Critical Reflections Essay #2
So I have yet to explore a musician by whom my sister and most of my friends are completely enamored, but I saw a video of her performing this week that made me flat-out fall in love with her. You would think that seeing a plus-size Black woman powerfully taking up space and rocking a shimmering, iridescent leotard was empowering enough, but in a video published by the BBC, Lizzo gave her audience an assignment: that they say, “I love you, you are beautiful, and you can do anything” to themselves in the mirror, to her, and to another person in the crowd. In not only doing this exercise with so many hundreds of fans but also asking them to say the affirming “mantra” back to her, Lizzo taught self-love and modeled asking for affirmation from others. There’s not a single person in the world who doesn’t need to see more of that. These behaviors are the building blocks of coalition across difference.
Sue Austin says in her TED talk Deep-Sea Diving… in a Wheelchair that when she first started using a wheelchair, it quickly started to feel as if people she encountered could only see her through a lens of “pity” if they saw her at all (Austin). She discusses her journey toward self-empowerment as a wheelchair user, the first step of which, she says, was to examine and change up the narrative of disability with which she was not only met by others, but which she had internalized about herself. Austin’s film footage of herself gliding sirenically over reefs in her wheelchair is another way of bringing into the real world some of the same sentiment of Lizzo’s “mantra.” Austin is able to prove through all of the art she produces centered around the wheelchair, particularly the ethereal footage of her dive, that she is beautiful –– certainly that she is adventurous, whimsical, and unique, qualities that help enhance a person’s inner beauty –– and she can do anything a person who isn’t in a wheelchair can do. Austin states:
“And the incredibly unexpected thing is that other people seem to see and feel that, too. Their eyes literally light up, and they say things like, ‘I want one of those,’ or ‘if you can do that, I can do anything!’ And I’m thinking it’s because in that moment of them seeing an object they have no frame of reference for, or [that] transcends the frames of reference they have with the wheelchair, they have to think in a completely new way. And I think that moment of completely new thought, perhaps, creates a freedom that spreads to the rest of other people’s lives. For me, this means that they’re seeing the value of difference.” (Austin)
Austin in her TED Talk points clearly to the change-making power of teaching just a few people to alter the lens through which they view disabled bodies. Her message extends to infinite other areas of their lives, where they might even apply this new gaze, similar to Lugones’ concept of “arrogant perception” giving way to a “loving perception” (Lugones) to other issues apart from disability. Lizzo says in her performance, “I believe we can save the world if we save ourselves first” (Lizzo).
Sonya Renee Taylor might call this phenomenon “the deeply uncomfortable work of changing the world which requires the deeply uncomfortable work of changing ourselves” (Taylor). Her company, The Body Is Not an Apology, is “committed to cultivating Radical Self Love and Body Empowerment as the foundational tool for social justice and global transformation” (Taylor). Like Lizzo and like Austin, Taylor sees teaching and learning self-love on an individual basis as the way to transforming the world.
The three necessary ingredients Taylor perceives as necessary to such a transformation are what she calls “radical honesty, radical vulnerability, and radical empathy” (Taylor). In this vein, the way that Lizzo occupies space and the way she presents herself could be viewed as radical honesty. She is a plus-size Black woman who does not apologize for the space she occupies, but offers her own presence as a gift because she innately knows that it is valuable. Activities like the exercise Lizzo did with her audience in the UK can bring up shyness in even the boldest among us, but her audience participated openly in the atmosphere of total safety that Lizzo created. So radical vulnerability, check. Finally, seeing the way the audience members interacted with one another and Lizzo and her fellow performers hugging it out onstage modeled radical empathy.
Taylor tells a story of taking a photograph of herself that she really liked, but kept to herself for months when she really wanted to post it because as a fat, Black, queer woman, she had internalized a message of, “Who am I to feel beautiful?” (Taylor). However, she was finally inspired to post the photo when she saw that a plus-size model named Tara Lynn had not only publicized a similar photo of herself, but had encouraged anyone who saw it to do the same. After seeing the response that this chain of posts received and how many women posted similar photographs of themselves and felt empowered from doing so, Taylor’s movement was born.
