Sweating the Fact(s) of my Body (+Mermaids) as a Pedagogist

In this essay, I talk about depression, self harm, suicide, and medical procedures. Please continue to read only if thinking with these experiences feels safe for you right now.

I learn a lot from the brilliant, bold, and generous activists and artists who bring Instagram to life. As I navigate through my feed (curated by Instagram algorithms) as a pedagogist, it matters to me to move slowly; to read the full caption of a post so that my thinking echos the energy an author has poured into their words, to try to notice all the complexities an artist weaves into their illustration, and to follow the histories, tensions, and moments that bring posts into (often difficult, sometimes adversarial) conversation with one another. From Aubrey Gordon (@yrfatfriend), a writer who, through profoundly sharp critiques rooted in fat people’s lived experience, envisions just ethical and political possibilities for relating with fat beyond status-quo medicalized and pathologizing paradigms, I have learned a short assertion that constantly treads around in my brain: “the fact of my body” (Gordon, 2021, para. 6).

Gordon wields this phrase in the context of believing, affirming, and holding space for fat people when they describe how they inhabit their flesh and how their fat bodies travel through their worlds while inventing, nourishing, and defying particular relations toward fat liberation. ‘The fact of my body’, as I understand it, is a proposition grounded in a political commitment to get to know bodies differently, beyond the neoliberal criteria we inherit (like body mass index, body image, food consumption, physical fitness, or blood sugar levels – and, in early childhood education in particular: child development). This is also an unapologetic assertion that bodies matter: they make and take space, they function and malfunction, they interject and can go unnoticed. To declare a body – and its unceasingly (re)living muscles, membranes, neurotransmitters, and skin – as a promise and a project is a pedagogical commitment that I hold close as a pedagogist and as a researcher. I care about how we relate and live fats, muscles, and movement with children. For me, what is especially compelling in thinking ‘the fact of my body’ is that Gordon is intentional in never jumbling her words to declare a body as a fact, where to be a fact is to be composed of certitude and stability. Rather, in upholding a body as a bundle of facts – materialities, experiences, politics, ethics, relations – fused together, Gordon brings bodies to life in the intervals between actuality and gospel, certainty and infallibility. 

Gordon’s proposal of ‘the fact of my body’ is deeply tangled, right now, with how I might engage in my work as a pedagogist confronted with the fact(s) of my body. I also need to emphasize that the context within which Gordon builds ‘the fact of my body’ is resolutely anchored in fat activism and fat liberation. I am a straightsize human and to think with Gordon’s proposal, I need to continually cite and answer to its ethical and political edges; ‘the fact of my body’ is not a benign concept to think with, but rather one that asserts the difficult existence of bodies within worlds intent on marking particular fleshed lives as unlivable. As I carry ‘the fact(s) of my body’ with me and begin to imagine what I might put into motion with this provocation while thinking pedagogically, I am reminded of Sara Ahmed’s (2014) work on ‘sweaty concepts’. “We need ‘sweaty concepts’” Ahmed explains, “because we need more descriptions of the patterns that are obscured when bodies are received by spaces that have assumed their shape. We might have to insist on giving these descriptions” (para. 8). This means that ‘the fact(s) of my body’ is a practice of sweaty, demanding endurance in continual conversation with pedagogy, a dialogue of repeatedly pushing the details that make my body into the public, taking seriously the questions my body can ask of education, and refusing to allow the situated facts that manifest my body to be subsumed into a more easily palatable category or colloquialism. For Ahmed, “a ‘sweaty concept’ might be one that comes out of a bodily experience that is difficult, one that is ‘trying,’ and where the aim is to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty, which means also aiming not to eliminate the effort or labour from the writing” (2014, para. 4). To sweat the fact(s) of my body requires that I resist resolving the messes of my body: the scars, the weight, the acne-prone skin I refuse to cover with makeup. It means knowing that to type these words on a screen asks something of my finger muscles, which need calories to maintain their motion and carbon to embody their existence. It means understanding the fact(s) of my body as a pedagogical question and patiently tracing how sweating the fact(s) of my body shapes how I might ask questions of curriculum-making as a pedagogist. As I turn toward sweating the fact(s) of my body as a pedagogical process, I want to share one final quote from Ahmed, which she offers in ellipses: “(I suspect not eliminating the effort or labour becomes an academic aim because we have been taught to tidy our texts, not to reveal the struggle we have in getting somewhere)” (2014, para. 3). The struggle, the hard work, of sweating the fact(s) of my body is never meant to be a ‘final’ project nor a straightforward one. What I share here is my attempt to sweat my body here, now. I hope that Gordon will not mind me tugging her words into conversation with Ahmed, and toward questions that I want to ask as a pedagogist with a body in early childhood education in what is currently known as Canada. 

