I’m a hot ass mess. I am sooo messy. I’m the gurl you gossip about with your friends because she don’t have her shit together. I’m the mess who’s crying at the club (you think she’s drunk out of her mind, but she’s pretending). I’m the guy who’s giving you mixed signals. I am all of these people, all of these feelings, and more. And, I don’t give a fuck.
Recently I had a pretty serious accident and sustained burns on my feet, thigh, and hands. I found it difficult to perform the most basic of tasks: typing on my laptop, cooking dinner, giving myself a bath, walking down the hill to the grocery store. At first I felt uncomfortable asking my flatmate for his support and would try to over-exert myself when he was out of the house (giving myself clandestine showers aka falling in the bathroom and exacerbating the problem). I was a mess. There were days I couldn’t do anything. I spent the majority of my time feeling things. Not all of these things were optimistic: sometimes I thought about what would have happened if I didn’t wake and my entire body caught on fire, sometimes I thought about the reactions of my family and friends and who seemed to care and who didn’t, sometimes I thought about what would have happened if I died.
We are told that these feelings are natural. We are told that this is part of the process of healing and recovery. Then we are told to get over it. We are told to move on, to be happy, to clean our shit up, to become another productive body contributing to society’s collective delusion of stability, able-bodiedness, and happiness. And that’s what people kept telling me: hang in there, it gets better, you’re looking much better. And so I lied to them.
I lied to them because the Olympics were going on and we all had constant reminders of how powerful, how able bodies are able to be. Not just in the Olympics: walking on the streets, in the news, everywhere we look we see bodies that have got their shit together, bodies that dress impeccably every fucking day, bodies that somehow find a way to eliminate the distance between ‘couch’ and ‘gym.’ Some nights I would be awake with my entire body throbbing. Sweating, I’d sit up on my bed wincing and tell myself not to cry, tell myself that even though I’m not an Olympic athlete, I am a human with a body capable of power, capable of growing, of healing, of forgetting. Some mornings I would wake up suddenly when the light hit my face because it reminded me of the fire. Some afternoons when I walk into my apartment I smell something burning and run upstairs to make sure that nothing is on fire.
After the accident I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my body.
I’m one of those people who reads a lot of postmodern theories about bodies and how they perform and eat and fuck, but I’ve never really felt my body, never really listened to what it was saying. As an able-bodied and middle-class person ascending in ‘higher’ education, the truth is I have never had to pay much attention to my body: I have never worked a direct service job, never seriously entertained the idea of being an athlete or serving in the army. I was taught to cultivate my mind: to read books, to make art, to grow intellectually. Processed through a Western education system I learned that my ‘mind’ was the repository of knowledge: that inventions like science were more legitimate than feelings like god. I only became reminded of my body in the extremes of discomfort or pleasure.
I think I really felt my body for the first time – in all of its radical and visceral honesty – lying in the emergency room wincing and feeling like I was on fire all over again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for me to recognize and acknowledge my body and all of its faults, inconsistencies, and demands. I have been thinking a lot about how my body is actually one of the most radical texts I have yet to read and discover.
During my accident and short period of different ability (acknowledging the privileges of the impermanence of this here) at first I found myself apologizing for everything. “I’m sorry for holding you back / I’m sorry that I can’t party with you tonight.” I found myself asking: why do I feel compelled to apologize? What is so wrong about my body that it could not be accommodated for? And I began to think – what if we stopped apologizing? What if we just lived our bodies in their full integrity in all of the visceral affect, without apologizing?
Think of the ways we find ourselves apologizing for our bodies. Excuse me, sorry, can I go use the bathroom? Sorry, I turned in the assignment late I had a tough night last night, Sorry I can’t keep up with you, I’m just not that fit… Apologies have become so normalized in our days that they seem routine. I started to count the number of times I apologized for body in a day: for it being in the way, for it not being able to keep up, for it not being productive enough, for it being messy. Let’s ask ourselves: are we actually sorry or have we been made to feel sorry?
Often many of the times we apologize it’s because our bodies are making a critique of the space and other people don’t like it: our bodies are telling our colleagues that this meeting is far too long, that there should have been food here, that this workout was too intense.
