Inhospitable Spaces: On Body Activism and Home

Scribing by Jo Harrison @WoW London 2017

Scribing by Jo Harrison @WoW London 2017

Let’s find a way to think about body activism that doesn’t involve talking about the image in the mirror or on the screen.

In December 2016 I gave a presentation at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s Performing Care symposium, speaking about guilt and self-care in body activism and actor training. In this paper I outlined my discomfort with the idea of ‘love your body’. This is a discomfort which is becoming increasingly louder in activist circles, and I am certainly not the first to point out its flaws (See this excellent article on ‘Body Positivity in 2017’).

The idea that it is possible to love one’s body, i.e. to not feel discomfort, disgust or inadequacy about an aspect of one’s body regardless of what it looks like or is capable of, is of course in principle still radical. But the idea has become a slogan which has changed its tone (and a slogan which has been appropriated by a number of corporations in their advertising, e.g. compare Special K adverts over the last decade). It has become part of the body positive language which, as Marie Southard Ospina points out, allows people to ‘shy away from confronting the political components of what it means to be in a body that faces oppression.’

It is also now all too often a directive: ‘Love your body!’ we hear. Despite the fact that structures haven’t changed, and that competition rules, if you want to feel better about things then figure out a way to love your body. Ideally by spending money (which you quite possibly don’t have), or time (which you quite possibly don’t have). If you don’t succeed it is likely your own fault.

I’m not interested in being part of that discourse anymore. And I hope that all those of you who do take strength from the messages of body positivity might use that strength to come with us in the search for what comes next.

What, then, is the new message of resistance?

Well, we don’t know. It will emerge. But what we do know is that we need to constantly re-examine what is happening in the world and how that is linked to our relationship with our bodies.

We need to look at the current ‘love your body’ narratives in activism critically. To not be content with inspirational memes. Those things are great to raise awareness, but only if we always also expand beyond the idea that body hatred and shame are merely private matters, and if we insist on radical inclusion of ALL bodies.

So right now, I am interested in thinking about what it means to inhabit a body, about hospitality and the body as home.

For the moment, this is my way to make sense of the way systemic oppressions relate to personal experience and behaviour.
With my antennae tuned in to this particular metaphor, I have been listening for the way it is used and wondering what it might tell us about the link between the way we inhabit our bodies and the way we experience the idea of home more broadly.

We are in a time where the theme of home is in the air all around us (and maybe the fact that I am noticing it now more than ever is my privilege speaking), and as a metaphor it is double-edged: With it come questions around security, defensiveness, and hospitality. The theme of home can be turned into a narrative of fear and exclusion just as it can become a story of generosity and embrace.

If we look further than our bodies even just as far as the UK and Europe to see what shapes our experience of ‘home’ we find that:
  • Our Nation home is changing since the EU referendum, suddenly being re-defined.
  • Housing benefit cuts announced recently are literally leaving people homeless.
  • Disabled people having their benefits taken away means that they can no longer afford the care that their bodies and minds may require.
  • Re-development of urban areas is uprooting people from their homes and displacing them.
  • The precarious situation of people who rent their homes, especially in cities, means that many people live for a decade or so without ever having the opportunity to hang a picture or fully unpack.
  • We are experiencing an ongoing stream of reports of sexual violence and abuse, acts by which the home of the body has been invaded in arguably the most devastating way. Some people only survive the ordeal by leaving their bodies. Fleeing home. Dissociating themselves from trauma.
  • Domestic violence refuges are closing, leaving no home to go to for those in distress in their own houses.
  • And this is in a country of privilege compared to the huge loss of homes of millions of refugees.
  • Then there are also the US ‘travel bans’ preventing people from returning to the place that is supposed to be home.
  • Our constant, unavoidable engagement with media means that we live in a paradox: We are trying to always escape the domestic, to distract ourselves away from the mundane activities of the everyday (washing yourself, feeding yourself, sleeping, dressing yourself) with more shiny things, but while we are trying to escape the domestic we are also longing for a home.
  • And what if you’re body has never felt like home? If you feel you were born in the wrong body? How does one find a home in ones skin?

As I look at this (by no means exhaustive) list, I am reminded of Susie Orbach’s words a couple of weeks ago, referring to what she has encountered in her work since the EU referendum: ‘What happens in politics is never very far from the therapy room’. Because the political is, of course, always personal.