Previously I mentioned concepts introduced and explored by María Lugones in her 1987 paper Playfulness, “World”-Travelling, and Loving Perception. Lugones delineates the opposing concepts of arrogant and loving perception: loving perception of others should be everyone’s goal, whereas arrogant perception, “systematically organized to break the spirit” (Lugones 4) precludes love. Jesse Khan’s The Body Is Not an Apology article “7 Microaggressions Trans People Face in Health and Mental Healthcare Settings” is a good example of the dehumanizing power of arrogant perception when it is weaponized against trans bodies.
We are all taught to view trans bodies arrogantly, as if trans people (binary and nonbinary alike) are freakish anomalies that fall outside of humanity, as if prodding into the intimate details of trans life is a God-given right of cishets. Individuals who survive more easily within the gender binary and cisnormativity (and I word it this way because I don’t believe anyone truly thrives in this hyperpolarized ideation of gender) don’t always even realize that they’re doing it. Other times, they believe that their behavior is permissible because it is upheld by the establishment. The article states that as many as 23% of trans people report avoiding seeking medical care because they are too afraid to face maltreatment on the grounds of their transness (Khan). Perhaps the most glaring items on Khan’s list of “microaggressions” against the trans community include numbers 2 through 4.
Item number 2 is healthcare providers verbally conflating cisgenderism with normality to and in regard to trans patients, as if they are not regular/normal people. Bluntly put, “the implication is that cisgender people are superior and that trans people are inferior and abnormal” (Khan). Numbers 3 and 4 call out providers for being inappropriately fixated on trans patients’ bodies and/or experiences specifically to ogle at their transness as if it were a glaring spectacle, and not a mere facet of a patient who is entitled to competent and sensitive healthcare.
Having encountered these behaviors both within and without the medical establishment, I want to call attention to the fact that trans, nonbinary, and queer people flock to like communities. We exist on the very edges of society, cast out of homes, places of worship, and other formative modes of community, left to forge new connections amongst ourselves. We learn to see beauty in difference. That’s why I think so many queer and trans people adore Lizzo, who prefaced her exercise with, “I want you to know that I love you very much and I’m very proud of you. I want you to know that if you can love me, you can love your goddamn self” (Lizzo). In performing this exercise, Lizzo uses her own difference as a platform to model self-love to literally anyone across difference; the message comes without reservation to validate and affirm all identities across difference.
I recently saw the AJ+ video Trans And Native: Meet The Indigenous Doctor Giving Them Hope on YouTube about Dr. James Makokis, a Two-Spirit Cree doctor living and working in Alberta, Canada, who has specifically set out to create a practice that is safe, sensitive, and supportive for trans patients. Patients embark on incredibly long and arduous journeys to be treated by Dr. Makokis, a fact that highlights how precious little decent healthcare is available to trans patients. A teenage patient’s mom said, “I don’t know what other doctor can help a young boy become into a Cree warrior man” (AJ+). Dr. Makokis’ openness about his Two-Spirit identity, combined with his friendly bedside manner, his infusion of indigenous knowledges and medicines, and his desire to create a safe space for trans patients lends well to Sonya Renee Taylor’s three criteria of radical honesty, vulnerability, and empathy. He makes trans patients feel seen, important, and empowered in their bodies and in their skin, which is exactly what Lizzo is trying to do for the whole planet.
AJ+. Trans And Native: Meet The Indigenous Doctor Giving Them Hope. YouTube, 12 May
2019. Accessed from www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSnvtj0G3cA
Austin, Sue. Deep sea diving… in a wheelchair. TED.com. December, 2012. Accessed from
Lizzo. Lizzo’s Motivational Speech at Glastonbury 2019. BBC Radio 1, Facebook Watch. 30
June, 2019. Accessed from https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1081372812047950
Lugones, María. Playfulness, “World”-Travelling, and Loving Perception. Hypatia, vol. 2, no. 2.
Khan, Jesse. “7 Microaggressions Trans People Face in Health and Mental Healthcare Settings.”
The Body Is Not An Apology, 13 Nov. 2018. Accessed from
Taylor, Sonya Renee. “Sonya Renee Taylor, The Body Is Not an Apology ~ Radical Alchemy.”
YouTube, 4 Apr. 2017. Accessed from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9HVTLf3sj4