Throughout my life I have found myself apologizing not only for my bodily functions, but also for the symbolic meaning that has been forcibly placed on my body. I am sorry about 9/11 (but I am not Muslim). I am sorry for holding his hand and making you uncomfortable. I am sorry for wearing clothing that makes you angry (I mean question your gender and sexual preference). I am sorry for bringing up race when we’re hooking up. I’m sorry that I can’t stop thinking and writing about race. I am sorry that I don’t work out. I am sorry that I am so hairy.
And these are the types of apologies that are not verbalized; they are the apologies that we inscribe on our bodies. They are the times I would sneak in the bathroom when I was a kid and steal my sister’s razor to shave every hair on my body so I could fit in and look like my (white) classmates at school. They are the times I first moved out of the house to college and realized that I could now buy hair-removal cream without my mom knowing (I didn’t do it). They are the times I told my mom that I wanted to go to Church like the white kids, that I wanted to buy more expensive brand-label clothes. All of these acts of assimilation (erasure) are apologies – we refuse to allow our bodies to exist authentically and we silence its critique. As queer bodies, as bodies of color, or other abject bodies, our bodies tend to be inherently critical of the spaces we inhabit. Yet in our efforts to assimilate, to apologize, we deny the knowledge, the ways of knowing of our bodies.
I find myself apologizing the most to white men. I apologize when I change the names of my majors to seem more alternative and less radical. I apologize when I change the tone of my voice, speak deeper so I sound more straight-acting. I apologize for being too political, too brown, too effeminate, too extreme, too radical, too everything by conforming and modifying my appearance, my body, and my behavior to fit into a paradigm where I come across as normal, status quo, desireable (just with that provocative edge). Most of the time I apologize with my silence. I refuse to articulate my attraction to them because I fear their judgment, fear that they will tell me that they are not attracted to my body (and that I will agree because their eyes are the ones I have been taught to view my body through).
And I am tired of silent because I was tired about lying about the pain of embodiment, the migraines, the throbbing of the night. And I bet you’re tired of being silent to and I want to ask – what if we stopped apologizing? What if we asked ourselves every time we felt the urge – no, the compulsion, the imperative – to apologize, why we were doing it? What if we only apologized when we meant it, not because we had to?
I want to live as an unapologetic body. I want to be a body that is so brown it offends you. I want to be a body that is so queer it makes you uncomfortable. I want to be a body that is so consumed, so overfilled with emotion that it makes you cry. I want to be a body that doesn’t apologize for not turning in assignments because it was making art. I want to be a body that listens to you crying and doesn’t judge you. I want to be a body that is so messy, so all over the place, that it makes you feel positively put together.
I have seen the way that the burns on my fingers have healed and I have seen the way skin has peeled and re-grown and I have felt the lowest and most base things and I am recognizing that it is more about the feeling, more about the growing, more about the process, than the result. And when we apologize, we forego the process, we abandon the critique, we assimilate.
So I want to put forth a theory, a politics, an aesthetic, an affect of UNAPOLOGETIC BODIES: bodies that acknowledge that apologies function at the level of our silence and oppression. Here are some initial components – have any contributions?
1. RADICAL HONESTY: What if we didn’t have to wear a suit and tie to work if we didn’t want to? What if I could tell you that I didn’t actually like your outfit? What if I could tell you that I – that we – are not doing fine, that we are actually in terrible pain, that we are conflicted, that we are messy, and that we need you desperately. What if we could tell everyone we were attracted to that we fancied them? What if we didn’t have to closet our crushes? What if we could tell our (a)sexual and (a)romantic partners what exactly we wanted? What if we could break up with friends? What if we didn’t have to fake smiles at parties?
I think we have forgotten how radically honest our bodies are: the way our bodies tell us that we have to use a toilet no matter how inconvenient the situation, the way our bodies tell us that we are sleepy no matter how much work we have, the way our bodies tell us that we are in pain no matter how much we are supposed to be happy, functional, competent. I understand that if you and I were radically honest we would get kicked out of schools, fired from our jobs, etc. – but let’s envision ways to be more (radically) honest with one another. Let’s allow our colleagues to go to the bathroom without asking, let’s stop thinking it’s weird or strange for someone to twitch, scream, yelp, dance during a meeting. Let’s create spaces where people can figure out what authenticity means to them, and where we can validate it, in all of its hot messery. Let’s stop telling people that we are fine, that we straight, that we are religious, that we are respectable if we’re not. Let’s embrace the most unruly parts of ourselves – because this is what our bodies do. Our bodies, they are often messy, uncomposed, bleeding, twitching, itching – this is part of what we are (don’t deny it).
