[Image description: The photo on the left is a black-and-white photo of the author, Sonya Renee Taylor, an African-American cis woman. She stands naked near a window with white blinds and curtains. She has a large body and dark skin, and she is cupping her large breasts as she stares out of the window. The photo on the right is an iconic black-and-white photo of slain civil rights leader Malcolm X. He is looking out of a window with white curtains, slightly opening them with one hand. In his other hand, he is holding a large rifle. He has on glasses, a light colored suit, a white shirt, a black tie, and a black belt.]
Taking nude photos unapologetically is what a body activist is supposed to do, right? This was my thought as I stood bare and terrified before the camera of renowned photographer Saddi Khali. That same question and its accompanying terror greeted me again, several days later, when the one hundred camera clicks of my unclothed flesh arrived in my email inbox. Despite the waves of nausea, I opened each photo. Every click left me in awe of how the angles of the camera made my silhouette slope and bend in a perfect landscape — a landscape I felt that I could share with the world.
Then I clicked on THE photo, the one that would undo all of the awe and glory. I clicked on the photo that told me that, while yes, the photos were beautiful, the blatant and unadorned round belly and stretch-marked thighs in them were not. Without the window dressing of a girdle, the dress cinched at the waist, the myriad hooks, snaps, and buckles that fasten this body into visual submission, I was quite simply naked and fat. There was no special camera angle hiding or morphing my nakedness into graceful slope. This photo was my actual body standing beside my bedroom window, aging and fat — a truth I was ashamed of. Instantly, I was clear, “Nope, no one would be seeing this photo.”
When I founded The Body is Not An Apology three years ago, it was a selfish endeavor. I needed the courage to share a photo. It was a photo in which I felt incredibly beautiful, but I did not believe I had the right to feel beautiful. Like so many other people in so many other bodies, I believed that beauty, value, and worthiness had to be conferred upon me like some royal title. I needed help owning beauty and, as I solicited other people to own their beauty, the more empowered I felt to own mine. It was in community that I learned to embrace and declare my own magnificence.
Today, three years later, I own beautiful like a champ! I know when I am stunning, and I am confident enough to declare it. It has been an awesome breakthrough, releasing the shame of feeling beautiful, no longer allowing it to be some other body’s language. These days, there are different questions that cement me in fear. The largest and most onerous of those is about owning and sorting through what a body activist is to do when she does not feel beautiful in her body at all. What do I do when the insecurities that plague all of the planet show up as a photo in my inbox screaming that I am fat, old, and ugly?
When I went back to the photo, months after I received it, the one with my belly round and full as the whole world, I forced myself to look at it. What is awesome about the work of radical self-love is that it is rarely about how we look and so much more about how we see. When I allowed myself to see my body beyond all of the “shoulds” and shames, I was not simply naked and fat. The photo was vastly deeper. There were centuries underneath. There were ancestors in each stretch mark; my dead mother curled into the flesh of my swelled womb; a whole lineage of Black folks who laid in the streets with their lean bodies and orbed bodies, their aging bodies and young bodies, defying hose and dogs and shame.
When I looked at that photo again, I transported to slain civil rights leader Malcolm X. I saw him in an iconic photo, standing at a window, peering through the sheer drapes, rifle in hand, and committed to the preservation of his body and the bodies of those in his community “by any means necessary.” This photo is often used to scare people. It is used conjure up a violent Black defiance. It is a photo the mainstream finds terrifying. Rarely is the image shared with the full quote that accompanies it — a quote that says, “We declare our right on this earth…to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
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That image and its written message were the answers to my question about what I, as a body activist, should do when I feel fat and old and ugly. It is the answer to the questions this society poses every day regarding the worthiness of Black lives and Brown lives and LGBTQ lives and Disabled lives. Malcolm’s words and that image are the answer to questions we have about all the bodies the world would rather hide beneath a rock of stigma, oppression, and inequity than see them in their unapologetic grace.
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Malcolm’s seering eyes in that photo tell me that we each have the obligation to declare our right to be seen on this earth in our bodies. We have the RIGHT to be seen in our large bodies, our bodies with cerebral palsy, our Arab bodies, our Black bodies, our bodies with amputations, our gay bodies, our bodies with Bipolar disorder, our bodies with acne or braces or stretch marks. All of these bodies have the RIGHT to the visibility of humanity.
My naked body in that window in its aging, queer, black fatness is no different than all the revolutionary traditions that came before me. That photo is my inalienable right to declare each unadorned aspect of my humanity worthy of sight. My nakedness is the gun. It is the weapon I am holding at the window of a world who would endlessly rob me of my right to exist without body shame if it were not for my unwillingness to hide. The answer to what this body activist should do when I feel too fat, too ugly, too old, too queer, too black, too anything… is to stand naked in the open window of an often hateful world and to state without apology, “I declare my right on this earth…to be seen as a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the right of a human being, in this society, on this earth, in this day, IN THIS BODY, which I intend to bring into existence by any means necessary!”
I implore us all to do the same.
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[Headline image: The photo on the left is a black-and-white photo of the author, Sonya Renee Taylor, an African-American cis woman. She stands naked near a window with white blinds and curtains. She has a large body and dark skin, and she is cupping her large breasts as she stares out of the window.]