Poets and teens team up to tame body image issues

Boulder Youth Body Alliance seeks to redefine beauty

Amanda Moutinho | Boulder Weekly

Two years ago, performance poet Sonya Rene Taylor was chatting with a friend who was having an issue in the bedroom. Her friend had cerebral palsy, and she felt awkward asking her partner for the special attention she needed because of her disability.

Taylor responded with, “Your body is not an apology.”

That response grew into a poem with lines saying, “Praise the body, for the body is not an apology. The body is Deity, the body is God … the only righteous love that will never need repent.”

Months later that poem became a movement. The Body is Not an Apology preaches acceptance and “radical” self-love.

“We live in a society that economically benefits on us feeling bad about ourselves — fashion, make-up, gyms, all make money on dissatisfaction of our bodies,” Taylor says. “We’re inundated with messages that we’re not good enough. So the message of telling ourselves that we’re beautiful and worth it is an absolutely radical idea.”

Taylor is bringing her idea of body confidence to the Boulder Body Slam, which is happening on March 2 and benefits Boulder Youth Body Alliance. The event will feature Taylor, adults and youth poets who will perform on topics around body acceptance.

BYBA started in 2004 by Carmen Cool, a body image therapist who battled eating disorders growing up and had a sister die from anorexia. She kept encountering teenagers who were sick of hearing negative messages about their bodies, so she wanted to create a healthy environment for them to learn and promote self-love.

The organization provides a support group and a platform for activism, Cool says. Members give body image presentations to classrooms and around the community, and have even gone to Washington, D.C., to campaign for legislation surrounding eating disorder awareness and prevention.

One member performing in the show is 18-yearold Vanessa Kahn, who struggled with negative body image and unhealthy eating habits from the end of elementary school through the middle of high school.

“Maybe to friends and family I looked happy, but there was an internal storm raging inside of me,” Kahn says. “For me, I feel like I’ve come full circle from being in the deep hole of eating disorders.”

She joined BYBA to help others who were dealing with the same demons she was. Using poetry as a form of catharsis, Kahn says she hopes that her poem helps people see that eating disorders aren’t what define a person.

For some, like 16-year-old Maia Huey, joining the group wasn’t an easy decision. Huey saw one of BYBA’s presentations in eighth grade, but she didn’t join until last September because her own insecurities held her back from promoting a message of self-love to others.

“I didn’t know how to talk about it,” she says. “But what hit home was when I was babysitting and this little girl said she felt ugly because of the color of her skin. I didn’t know how to tell her that she was beautiful. I didn’t know how to tell her to love herself because I didn’t love myself. I realized I wanted to be part of the change.”

Huey is taking her mission of spreading positive body images to the stage by performing her poem “Barbie” at the Body Slam. She wrote the poem in a moment of frustration when she was tired of the images of women shown to young girls — Barbie had the looks, the house and the man and was always happy. Huey wanted to separate herself from the model of perfection and tell the world she is a woman, not a toy.

Helping young people develop confidence is very important to Taylor, who clearly remembers the moment her insecurities started — back in third grade when classmates taunted her about her hair.

“I often think how different the trajectory of my life would look if I had loved myself back then — that would have been a buffer against those kids on the bus who teased me. These are memories that I’ve carried around for 25 years,” she says.

Learning self-love at young age, Taylor says, can solve all the ills of the world.

“If we cultivate that love, that’s how you get through those rough adolescent years. The more we love ourselves, the more we love other people. That’s how we end racism and homophobia. That’s how we dismantle all these social justice problems.”

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