My Body Is Not an Apology: Fostering Radical Self-Love

Laurie and Debbie say:

This year is the 20th anniversary of the publication of Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes, and one of the most gratifying experiences we’ve had in these two decades is watching the explosion of other artists and activists developing the same artistic, social justice, and self-delight themes we were (and still are) committed to.

The Body Is Not an Apology is a particularly fine example of the great work being done today.

The Body Is Not An Apology is a global movement focused on radical self love and body empowerment. We believe that each time one of us unapologetically owns our beauty, loves our scars, heals our shame; we in turn give others permission to do the same! We believe that discrimination, social inequality and injustice are manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body, our own and others. Through education, personal transformation projects and community building, The Body is Not An Apology fosters global, radical, unapologetic self love which translates to radical human action in service toward a more just and compassionate world.

We were particularly struck by Natalie E. Illum’s post from last week, “Why I No Longer Apologize for My Crutches.”

Natalie Illum at her piano

Illum, who has cerebral palsy, recounts some of her history with her disabled body. Please read the whole post; it has much more than we can capture here.

I didn’t really think in terms like beautiful/ugly or shame/confidence. I knew that my disability was permanent and that I was a financial and physical burden to my family. Those were the facts. I was sometimes told I looked nice, but I didn’t expect to hear words like beautiful or stunning associated with any part of my body. Ever. Those words were for able-bodied people.

Illum walking down a hall with crutches

Through her experiences as a slam poet, she recounts meeting some remarkable women, including Sonya Renee Taylor, founder of The Body Is Not an Apology, and later Denise Jolly, who invited her into the #Be Beautiful Project:

[The project] is based largely on a series of “selfies.” I knew I couldn’t stage a photo shoot alone: my hands often shake and my knees lock when I try to hold any type of camera or phone. So we did the best thing we could to accommodate our strengths and abilities: we collaborated. I wanted to assert my body in places I felt most comfortable and safe in Washington, DC, such as the Black Cat’s elevator, The Fridge DC, and my apartment. I also wanted to capture the everyday moments that make me feel most disabled: tying my shoes, balancing in the shower, and getting up after a fall. …

Yes, these photos are revealing – intentionally revealing – and celebratory. Okay, I’ll admit it: they are sexy. Because, why not?! They are the thing itself: my body, as it is now. I cannot separate my body from the cerebral palsy that came with it. I do not want to. Throughout each photo shoot, Denise kept repeating, Natalie, you are beautiful; that shot was amazing; just wait until you see yourself. I wish I could say that to every person who needs a wheelchair or braces or a catheter or a personal care attendant:You are beautiful. I know. The Body is Not an Apology. I promise.

The description of Jolly as photographer reminds Debbie so much of modeling for Women En Large, about which she said:

I took off my clothes for [Laurie] and listened to her murmur with pleasure as she worked. In fact, what she was probably saying was, “That’s beautiful, you’re amazing, wait until you see yourself.” This is why modeling for Women En Large was transformative for so many women, and modeling for the #Be Beautiful Project is similarly transformative.

In 20 years, we have come both closer to, and further away from, a world in which bodies are not apologies. Through the work of Sonya Renee Taylor and Denise Jolly and thousands of other activists, artists, and allies, we we can imagine actual victory, can think of everyone loving our bodies as an achievable goal.