A few reflections on Sonya Renee Taylor and “Shrill,” and how we can apply their lessons in Madison. (Photo: Taylor speaking on March 11 in Madison. Photo by Holly Henschen.)
In the first episode of Shrill, released March 15 on Hulu, Annie, played by SNL‘s Aidy Bryant, gets an abortion. It’s the one good decision she’s made for herself at that point. Leading up to the procedure, she’s approached by an aggressive fitness instructor who barks, “There is a thin person inside of you waiting to get out!” She’s rushed out the back door of her manchild sex partner’s apartment to avoid his roommates’ judgment about her size. She stomachs unsatisfying food her mother buys for her to encourage weight loss.
This kind of body shaming is what intersectional feminism superstar Sonya Renee Taylor discussed on March 11 at MATC’s Mitby Theater at an event presented by the Wisconsin Book Festival. A spoken word artist and author of revolutionary read The Body Is Not An Apology, Taylor calls this behavior “body terrorism.” The book is part of Taylor’s broader efforts to advance a movement focused on countering the devastating impacts of hating our bodies and having others hate our bodies, often encouraged by media consumption. During her talk, Taylor facilitated a community discussion around bodies and instructed the crowd to question, when they’re feeling negative feelings about their bodies, “Who is profiting off of my insecurity?”
Taylor’s book preaches a concept called radical self-acceptance. It’s an ongoing practice that challenges us to respect ourselves and others as we are, to unwind the pathologies that create friction in our interactions with ourselves and others, and to promote an environment where we all feel valued and secure. The Body Is Not An Apology and Shrill, the latter loosely based on an eponymous memoir by firebrand feminist writer Lindy West, both accessibly critique prevalent internalized body shaming. The timing of Taylor’s visit and Shrill‘s Netflix release got me thinking about the real-time implications these concepts have in Madison.
In Taylor’s book, a man who was shamed as a boy for crying is unable to emote for the humiliation of it. A girl whose mother braids her hair so tight that it causes alopecia is teased by school children and feels ashamed through adulthood. A lover is so invested in feeling superior and in control that he can’t imagine it’s possible to hurt someone’s feelings unintentionally.
These and similar culturally enforced value judgments made about people based on their bodies’ natural states and processes happen every day. Sometimes, it makes headlines in Madison. Body autonomy centered on race came to the fore recently when a white male Madison educator tore out a young black girl’s braids. City police forcibly removed black children from the north side’s Lakeview library last week when they refused to leave after misbehaving. Members of the public, including students of color, continue to rally against the presence of armed police officers in Madison Metropolitan School District schools.
In Madison, it’s not overweight people feeling the body terrorism so much—or at least a cultural embrace of cheese curds and beer counters the garden-variety fat-shaming to an extent—as people of color, particularly young ones. Bodies are people’s homes. To have them shamed, insulted and overpowered by others is traumatic. It’s often an effect of body terrorism in a system that values black and brown bodies less than white ones.
In Shrill, Bryant’s earnest portrayal of West, then a newspaper underling, takes off when she pens a piece about the effect of body shaming on her life. But the abuse doesn’t stop there. A troll makes death threats and and uses her family as a tool to insult her. In response, her dismissive boss—played by John Cameron Mitchell and inspired loosely, kind of, by West’s experiences at The Stranger in Seattle—suggests she should be grateful for the attention and that it’s good for business. He later berates Annie when she’s late to a mandatory work event designed to save the company money on insurance. “He implied that I need to be less fat to do good work,” she explained to her aghast friends at home before venting about the imprisoning pervasiveness of society’s body terrorism toward fat people.
“I wish someone would’ve said this to me when I was younger,” a friend says.
“Me too,” she replies. “Because it would’ve saved me so much time and pain.”
On the heels of Taylor’s visit to Madison, we can take a cue from Shrill, told from the perspective of a privileged white woman, and ask ourselves: How can we save each other—especially the younger generation—time and pain?
We’re already digging out of generations of backlogged trauma and an unequal playing field for people of color. How can we start now and avoid adding to the damage? At MATC, Taylor told the audience: “Don’t make apologies for being in a human body.” We need to build a community in Madison that doesn’t expect young people of color to apologize, and that doesn’t let others invade their physical space with impunity.
One outcome of living an unapologetic body philosophy shows up in one of Shrill‘s most memorable scenes. Annie attends a pool party for plus-sized ladies. The scene is electric with the sexy fat bodies of excited ladies feeling themselves and each other. The joy of hot plus-sized women, poolside and dancing together, free from the disapproving eyes of people indoctrinated by capitalist norms, is palpable.
In her discussion at MATC, Taylor suggested moving the conversation away from the individual and toward the system. In Madison, we might do that by asking a few more questions. How is it that a teacher can allegedly assault a child and not be brought up on charges for it? How is it that 10 Madison police officers arrive at a small library on a report of children misbehaving and end up with a young man in the back of a squad car? How is it that we have police officers with guns in our schools, creating an environment of fear rather than one of support and safety?
Taylor recommends we place the blame where it deserves to be—on a system that says some bodies are less valuable than some others—and then ask, “What is my assignment in dismantling this system?”
That’s my question for you, Madison. Let’s do it.