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Unlearning Repentance, Internalising Radical Love

Maame Akua Kyerewaa Marfo

“The body is not soiled— it is not filth to be forgiven. The body is not an apology.”

As Sonya Renee’s poetic words washed over a room of women at the 13th International AWID Forum in Bahia, Brazil, I let out a breath I didn’t know I had been holding.

The impact of her declaration was plain on the faces of everyone seated and the energy in the room moved from excitement to a strange, palpable relief.  It felt good to hear someone say the things that perhaps we often told others but may have never completely internalised ourselves, to offer the same body positive assurances many feminists are quick to spout, but may not completely believe about themselves.

It felt good to be told that we were beautiful as we were.

That every aspect of our bodies we struggled with was valuable in itself.

It felt good to feel united in a resistance against the things long embedded in our consciousness. Women spend their whole lives apologising for their existence. Patriarchy gives us classes on how to turn our bodies into things that are desirable, soft, and compliant and does little to equip us with what we need to live within the realities of our own skin.

The session on bodily integrity at AWID was both a reminder and a challenge to that notion. It was a reminder of the ways other people’s conversations have shaped the images of our own bodies within our minds and robbed us of ownership. It was a reminder of the little girl within ourselves, who loved her body without judgment, who threw herself fully into life and took her body along for the ride. But mostly it was a reminder of how to get back to her — and how to guide others on that journey of love, acceptance and necessary rebellion.

During the session, the conversation around bodily autonomy was broad and ranged from the ways that bodies have become places for persistent conversation to how we resist the many ways that bodies can be understood and accepted. Bodies are spaces for deep meaning, and therefore, are central to how we approach our work and its meaningfulness. The body has become property and dictator, a laboratory for the experiments of ourselves and others, expanded or constrained by the ideologies outside of itself. The body has been turned into a stage show, and our ownership of it can often seem theoretical. After all, how is a body “yours” when society rips it apart until there is nothing left for you? Where are the resolutions?

The best way to start an external revolution is by beginning an internal one.

Though bodies and people exist as both internal and external beings, the session’s panelists reminded us all that it was important to radically love our bodies and make peace with the fact that we will not always understand the process of our bodies or the bodies of others. When it comes to bodily autonomy, the beginning of activist work is the realisation that we may not always understand the bodies of others or the choices they make about them

Feminist work requires that we continue to interrogate our movement and ask if we are being inclusive of new ways of understanding and self defining bodies, whether or not they fall within traditional understandings of gender. The feminist movement must be able to understand and advocate for the rights of all people—and as feminists we must find a way to break our own traditional definitions and understandings of womanhood, gender, morality and inclusivity.

With this understanding of ourselves we could tackle the conversations around bodies, particularly how bodies are policed and, rarely, left to just be. As a plus-sized woman, I am overly aware of my body and how it affects everyone around me. From the time I was very young, I was convinced of the need to shrink myself in order to make others feel more comfortable with my existence. The need to squeeze into jeans several sizes too small and make myself fit into things even if they, clearly, were not made for me.  I, like so many other young women, grew up with clear ideals, in regards to beauty, already prescribed for me - how to be presentable, desirable, and acceptable.

Essentially, all of my best efforts would be rendered useless because I was fat. Big. Overweight.

I was undeserving of desirability or love because of my size. Unlearning these things is a process that I go through every day. It is a process where I can’t help but be acutely aware. For the women who desire it, there is life outside of the ideals of western beauty standards but it requires peeling back layers of contradictory thoughts about your worth and challenging self-hatred. It is not easy work. 

It is difficult to come to the conclusion that your body, as it is, deserves love and that the bodies of others should not be judged. Finding a way to articulate this concept of suspended judgment outside of our individual minds adds to the task — but it is a necessary one. Suspended judgement, is both an idea and a campaign launched by CREA and throughout the forum it was at the forefront of our minds and our interrogation of ideas and concepts.

”CREA imagined Suspend Judgment as a mini-movement within itself engaging feminists to think and act intersectionally and to reflect critically on deeply rooted assumptions that hinder inclusivity.”
(from: "Suspend Judgement: CREA's Campaign Launch at AWID 2016." CREA. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.)

The panelists at the session all do important work on articulating these ideals - of suspended judgment, appreciation and acceptance regardless of understanding. It’s clear that we must tackle the ways that society and law understand bodies and find a way to create a legal framework that it is more reflective of the ways that our bodies exist.  It’s clear that we need to continue to share ideas and grow as a movement.

We cannot and should not have our bodies interrogated by states, communities, religious bodies and other store houses of patriarchal power that attempt to dissect and correct the things that do not fit into their prescribed ideals. We must find a way to foster acceptance of the decisions we make with our bodies and how we present them to the world.

After listening to the voices, opinions and actions of the remarkable people in the Bodily Integrity session, it is clear that the revolution around women’s bodies and the control of their narrative, is gaining new and exciting ground.  


About the author

Maame Akua Kyerewaa Marfo is the Communications Associate at the African Women's Development Fund. She is a singer, a feminist and a writer. She’s passionate about progressive feminist thought and using the arts to affect social change.

"The body is not an apology", poem by Sonya Renee:

I found this poem and felt that it needed to be shared. It promotes self love and body empowerment and encourages us to unapologetically own our beauty.

AWID Forum