by Amy Kaler
January 1 2018. I went to a special New Year’s Day yoga class. The city streets were quiet and shut down, giving the class an air of muted carnival. The instructor wasn’t one I’d had before but I knew him by reputation – young, very enthusiastic, with a devoted following. This morning he was particularly enthusiastic as he broke open the new year. He was so enthusiastic that when we were all lined up on our mats, he commenced to give everyone a New Year’s hug, moving steadily but exuberantly down the rows of predominantly female students.
I am not a casual hugger at then best of times – I’m never sure exactly when to let go and how tight is too tight – and this was not the best of times, because I don’t really do the festive season, which is a whole story that doesn’t belong here. So when I perceived the teacher working his free-hug routine, my first reaction was – “aagh, there’s a sweaty man in a unitard, and he’s heading for me!”. My second reaction was clarified aversion – I do not want to give or receive a hug. I do not want to act happy and affectionate, not here, not now, not with this person.
The roots of this aversion go back decades. Growing up as a cisgendered middle class white girl, what I disliked most about normative femininity was the pressure to perform emotions. This almost always took the form of display of happiness and delight, coded as “being nice”. I learned that girls and young women (older women could exempt themselves) were expected to go through our lives in the public eye showing the audience that things were good, better, best, amazing, and that we were thrilled to be here. We smiled, we were super-sweet, we did that rising-intonation thing when we spoke, and in doing so we tacitly reassured everybody that the world was just as it should be.
I believe I was suspicious of this imperative from early years, although I was quiet about it. When I started to read literature in high school, I discovered that other people had been so before me and had articulated it much better – Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss, who proclaimed that this was the best of all possible worlds in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, seemed a male version of the girls and women I knew who in public deemed everything sweet, delightful and fabulous.
Pangloss is played for laughs in Candide, but the fate of Cordelia in King Lear showed that the stakes of performing emotions are high. Cordelia, famously, cannot “heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” when her sisters are announcing their fulsome love for their capricious father when he demands shows of daughterly affection (King Lear, Act 1 Scene 1). Her father makes it clear that he wants the same from her, and offers her “a third [portion of his estate] more opulent than your sisters – Speak”. Cordelia answers, “Nothing”. “Nothing will come of nothing”, her father responds ominously, and within a couple of acts Cordelia is dead and the kingdom is in ruins, stemming from the moment when she refused to be nice.
Being driven out of your palace and murdered in prison is a dramatic outcome of not performing a happy emotion, but as I moved from literature into sociology, I learned that there were names for the subtler dangers of the performance. Acting out emotions that we do not actually feel, over a lifetime, may collapse the distinction between what we show and who we are. Arlie Hochschild called this “deep acting”, studying the social-psychic lives of flight attendants (then called “hostesses”) whose embodiment of warm, smiling hospitality leavened by sexiness, for the benefit of paying passengers, became indistinguishable from the subjective experiences of the attendants (1983). Hochschild correctly identified this as “labour” – smiling and looking gracious was hard work which generated a profit, at the expense of the worker. Kurt Vonnegut put it more starkly: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be (1961).
And now, back to yoga.
A yoga class may seem an odd place to object to a hug. Yoga is not only very physical but also very inter-physical. We students are constantly being manipulated (in the neutral sense of the word) into stances and postures which are challenging to maintain, and which do not just involve neutral parts of the body like hands and feet but the more undignified and intimate bottoms and bellies. We accept the physical indignity as a necessary part of learning the bodily discipline of yoga.
But the New Year’s hug crossed the line between discipline and performance. It required the embodiment of affect which I did not particularly want to embody with these people at this time. A blurry lifetime of gendered conditioning seemed to hang in the air around me, where it met an insurgent but implacable stream of stubbornness. Lear’s Cordelia could not heave her heart into her mouth; I could not hug the yoga teacher.
Although this teacher was a mild and benign fellow, my embodied response was self-defensive. I remembered the straight arm block from Red Cross lifeguard training decades ago, a move meant to push back a drowning swimmer who might drag the lifeguard under. My straight arm block diverged into a firm handshake, and the awkwardness of physically repelling a perfectly harmless yoga teacher dissolved into a convivial greeting. He looked a bit puzzled but wished me a happy new year, I reiterated same, and the moment passed.
What tipped my actions in that moment? I think it was a cliché of parenthood that ran through my mind. What would I tell my daughter to do? What would I want her to do if someone wanted to touch her and she didn’t want them to? The good or bad intentions of the other person would be beside the point – the point is that you should do what you need to do in order that you don’t get touched when you don’t want it. Shake hands with the yoga teacher, produce a firm “No” to the importunate boyfriend or girlfriend, deliver a swift kick if required. Lear commanded his daughters to show a face of love, would I ever command mine to embrace?
Cordelia died because she didn’t act nice in the way enjoined by people around her. We might die a little bit if we do. In order to live, we may step out of the hug. Happy 2018 to you, yoga teacher. And now we continue with the class.
Hochschild, Arlie (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Vonnegut, Kurt (1961) Mother Night. New York: Fawcett.
See Amy’s past post on running 10 km in the summer of 2018 here.