When we refer to the body as home (as when Clover Stroud describes getting back to sex after giving birth as feeling like ‘cleaning out the attic’, or when physical theatre maker Benji Reid advises my students that in improvisation they should ‘keep their windows wide open’) this is not just about the language we use. Metaphors can tell us something about the way we are understanding the world through the body. They exist in our language, but they come from embodied experience (See Lakoff and Johnson for more on this). If I say that I grasp an idea, I literally mean that I am holding on to the idea, and the reason this makes sense to me is because I know, in my body, what it means to grasp something.
The same for metaphorical language like:
‘I’ve got your back’
‘Our relationship has hit a dead end’
‘We touch upon the problem’
‘We rise to the occasion’

Metaphors are an articulation of the way our concepts and our lived experience intersect, and so to understand the way in which we agree to, or are able to, ‘inhabit’ our bodies it seems useful and necessary to look at what our current lived experience of ‘home’ is, individually and politically at the same time. I discussed all of these thoughts with my friend, the dancer Julie Cunningham. Her answer was simple:
Perhaps the world, as it is, is not a place in which we feel it is safe to settle in.

So what does this mean for our relationship with our bodies?

AnyBody’s Louisa Harvey puts it beautifully:

“I have been thinking about my body as a house. I realised that I haven’t ever quite moved in, haven’t unpacked, haven’t made myself at home. In fact, in thinking further about it, I realised that I’m living at the bottom of the garden in a shed. And it has a leak. It’s a precarious structure, potentially unstable, and prevents me from truly experiencing my body, its desires, its wants and needs, its passions. I have shied away from living fully from this fleshy base.

I got out a piece of paper and drew a square on it to represent my body as home, then I filled in the amount of space I thought that I actually inhabit inside and it was minute. It was startling.

So, how do we move in, when our culture tells us it’s wrong to do so? When our culture says “not yet” “when I am x, or y, or when such and such happens” you can make a home for yourself. We are constantly implored to see ourselves as a renovation project, told to overhaul ourselves according to the next bodily fixations we are meant to take part in, to never put down the tools.

It seems that many people can relate — and this to me is an outrage. It is an outrage that so many of us are going about our lives without feeling able to fully inhabit our skin. This isn’t about seeing ourselves as beautiful, but about a fundamental experience of embodiment.”

Louisa’s running with the metaphor really resonated with me, as one way to think about my lived experience that avoids being pinned back down to the very conversations about external image that we are trying to avoid.

Thinking this through for myself, I wonder whether the way we literally live in the bricks and mortar of our homes can reveal something about how we are inhabiting our bodies. I have not moved into my body, have not made myself at home. Sometimes I like being in it, but it is a tentative, temporary feeling, and one which I do not trust enough to fully settle in.

As I realize this, I also realize that I moved into my current flat almost 12 months ago, and yet, after the initial bout of making the place basically habitable, I stopped. I have still not fully unpacked, there are still rooms with bare plaster and wires exposed, still boxes to be emptied.

The two seem to me to be connected. A fellow activist nods: ‘I’ve always got one foot out the door, both literally and in terms of living in my body’.


Thinking all of this through for myself helps me to also think about those moments where I DO feel secure and at home in my body —

and consequently helps me to begin to clarify again what it is that I am fighting for, and where I want to direct my energy, where I want to push for a world that is fair enough, and safe enough that we might think of unpacking, settling in, and opening windows and doors.

I have some ideas about this, but they will have to wait for another time. For now I want to leave you with the clever and funny Rebecca Solnit and her championing of imagination and persistence in the face of the messiness and uncertainty that is the marker of activism:

“Newcomers often think that results are either immediate or they’re nonexistent. That if you don’t succeed straight away, you failed. Such a framework makes many give up and go back home when the momentum is building and victories are within reach […] To sustain [resistance], people have to believe that the myriad small, incremental actions matter. That they matter even when the consequences aren’t immediate or obvious. They must remember that often when you fail at your immediate objective – to block a nominee or a pipeline or to pass a bill – that even then you may have changed the whole framework in ways that make broader change inevitable. You may change the story or the rules, give tools, templates or encouragement to future activists, and make it possible for those around you to persist in their efforts” (Solnit 2017).

(A version of this piece was presented at a discussion group held by AnyBody UK as part of WoW London on 11th March 2017. As such — and as most things I do — it is inspired and fed by the thoughts of a number of wonderful women.)