When I left high school, I cut off all my hair and got a lip piercing. It was adorably clichéd and perfectly appropriate behaviour for an eighteen-year-old, leaving home and about to take on the world. My parents watched on, amused, as I “expressed myself” by making these rather minor alterations to my body.
After living in another country for a year, I came back home and got a tattoo (again my parents watched on less bemused and more horrified). It took me a while to realize these small, unoriginal acts of ‘self-expression’ are not me expressing myself at all. I tend to express myself better through language. But they were and are quite necessary and serious acts of self-assertion, reminders that my body indeed is something that is wholly mine.
Sometimes we need to be reminded that our bodies do, in fact, belong to us. I’m sure I’m not the only one who occasionally feels the need to assert ownership of my physical being, to say, This body is mine, actually, not yours. Every body states this is in different ways and to different degrees but there’s no doubt that sometimes it needs to be said.
Society is endlessly making claims on our bodies. There are times when certain claims are damaging, unjust or just plain wrong. This is when the body can become a site of protest. Dance has often been used, quite effectively, as protest. Just think of toyi-toyi, which originated in Zimbabwe and was an important aspect of protesting against apartheid in South Africa and Namibia*. When bodies move together in rhythm, there is a very special power that is created in unity.
But bodies are not only powerful sites of protest when moving or dancing, people have protested by simply walking or sitting. One can protest by undressing (think of FEMEN or the nude protest by Nigerian women against oil companies in 2002) or dressing (think of the mini-skirt march recently in Windhoek). Bodies can protest just by their presence (think of the Occupy Wall Street movement) or by their absence (think of any strike ever). Some of these protests have taken on huge publicity and scandal, some of them have not worked, some of them have. But all share a common factor – they put bodies on the line, they are physical manifestations of various peoples asserting their place in their world.
What I mean to say is, from a broad political stance to a deeply personal and private world, the body, your body, holds an entire universe of potential.
This image is of South African school children in 1976, protesting a few months after the student uprisings in Soweto.
We found this image at: http://www.overcomingapartheid.msu.edu/index.php
* In the hardcopy of this article, I stupidly failed to mention the importance of toyi-toyi in Namibia (and it’s a publication about art and performance in Namibia! Tut tut! Shame on me!) Accept my apologies, dear internet!