As a progressive in a deeply conservative state, I find myself, way too often, wielding signs to protest legislation on bathroom bills; allowing guns in parks, schools, and bars; defunding of women’s healthcare; or various other draconian laws being proposed in the name of “state’s rights” or “religious freedom.”
Two weeks after the inauguration of America’s 45th president and days after the first “travel ban” was put in place, I was standing with throngs of furious protestors inside the state capitol building on a rope line just before the governor’s State of the State address. As legislators passed from meeting rooms to the House Chambers where the speech would be given, I leaned over the red velvet barrier, pointing and chanting “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Directly in front of me, two state troopers stood shoulder to shoulder, making it clear that if I pressed any farther forward, I would be removed.
Senators and representatives streamed past, refusing to engage with the masses of angry constituents.
I screamed frantically at the long line of dark-blue suits with graying hair and finally caught the eye of a red-faced official who paused long enough to observe me like a caged lion. “Lives are at stake!” I yelled. “Lives are at risk because of you! People are suffering! You have blood on your hands!”
He tilted his head, paused, and cracked a cocky smile that said, clear as day, You’re a nut job. Too bad for you, young lady, I have all the power. He turned on his heel and walked into the Chambers with the swagger of a man unfazed. Foaming at the mouth, I howled along with the chants rising up around me, “No hate. No fear!”
And then the dam of tears broke. They poured over my cheeks and down my blazing hot neck.
My screams were an almost manic expression of the rage and terror saturating my heart. When I cried out to my state representative about blood on his hands, my intention was to speak for people without a voice; to cry out for sensible gun laws to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally unstable; and to beg for mercy for my own family. We have preexisting conditions and buy health insurance on the open market.
But the truth was that I didn’t know who that legislator was. I didn’t know how he had voted on issues I cared about. I was just screaming at whoever had a blank moment to spare for my catharsis. I wasn’t screaming at him. I was screaming at the White House and an electorate I could not understand. I was howling at the moon like a wounded mama wolf, unable to save my own child from the darkness of a world where bullies triumph and facts are beside the point.
The president had succeeded in stripping me down and laying me bare, just as he would have me. He left me raw and naked, hemorrhaging venom from every orifice. The tears came from recognizing my powerlessness while, simultaneously, feeling fully supported by a steadfast community of souls at my side, deafening in their protests.
When I got home that evening, I had to step back and check my motives. Rage and fear were justified by the circumstances, but echoes from my past were amplifying them to the point of corrosive panic as flashbacks wormed their way up, hijacking my equilibrium.
There were echoes of a New York City bartender slamming my 19-year-old body against an industrial refrigerator at the back of a bar, whipping out his cock, and demanding a hand job in exchange for a piece of bread I had requested to help me sober up so I could find my way back to my dorm in the middle of the night.
There were echoes of a college professor groping me in the darkness of a party in my own apartment, where I managed to dodge his hands, before finding him on top of a nearly unconscious, half-dressed classmate who feared failing his class that semester.
And there were echoes of standing among a circle of young men whom I considered dear friends, all of us in our 20s, and finding my observations interrupted and comprehensively ignored–realizing for the first time that, in their minds, my words didn’t matter as much as theirs, no matter how insightful or well-reasoned I was.
In the Capitol Building that night, I chanted, “No hate. No fear,” but it was hate and fear that drove me to scream at the closed Chamber doors until my voice broke.
It would be lovely if we could all live free of hatred and fear. I would say we should proceed with fearless abandon toward our new understanding of what beauty looks like and the dedication to health and well-being that has the capacity to change our lives–but that would be dishonest.
There is no such thing as fearlessness. To claim otherwise would require lying to ourselves, and lying breeds weakness. It’s empty. It leaves us in danger of collapsing under the slightest bit of pressure, and we’re going to need to be more durable than that.
We are all knee deep in fear, as well we should be. We can see how infrequently justice is served, and we shudder at the abundance of anger and violence in the world. There’s no question that we are vulnerable, and fear is justified. Life and due process are fragile, but instead of shutting down to those facts or doubling down on liposuction and liquid diets, we will do far better by standing up–stripped of our shiny veneer–to confess the truth.
