As a 10 year old, I was sorry for everything, “Moraa you left the kitchen door open!” “Sorry,” Moraa, why are clothes not folded yet?”” Sorry, “Did you get milk from Nyagothie’s that I pay for?”” Sorry..sorry.. Sorry….” A litany of apologies for Clumsy, messy, forgetful self, who spilled evidence of such all over the house.” Sorry” was my way of correcting the mess. Mom eventually started scolding me for saying “sorry” all the time. “Hush all those sorries all the time. You aren’t sorry. If you were sorry you would stop doing it!” I wondered if there was any truth to my mother’s admonishment. If I were sorry, truly sorry, would I stop doing whatever it was? Could I?
Living in a female body, a black skin toned body, an aging body, a slightly petite body, a body with mental illness is to wake up everyday to a society that expects a certain set of apologies to readily live in our mouths. There is a level of “not enough” or “too much” sewn into these strands of difference. For far too many women, the expectation of an Apology begins after a sexual assault report ends in an interrogation about the size of the dress she was wearing or how many drinks she had at the party. There are minuscule day to day ways each one of us will be asked to apologize for our bodies, no matter how ‘normal’ they appear. The tattoo you cover when you step into an office premise to increase your chances of being treated ‘professionally’, the conservative haircut needed to placate the new supervisor are examples of small apologies society will ask you to render for being in your body as you see fit. For majority of us, ‘sorry’ has become how we translate the word body.
For years, I gave my best share of apologies to the world. I apologized for laughing too loud, being too dark, flamboyant, outspoken and analytical. I do hear many others dish out similar scrolls of contrition. We make these apologies because our bodies have disabilities and need access. We make them because our bodies are aging, because our gender identity is different from the one we were assigned at birth and it confuses people. We apologize for our weight, race, sexual orientation. We were told there is a right way to have a body and our apologies reflect our indoctrination into that belief. We believe there is indeed a way in which our bodies are wrong. Not only have we been trying to change our “wrong” bodies but we have also continued to apologize for the presumed discomfort our bodies rouse in others. Whether we perceive ourselves as making the passenger beside us uncomfortable by taking up “too much” space in a matatu seat or as masculine presenting women we believe our dress code annoys the passers-by in the streets either way it is in these moments we find our heads bowed in shame, certain that our too fat, too dark, too muchness is the offense. It is never the fault of the seat or of its maker who opted not to design it for myriad bodies.
We, at every turn, have decided that we are the culprits of our own victimization. However, not only are we constantly atoning, we have demanded our fair share of apologies from others as well. We, too have snickered at a fat body in a swimming costume, shamed the transgender body at the market, pitied the disabled body at the mall, maligned the aging body. We have demanded an apology from other bodies. We have ranked our bodies against those of others, deciding they are greater or lesser than our own based on prejudices and biases we inherited.
Dismantling the culture of apology requires an investigation into the anatomy of an Apology. Generally people committed to their righteousness rarely feel the need to apologize. A while back, I shared with my then partner how something they had said had hurt my feelings. After 10 mins of them dancing around any admission of offense, it was clear that they weren’t planning on apologizing. According to them, they did not intend to hurt my feelings and therefore did not owe me any apology. Like most people, they felt like their intention should have absolved them from their impact. I did counter their reasoning by asking, “if you accidentally stepped on someone’s foot, would you say sorry?” “No, not if their foot was the only place to step on.” they replied.
There was something about their refusal to apologize for what they saw as taking up the space they needed that, if wielded authentically, might change how we move through the world. Why are we constitently apologizing for the space we inhabit? What if we all understood the inherent vastness of our humanity and therefore occupy the world without apology? What if we all commit to the idea that no one should apologize for being a human in a body? What if we made room for everybody so that no one ever had to stand on someone else’s foot? How might we change our lives? How might we change the world?
We have been convinced we are ineffectual at exacting any real change against our social systems and structures, so instead we land the guilt and blame squarely on the shoulders of the most accessible party; ourselves. This burden has kept immobile in our own lives and oblivious to our impact in the society. The weight of the shame has kept us small and trapped in the belief that our bodies and our lives are mistakes. What an exhausting and disheartening way to live!
It is this sense of epic discouragement that fuels my inquiry into the nature of apology and has led me to explore how our lives might look different if we begin living unapologetically. What would the world look like if each of us navigated our lives with the total awareness that we owe no one an apology for our bodies? That exploration into unapologetic living led me to a two-tiered hypothesis. The more unapologetically I show up in my body, my community, my job, my family and society at large, one of two things will happen; either I will pass on to others the power and permission to be their unapologetic selves, or others will be indicted or intimidated by my unapologetic being and will attempt to contain or shrink me. Bottom line, am living unapologetically!
That voice of doubt, shame and guilt blaring in our heads is not your voice. It is a voice we have been given by a society steeped in shame. It is the ‘outside voice’, our authentic voice, our ‘inner voice’ that is the voice of Radical Self love and Our freedom from body shame demands that we look at how we have perpetuated shame in others.
We will need to be radically honest in our journey.