My first instinct in sweating the fact(s) of my body into conversation with pedagogy is to ask questions of living well: how might we live well with fats in early childhood education? What is it to live well together with muscles and memories? What are the facts of my body that already shape how I can ask and respond with questions? This inclination toward ‘well’ as a tangible ethic for relations with human and more-than-human others is, to the best that I can trace of my own citational life, an orientation that I learned from the Common Worlds Research Collective. In particular, I have come to know ‘well’ within Donna Haraway’s work on my way to thinking with feminist science studies and pedagogy. For Haraway (2016), “each time I trace a tangle and add a few threads that first seemed whimsical but turned out to be essential to the fabric, I get a bit straighter that staying with the trouble of complex worlding is the name of the game of living and dying well together on terra” (p. 116). From Haraway I learn that ‘well’ is an ethic nourished by complexity; to simplify or instrumentalize a ‘well’ relation is to strip it of its wellness. ‘Well’ is also a relation of precarity and risk, where ‘well’ does not ensure equity nor nirvana but instead functions as a verb that we must continually take the risk to participate in. I have also come to know ‘well’ through curriculum theory and collective projects (including the Pedagogist Network of Ontario) to support the role of the pedagogist in Canada. Living well is an absolutely critical question for a pedagogist to get to know over and over again. 

In 2020, Cristina Delgado Vintimilla, Kathleen Kummen, Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw, Randa Khattar, and I presenced questions of ‘well’ by offering that “pedagogy, we want to propose, asks questions that work in the name of living well together: how do we create more liveable worlds for all?” (para. 6). Here ‘well’ grapples with creating more liveable worlds. This ‘more’ feels important to me because it underscores the situatedness and ongoing work of ‘well’. More does not function as a triumph, happening instead as a marathon. That ‘well’ and ‘liveability’ overlap in asking these particular pedagogical questions is a concern I want to spend time with as I sweat the fact(s) of my body. If liveability stumbles do well fact(s) of a body become unimaginable? If a fact of a body is unwell-ness, what possibilities for liveability survive? To action ‘unwell’ as a diagnosis, constraint, or obstacle to be tackled is a gesture that I refuse. Cristina Delgado Vinitmilla (2020) details how “pedagogy, for me, is interested in the creation of a life—not as a model or an ideal, but as an everyday practice that puts thought into action, that is interested not in prescribing a life but in working at a life, becoming studious of it, being interested in its different forms and formations in what it does and what it invites and in how we become of it. A life that is life-making” (para. 12). ‘Working at a life,’ as Delgado Vinitmilla proposes, sounds to me like a sister pedagogical project of sweating the fact(s) of my body. I want to carry the untidy struggle (following Ahmed) of sweating of the fact(s) of my body in their collisions with energetic pedagogical questions of living well together. 

How might I sweat the fact(s) of my body as a pedagogist? And even more pressing for my current worldings: how might I sweat the fact(s) of my unwell body as a pedagogist? I turn now to picking up this second question. I want to emphasize that where this essay travels next is not purely autobiographical. This is not a narrative recounting an illness nor a story that wraps up with a recovery milestone. It is grounded in the fact(s) of my body that have become fact(s) in the last two years. Some facts of my body are that I have major depression, I hallucinate, I have an unpredictable circulatory system, I needed help with nutrition, and I had an abdominal ligament surgically severed. I have cat scratches up my arms and my legs remember what they could do when I played hockey. I can eat all the kale I want but my body hates broccoli. I am a cisgender white settler. There are many facts of my body, but only some collide with pedagogical questions of living well together. These bodied pedagogical questions differ from autobiographical inquiries intended to diagnose an illness or understand a survival story. Instead, in thinking how the fact(s) of my body ask me to sit with particular pedagogical tangles, I am interested in asking questions about how my body orients me toward specific concerns, tensions, or politics. I want to deliberately attend to the fact(s) of my body that make questions of ‘well’ in ‘living well’ feel impossibly foreign and irrelevant. Put differently, I want to ask questions, as a pedagogist, with my body when living itself – remaining alive as a human bundle of cells – runs counter to my body’s numbness, actions, and ideations.
In her essay on life and ‘new ways of dying,’ Rosi Braidotti (2010) proposes that we need to reconfigure how we get to know moments near to dying. Asking why death or pain encounters some of us but not others, Braidotti offers “for no reason at all. Reason has nothing to do with it. That’s precisely the point. We need to delink pain from the quest for meaning and move beyond, to the next stage. That is the transformation of negative into positive passions” (p. 214). Getting to know my unwell body beyond logics of ‘reason’ (beyond self-growth or character building or nihilism), I understand Braidotti’s call toward ethics, to understanding processes of pain and unwell-nes as questions oriented toward affirming and inventing, as an initial mode of responding to questions of how I might sweat the fact(s) of my unwell body as a pedagogist. As I try learn how to sweat the fact(s) of my unwell body, there is a poem I re-read over and over, titled “so my friend tells me she identifies as a mermaid…” by Sabrina Benaim (2017).