I am afraid.
I am afraid that I, or someone I love, will be gunned down in a shopping mall by a homegrown madman who can buy a machine gun through the “gun show loophole.” I am afraid that planet Earth is breaking down before our eyes with no one in government to defend it. I am afraid that my family and millions of others will be bankrupted by health care costs in the coming years.
And I am enraged.
I am enraged that my son is growing up in a world where masculinity is so often characterized by brutality. I am enraged by Wall Street bankers jetting off to the Caribbean after tanking the economy while young, black men are arrested or shot for wearing the wrong kind of sweatshirts. And I am enraged by my own privilege when I turn on the television to see refugees streaming over borders and starving in makeshift tents.
Denying that fear and rage would be a mistake. We can press the “stay” buttons on our home alarm systems until the beep-beep reassures us, but living freely in this particular world means living with uncertainty. The only thing to do with fear is walk straight into it, abdomens rising and falling, calling it for what it is.
Vulnerability is a hell of a thing to withstand, but when we are raw and stricken with grief as I was on the rope line that night, we are also free–sometimes for the first time in our lives–from the norms of femininity that have constrained us. We’re cut loose.
As we watch EPA regulations, civil rights, and international peace fall like raindrops outside our windows, we are abruptly liberated from caring about how our hips and thighs appear. We are free from fretting about the timbre of our voices and the deference of our words. No longer bound by the rules of pretense or decorum, we are gloriously, magnificently unhinged.
If “leadership” thinks we’re shrill and unladylike anyway, what do we have to lose? If they value plainspoken, uncensored language and behavior as much as they say they do, let’s give them just that. Let’s speak plainly in a language they can understand.
The day before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016, a photographer named Spencer Tunick and his wife, Kristin Bowler, organized a group of 100 naked women to descend on the field across the river from the event site for a protest and photo shoot. The women held up mirrors, high above their nude bodies, to reflect the sun onto the convention and to shine a light on women’s voices and bodies from all walks of life. In the words of the artists, they were “reflecting the knowledge and wisdom of progressive women and the concept of mother nature onto the convention center.”
Interviewed in a short film they made about the protest, one participant said, “Everyone’s butts and boobs and bits were all normal and natural, and it was great.”
Another said, “If we can accept who we are, accept how we’re made, accept each other at the very basic level, I think we’re doing great.”
And still another, “I felt very liberated … and free. That’s what America’s about, right? Or what it’s supposed to be about? Freedom?”
These women were not fearless, but they were bold. Many of them were probably full of fear when the time came to strip off their clothes and stand in an open field in broad daylight and full of fear at the upcoming nomination of a cruel, manhandling brute for president. But they were together, and they were safe. In that safety and through the ability to make their voices heard, they were filled with exhilaration–sweet, audacious liberty.
We all have bumpy “bits.” And we all have fear and anger. It’s time to let it all hang out. We have too much to do to bother with making sure our bags and shoes match just enough, but not too much. Let’s make a collective agreement to let the spinach in our teeth and the toilet paper on our heels be a welcome part of life because, guess what? We eat food and use the bathroom. We are people, not mannequins.
None of us are fearless, but we can carry on if we know that a whole bunch of other people are raging alongside us. Like bike riders in a Tour de France peloton, those of us with the most energy to spare can take the lead, reducing the drag on those behind–so they can keep coming in the slipstream and break out when they are rested up and ready.
It will take endurance to see this through, to prevent fear and rage from eating away at us. Endurance requires pacing, rest, and steady progress. To maintain it, we’re going to have to get behind this effort all together and all at once, stripped bare and proud of it.
Sarah Hays Coomer is a certified personal trainer, nutrition and wellness consultant, and self-described “diet abolitionist.” Her work has been featured in Shape, MSN, the Wall Street Journal, The Tennessean, and others. Excerpted from her latest book Physical Disobedience: An Unruly Guide to Health and Stamina for the Modern Feminist. Copyright © 2018. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.