Some think professors shouldn’t have fun. I’ve got something to show them.
Last week, I made one of my dreams come true: I donned a skin-tight purple romper, tied a silver cape around my neck that read “100% THAT BITCH,” and twerked with Lizzo.
By day, I am an author and tenure-track professor at a major research university, but when Lizzo invited me up onstage to play the children’s rhyme “gigolo” and show off my dance moves, I knew it would be the coolest thing I’d ever do. I started twerking. The crowd cheered. Lizzo and one of her dancers looked on with eyes wide and mouths agape. When Lizzo joined in, booty to booty — my butt blessed — it was pure Black Girl Magic. Joy reverberated upon joy throughout the venue.
It was the epitome of pleasure activism.
I get pleasure from listening to Lizzo’s music — from her embrace of self-love, body positivity, and individuality as a multi-talented fat black woman. I also get pleasure from twerking, the act of moving your bigs to shake your butt quickly because it makes me feel good about my body and dancing skills. Pleasure is the way I love and take care of myself. And to publicly love a body that the world says I should be ashamed of is a political act of defiance.
Activist, writer, and theorist adrienne maree brown created the concept of pleasure activism in her new edited collection, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. “Pleasure activism asserts that we all need and deserve pleasure, and that our social structures must reflect this. In this moment, we must prioritize the pleasure of those most impacted by oppression,” she writes in the introduction.
Our society tells us that pleasure is bad and sinful, when in fact pleasure is healing and sustaining. It makes life worth living. Yet we deny pleasure to most marginalized groups: women, people of color, queer people, trans people, disabled people, poor people, and fat people. Pleasure activism pushes back on these norms, and it demands that part of social change needs to involve not just ending suffering but allowing pleasure for those who are oppressed.
That is why I made it my quest to get on the stage and twerk. Two weeks ago, I mentioned on Twitter that I wanted to #twerkwithlizzo, asking my followers what I should wear to get her attention. The day before the concert I filmed myself twerking in my “100% THAT BITCH” cape. In 24 hours, the video was viewed over 45,000 times. But still, I didn’t know if it had worked.
I got to the concert more than two hours early and scored a prime spot standing second-row center. During the show, I held up the cape for her to see. I caught her looking at me. After the next song, she stopped and said she wanted to make the show special. She said she knew someone, she couldn’t remember the name, who wanted to twerk with her. I screamed that it was me. Almost immediately, a member of her team took me backstage and, before I knew it, I was standing onstage in front of her and a sold out crowd of 2,500 people, ready to twerk.
It didn’t take long for a video of my #twerkwithlizzo to go viral — and for my social media to explode. At first, it was a lovefest. People said that the love Lizzo, her dancers, and I had for ourselves and each other onstage was contagious and inspiring. My fellow academics were excited to see a scholar doing something so cool. My students were thrilled too. One tweeted, “my fav professor twerked on stage with lizzo, so my education is better than all y’alls goodbye.” I was, and in many ways continue to be, in total awe about this experience.
And yet, like many women who do things on the internet — particularly women of color and fat women — I also attracted a good deal of negative comments and trolls. Being called an elephant, cow, pig, and other fat-phobic comments are par for the course as a fat person in public. Many people hate fat bodies and think fat people need to be punished or shamed into hiding away until we somehow magically get thin.
But I wasted far too much of my young adulthood punishing my body and refuse to do that anymore. When I stopped hating my body, I had more time to be productive, to build better relationships, to have fun adventures. After I learned to reject body shame, I came to embrace pleasure politics.
Pleasure politics have been essential to my wellbeing, survival, and success in academia. Lizzo is a part of that. She sings about being her own soulmate, feeling good as hell, being her own inspiration, and feeling herself. As she sings in “How I Feel,” “Love me or hate me. Ooh, I ain’t changing and I don’t give a fuck.” Lizzo lets us know that the most powerful thing you can do is love and take care of yourself so you can be the best version of you.
I am not your typical academic, so I’ve had to learn that just because I talk differently or dress differently than some of my older, white, and male colleagues, I still deserve respect. Who I am and what I do for fun cannot take away from my professional accomplishments or abilities. Whenever I need a boost, especially before giving a big talk, I turn on Lizzo to give me the energy and confidence I need to succeed.
Some of the negative commentary on #twerkwithlizzo has, of course, involved questioning my professionalism, even suggesting the university should fire me. Fired for dancing in public in 2019? My twerking with Lizzo does no harm to anyone; in fact, it has brought joy and inspiration to many. Everyone deserves to live complex, joyful lives where they can cover their basic needs, feel fulfilled, and experience non-harmful fun without fear. This includes academics. We are not just old white men in libraries. Professors are millennials, queer and trans people, single mothers, and women of color. This is what the future of academia looks like, folks. Get used to it.
As a gender and women’s studies professor, I spend a lot of time teaching students how to recognize sexist, racist, and ableist body shame in our culture and reject them. For example, the hyper-femininity and thinness required of young women and the hyper-masculinity and fitness forced upon young men. What kind of educator would I be if I did not also work to reject this oppressive culture in my personal and public life? My students benefit from, indeed deserve, a joyful educator who practices what she preaches regarding self-love and fighting oppression.
I absolutely refuse to allow people who hate my body, my politics, or my embrace of pleasure to make me feel guilt or shame. I love who I am and what I do. I wish this level of happiness for everyone. As Lizzo says in her song “Juice,” “If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine (yeah, I’m goals). I was born like this, don’t even gotta try (now you know).”
Author: Sami Schalk