so my friend tells me she identifies as a mermaid…

& I’m like, GIRL. I saw The Little Mermaid. even she did not want to be a mermaid. so, I guess my question is: is it just easier to look at yourself in the mirror if you are not human? does that make it easier to pretend you don’t have depression; because depression is exclusively human. if so…shoot…maybe i am a mermaid too. if being a mermaid means you’ve cried enough tears to drown your grasp of reality. if being a mermaid means you truly believe the grass is greener than the blue you are surrounded by. If being a mermaid means you never walk away from a person you love, because you can’t, because you have a fin. then yes, I think I am definitely a mermaid & every song I’ve ever sung has filled my lungs with sea, but I am not drowning – not like I thought I was, when I was human. (p. 45)

This poem changes the rhythm of my heart beating in my chest. In a good way – in a way that helps me to shake off the heaviness of the pinnacle of ‘wellness’ or ‘normality’ that I often feel is asserted as a goal for my body. Benaim teaches me that I do not have to become the idealized subject who traverses a ‘health journey’ toward becoming fully functional, productive, and inspiring in a capitalist world. There is nothing aspirational about being a mermaid; it is a sharp survival strategy. A way of living together with the sea without yet knowing the shape of living ‘well’ with the sea. A practice of re-inventing relations with my own body, muscles, legs, and lungs, where there’s a glimmer of a future made through the work of getting to know my body differently. To think like a mermaid is to ask questions of bodies and pedagogies that work like an errant semicolon in a sentence: requiring an unfamiliar pause as we trip over the strange cadence of the sentence in order to read the sentence for what its uncommon grammar creates. Reading Benaim’s poem alongside Braidotti’s writing on life and death, I learn that to sweat the fact(s) of my body requires disrupting the ‘quest for meaning’ that so often populates our stories of illness and instead intentionally resisting the neoliberal tropes we inherit around wellness, sickness, and healing. It requires refusing status-quo humanist narratives that profess personal resilience and courage, and working hard not to see my body as a failure or my life as a commodity. Braidotti (2010) suggests that “life is experienced as inhuman because it is all too human, obscene because it lives on mindlessly… Are we not in awe of this piece of flesh called our ‘body,’ of this aching meat called our ‘self’ expressing the abject and simultaneously divine potency of life?” (p. 208). What Braidotti names as the ‘divine potency of life’, I hear as Benaim’s drowning; the chasms between situated muscling bodies and the status-quo structures of subjectivity that prescribe our relations with biological flesh. Here I find a rift that sustains collisions of bodied vulnerability with being ‘well’. A mermaid, Benaim shares, cannot drown in the humanist scope of dictating how a body can be “well”. This is a very particular mermaid that Benaim casts and that I get to know in conversation with Braidotti, one who is intimately familiar with struggling to breathe within the ruins of the waters that surround her, and who finds practices of breathing that become possible when she resists knowing what it is to breathe. I want, now, to think with mermaids alongside my questions of sweating the fact(s) of my body. How pedagogists and mermaids become friends in getting to know bodies? How are mermaids and pedagogists already companions in conceiving bodies?