2. INTERDEPENDENCE: At first I apologized for asking people to help me out performing basic tasks. It was only through being unable to do these tasks that I began to recognize how hard it is to actually be a functional body in our world. I don’t think we realize that enough (but our bodies do: remember the stress, the fatigue, the hunger). It actually takes a lot of attention, of focus, of coordination, of inspiration to perform our daily tasks. And being a body – especially an abject body in our world – is challenging.
I want to envision a world where helping one another isn’t seen as a positive gesture. I want to envision a world where giving gifts don’t require thank you notes because we live in a culture of giving, a culture of sharing, a culture of interdependence. We should not celebrate or glorify activists or volunteers for doing good work – we should all be doing good work, finding ways in our own careers, studies, and other pursuits to do public good. This is something we learned from our bodies but are increasingly forget. Remember how we required our guardian’s milk to survive? Remember how we required our caretaker’s words, touches, embrace to learn how to feel, think, speak? Remember how we required our siblings fights, arguments, tantrums to relate, empathize, anger, build coalitions? We grew up relating in such radical and interdependent ways and then we were confronted with the expectations of our bodies: confronted with the 4 year degree, the 9-5 job, the 8 digits that defined our identity and we were told that as bodies we must be individuals that function well alone.
3. RECLAIM HOT MESS AND DECOLONIZE YOUR MIND: I spent my summer in Cape Town, South Africa. Last week one of my closest friends and I met-up and had a thorough debrief and laid all of our hot mess out on the table (what a beautiful process). After our catharsis she called me a few hours later and told me that she hadn’t thought until now what it meant to be a Xhosa African woman. She realized how her mom told her to only talk to the white kids growing up, to go to the private school, to forget her native language and dance and ceremonies and go to school and now she (and I) are forgetting our bodies, are forgetting the radical potential of our bodies as texts, as sites of culture. Our conversation got me wondering – what it is about the imperative of Western modernity that denies our bodies (even though, ironically, it is predicated on the labor of bodies of color?) What I’ve begun to think about is that often to become appropriately modern, to become appropriately successful and useful in our world we are compelled to forget our bodies and their knowledge.
Ask yourself — what are we learning in school and how are we being taught to articulate and answer questions? And how have our schools discouraged our rage, quieted our anger, silenced our beating hearts? And what if we viewed emotional and artistic expression as legitimate as your capitalist economics books? In prioritizing bodily knowledge and listening to our bodies we can resist the imperative of the modern neocolonial subject – a subject that divides their time, space, emotions into pre-defined spaces, times, places, a subject that conforms, that apologizes, that weeps in silence.
Listening to our bodies isn’t enough, we must RESPOND to them – and the truth is – sometimes our bodies encourage us to be hot messes. What I notice about all of the expressions we label ‘hot mess’ is that they tend to defy logic, tend to be outside of the boundaries of rational respectability. We call others hot messes in order to establish our own put-togetherness. The ‘hot mess’ becomes our collective site of baggage, of trauma, of vulernability. In relegating hot messery to the Other, we hope to prove our own stability. What if we all recognized the ways in which we were hot messes? What if we (re)learned how to appreciate hot messery with empathy, vulernability, and solidarity? What becomes increasingly apparent is that we are learning to delegitimize emotion (unless it is positive) as an authentic and powerful mode of expression. We are learning to prioritize well-reasoned arguments over catharsis, over bodily release.
Sometimes our bodies encourage us to cry, to dance, to whine, to bitch, to moan, to orgasm – so let’s do it! Let’s not give a fuck what they think about it! Let us cultivate solidarity with Prince Harry, with all the people who fuck up, who make bad decisions, who aren’t private about their affairs, their messups, their inconsistencies, their heartbreak, their inconsistencies. So let’s be that hot mess at the club, at school, at work, at all the spaces where we are expected to be something we don’t want to be. Hot mess is an act of protest, an act of resistance, an embrace of your body integrity. So let’s be brown let’s be queer, let’s be political, let’s be radical, let’s be messy and REFUSE to apologize.