Embodied apologies

I’ve become interested in what I’ll call the “embodied apology.” These are the moments where we make ourselves smaller, quieter, or move out of the way when we were never really IN the way. They are the moments where we narrow our shoulders on the train, look down so as not to appear too confident, or ask for help in a whisper. In her Not Sorry submission, Kate C. writes, “I will not apologize for the space that my body takes up in the world.” She writes about a man on the train, “Yet, you look at my face and feel you can dominate me with your body.” She describes her unapologetic body as, “A body that refuses to bow under the pressure of their entitled shoulders and hostile elbows.”

I love this image of the unapologetic body, refusing to bow under the pressure. I love it because I can feel it viscerally in myself. I can feel moments where I’ve fully embodied this same, unapologetic beauty; I can feel moments when I’ve kept my head up, looked at someone straight on, and continued traveling in my path.

I can also feel the places where "embodied unapologeticness" did not feel like an option. A part of my process of resisting apology is also knowing that it’s not just about me empowering myself, or all of us encouraging each other—there will always be moments that I don’t feel safe enough to speak up, or to refuse to apologize, and that this is an issue of structural inequality.

In an experience that I had at an “Integrative” “Wellness” center, I conducted a case study about how people in power co-opt blame and shame to limit choice. I was the subject. 

I will not focus on the details of what happened there. I am not interested in re-living it, and not interested in people cringing along with me or potentially being triggered by details. The only part that matters for the sake of the story is this: while I was naked on a massage table, I was blamed for not giving my full medical history, told I was “not tough enough,” ignored when I mentioned pain, was mocked, and was not taken seriously.

Intellectually, I knew that the experience was invasive. As soon as I entered that dark room, I knew I was going to have to start coping. I did the work to imagine that I wasn’t naked or vulnerable, that this massage therapist did not smell like stale cigarettes, and that the pain would subside. I listened to a clock tick away the seconds in an hour. I simultaneously put the blame on myself and tried to stop making myself regret—over and over—that I didn’t inquire more about this place and the people who work there before getting the deal—“what did you expect, Alison? It was a cheap Groupon.” I tried to forget that this is far more of an intimate experience I ever put myself in with men. I answered questions carefully. I tried to advocate for myself in moments of pain. I tried to protect my body and negotiated the circumstances in which I would—for sure—refuse to stay. But I stayed.

In another consciousness plane, I say, “I’m going to leave now,” and pop up from the massage table. I put my clothes back on swiftly, without tripping over any cords or stumbling in the too-dark. I walk through the waiting room, make eye contact with no one, and open the main door, climb up the mall’s basement escalator, and out the revolving door into the midday sunny cold. I stop to get a cup of tea before catching the train, making small talk with the barista—I still have emotional energy to spare. That’s the version of the embodied unapology in this experience. Months later, I still feel what the embodied unapology could have felt like in that scenario, and sometimes regret not being able to fully realize it. That said, each time I go through that thought cycle, I have to remind myself of the other issues at stake, and the layers of structural inequality that make it so we cannot always just “get up and leave.”

I knew that in this moment, I could not simply get up and leave. Because in my head, that option did not exist without its complement; it didn’t exist without the option in which I say “I’m going to leave now,” and try to pop up off of the table, and the massage therapist tells me to stay still, shames me into thinking this was all in my head, uses force, or refuses to leave the room while I get dressed. And that’s what keeps me still.

So was it my choice to stay still? Reflecting on this moment, it feels more empowering to me to think about how structural inequality limited my ability to make that choice, and that made me, as Kate said, “bow under the pressure.” Although I hate that it’s true, I know that there’s depth and importance in thinking complexly about the moments that we still have to embody apologies to stay safe and to take care of ourselves. I’ve shifted my mindset from thinking about this experience as if I had full agency and choice in the matter. I’ve also shifted to thinking about how self-care can mean more than taking a bath and reading a book (although I love those things), but staying still and being uncomfortable. I've begun to think about the relationship between self-care and survival.

So with all of this, I am beginning to think about the spectrum of apology. Do we have a spectrum of choice—full agency pie vs. a small sliver of it? In this instance, I made choices to cope, to refuse to respond to certain questions, to write a scathing yelp review hours later. I am unapologetic about this. I had agency, but also fear. And I’m (mostly) unapologetic about this, too. Because there was nothing about this experience that doesn’t reflect a much larger, structural issue.

How do we show solidarity for one another in these moments that we cannot embody the unapology? How do we take each person where they are at, and trust that sometimes embodied apologies are mechanisms of survival? How do we respect the embodied apology as sometimes vital to safety, while also encouraging people to live out UNapology as proudly and frequently and fully as possible? What’s the spectrum of apology? I do not have the answers, but I think that asking the challenging questions and finding the paradoxes within them is the first step.