Returning to Ahmed’s (2014) sweaty concepts, “I want to write from the examples up, without following the concepts where they go” (para. 7). I want to sweat the fact(s) of my body as a mermaid pedagogist might. I want to think from the fact(s) of my (unwell) body up, pulling the pieces of my skeleton apart and balancing pieces upon one another to build a different backbone, a different heartbeat. I want to sketch and follow the very particular questions I might ask of “well” in education. Braidotti (2010) reminds me that “an ethical question has to be adequate in relation to how much a body can take. How much can an embodied entity take in the mode of interrelations and connections, that is, how much freedom of action can we endure?” (p. 215). This is incredibly important. This means that the questions I offer are grounded in a commitment to ask only what a (my) body can take. The stories, scars, and speculations that I think with are deeply bodied in that they write with the fact(s) of my own unwell body. In figuring out my practice of sweating the fact(s) of a body, I want to stress, with pedagogists, a proposal that our bodies matter as we think pedagogically. We cannot think pedagogically without the fact(s) of our bodies and how we sweat the fact(s) of our bodies steers us toward bodied pedagogical concerns and processes. Universalizing or decontextualizing the questions I offer will not succeed, and I invite readers to feel how these questions take up a life in conversation with the fact(s) of your own body. What I share now is a series of short questions that try to sweat the fact(s) of my unwell body as a mermaid pedagogist – or at least, as a pedagogist with a mermaid best friend. 

My body has seven horizontal scars on my left thigh. There are two blob-shaped scars as well. I created these scars by cutting and burning my skin, an act that psychiatry has taught me to name as self harming. Scars are amazing. Scars mark processes of collagen production and maturation, as my body repairs its skin from the marks my hands have made on it. Scars enact repair, and in their materialization scars inhabit my skin, getting to know both internal and outward layers of my body. Sweating my scars as a pedagogist makes me pay attention to the bodied terrain made within the work of repair – if to repair is to populate a bumpy keloid scar boundary, does that enact repair as a process on-the-brink; repair as a practice of edge-making and taking up residence in relations that traverse a seemingly human contradiction or border? If I ask how repair happens in a classroom, what modes of repairing might be perceptible? What if repair is not always a curative dance of tying insides and outsides together? What happens when we get to know repair as the work of building a mark, a mark that is made possible through an act that disrupts how an inside is demarcated from an outside? What are early childhood education’s scars, its acts of repair? How do we notice, ignore, or brush over these scars, and how they are sustained as scars? What scars matter in curriculum-making – and how?

A PICC line is a catheter that runs from a person’s upper arm through to their heart. I had a PICC line for many months, as we used it to carry nutrients to my body when I was unable to sustain my body through my digestive system. Each day, I received TPN (total parenteral nutrition) for hours and the proteins, sugars, fats, vitamins, and minerals that TPN ferried into my body kept me alive. This means that I was fed directly through my arm’s veins, a process I still think is incredibly provocative. All around us, in the medicalized and individualized ontology of bodies that dominates neoliberal worlds, is a discourse of nutrition as an act closely partnered with eating by chewing, swallowing, and digesting. My PICC and TPN require logics of contamination (a term I have learned from Alexis Shotwell, 2016) and travel that are imperceptible to dominant ways of nourishing a human body. This raises, for me, questions of entrance: the PICC entered my body in an unfamiliar way and then TPN relied on the pathways cohered by my PICC to enter into my body with nutrients. Entrance here is a collaboration, a coalescing, that functions only because it both holds together and is held together by the body it functions within. Entering is an act of sustenance. This differs from thinking entering as a performance of a singular entity arriving to, or announcing their presence within, an existing (even if it is changing) space. As a pedagogist sweating the fact(s) of my unwell body, this makes me care about the work of making an entrance. What modes of entry dot the borders of early childhood education? How do we pay attention to entrances? Where have we infiltrated early childhood education’s borders with a catheter that spans these same margins (whether this be an ethical catheter or an instrumentalized one)? What do we do with the scars that catheters leave? What knowledges, relations, and politics might enter into a classroom – and how? If entering is made in the collusion of materials and pathways, how can we answer to the ways we do and do not enact and support entering as a pedagogical proposition? And if entering is an offering of sustenance, what does it mean for a pedagogist to enter into the ongoing flows of life in a classroom?

