can. I can already feel this opening up space for me to get in touch with what I truly want without reference to how it compares to anyone else. Whatever choices I make regarding medical transition, I've made a commitment to myself that they won't be fuelled by me comparing myself to other people. Because comparison, I realise now, is the ladder.