Lithium, as a medication that I take each evening, has been in my life for 12 months now. Through at least five changes in antidepressants and antipsychotics, three involuntary admissions to a mental health hospital, and hallucinations that insist on lingering, lithium matters to my body as a dependable element that is in conversation with my neurotransmitters. My dose has not changed, nor has my ritual of ensuring that I give my oral lithium capsule a nice bed of carbohydrates for when it meets my stomach. Lithium augments my antidepressant, reminding me that the molecular complexities of my body are in constant and complicated relations. Sometimes lithium makes me sick. My doctors remind me often that psychiatric medications are finicky and it is not unusual to take a calculated gamble with many different combinations before the ‘right’ medications are found. As a pedagogist, sweating lithium as a fact of my body makes me tune into questions of promise. Lithium does a frustrating dance over the pledge of a promise, oscillating between promises of uncertainty, precarity, and patience made by psychiatric medicines, and the hope that, in an uneasy alliance with medications, I might one day gather together a different relation to life. Lithium makes a promise that declares no guarantees and that disrupts any teleological assurance of ‘wellness’ – and that refuses to understand the craters between an unwell or well body as black holes but rather understands this as the space of negotiating and bodying lithium’s promise into my life. With lithium I want to ask what the promises that zig zag through early childhood education are: what promises do we inherit, trust, and make? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we make these promises? Put differently, how do promises work in education and how are we implicated in the promises we proffer? How do our pedagogies promise? How does our curriculum-making converse with promises? Are promises an apt practice for envisioning a future in education? What modes of coming together in the name of pedagogy might the relational commitments of promise-making ignore? How does a pedagogist promise – or not? 

 Sweating the fact(s) of my unwell body as a pedagogist (who will not give up on living as a mermaid) is a project that I can build many more questions with. Whenever I hear a metaphor of stitching as a curriculum-making practice in education, I think of emergency room visits where doctors sewed my skin together from the cuts I had made. I am distrustful of the poetic beauty in stitching practices when my leg is always numbed before stitching to chase away stitching’s pain. As a pedagogist, this makes me think about anesthetizing – what flows of life do we make numb or dull in early childhood education? How? Why? I think many times each day about dying, seriously and curiously speculating what it might be like to no longer be breathing in this world. I have learned that publicly wondering about dying as a near, comforting possibility compels a conversation drowning in discomfort. Many of the familiar conventions we rely on for anchoring our conversations are imperceptible or fall apart when we refuse to skim over death as something abstract, destructive, or pathologized. I understand that in this Euro-Western, humanist neoliberal society, (human) death is a taboo topic, but when I sweat the fact(s) of my body dying as a pedagogist, what is most interesting to me is to notice how thinking with dying is profoundly disorienting: what questions might we ask when neither the living or well in ‘living well’ is trustworthy? What if we resist the desire to know pedagogy only through questions of living and instead follow the troubles dying interjects in the work of thinking pedagogically? How are living and dying in endless relation – and what do these relations lend to thinking life and death with pedagogy? (I want to acknowledge that this question is not new and owes to the work of researchers in the Common Worlds Research Collective and Climate Action Network who attend to and respond with precarity, pollution, extinction, climate change, destruction, and decomposing with human and more-than-human others in education). A final fact of my body that I want to sweat is that my brain has undergone ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) and rTMS (repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation). Both treatments for depression mobilize pulses of energy to disrupt activity patterns and chemicals in my brain. They also made me forget five months of my life. This foregrounds questions, for me, of remembering – how do we remember in early childhood education? What do our modes of remembering make possible and unimaginable? 
I hold so much gratitude for Benaim’s (2017) poem, “so my friend tells me she identifies as a mermaid…”, and I want to conclude by re-collecting my experiment in sweating the fact(s) of my unwell body as a pedagogist alongside her words that punctuate the poem. Benaim writes, “then yes, I think i am definitely a mermaid & every song I’ve ever sung has filled my lungs with sea, but i am not drowning – not like i thought i was, when i was human” (p. 45). Perhaps as I do this messy, lived work of trying to sweat the fact(s) of my unwell body as a pedagogist, getting to know my body for the ways that it shapes how I need to ask questions of education might become a practice in not drowning. Maybe, in revisiting Braidotti’s (2010) caution that “an ethical question has to be adequate in relation to how much a body can take” (p. 215), I might wonder how mermaids ask pedagogical questions. What happens if a mermaid questions what pedagogies ask of us when the ‘well’ of our bodies is murky or the criteria with which we have been taught to understand the wellness of a body becomes unlivable? I want to continue to work to begin to create a speculative practice where sweating the fact(s) of my body orients toward fleshing the pedagogical questions that I, and my unwell body, propose toward finding ways to live together in education. In picking up this practice of sweating the fact(s) of a body, I am extending to pedagogists a proposal that our anatomies bleed into our pedagogical concerns and the pedagogical processes we participate in become possible only with our muscles.


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