There are probably a number of images that come to mind when you think “activist,” but there’s one that’s pretty firmly embedded in our cultural lexicon. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.
He hasn’t shaved in over a week. He doesn’t sit in chairs; he straddles them, or slumps. When he’s not wearing (and wearing and rewearing) the same pair of torn, faded blue jeans, he’s just showing up to organizing meetings in sweatpants. Hairbrush? Never heard of it.
It barely bears saying that this “leftist bro” aesthetic is deeply unattractive, and that it provides ample fodder for jokes (trust me, that last paragraph could have been a lot longer). But it’s also insidious, because the politics of self-presentation — and not just within activist settings — tend to break down along highly gendered and classed lines.
Before I go further, an important caveat: I am not addressing this piece to those who just go to a protest every once in awhile without having showered. I also, obviously, am not suggesting that people who engage in activism hold themselves to a higher standard of dress than everyone else.
No, this piece is specifically targeted at those who cultivate that “disheveled look” —who not only have enough gender, race and/or class privilege to feel confident that they won’t be judged for their physical appearance, but also have enough entitlement to flaunt that privilege by ostentatiously not giving a damn.
You can find these kinds of people everywhere. But there’s an extra, nauseating dimension to this aesthetic when it appears in spaces intended as collaborative laboratories for social change. It is all too easy in political work, and especially in organizing, to fall into the “street cred” trap — a neoliberal dynamic that pits individual activists against each other in petty bids to see who can do more, and more prominent, labor for the cause. Rather than fostering a sense of community and shared purpose, the street cred trap makes activism an exercise in resume-building.
To present as someone who can’t be bothered about their appearance isn’t just generally entitled and gross; it can also be a way of literally wearing your labor on your sleeve. Of proclaiming, “I am so deeply committed to my organizing (i.e., so much more so than everyone else) that I have no time for trivial things like doing my own laundry, or maintaining basic levels of personal hygiene.” It is part and parcel of a particular brand of (mostly) male competition to see who can be the most loudly dedicated to progressive change.
But what gets lost in all this is the largely invisible, unglamorous, difficult and absolutely essential work that falls disproportionately on women and people of color in organizing spaces. The logistics. The planning. The enormous levels of emotional labor. When the conversations and interactions that we have place a premium on a very ostentatious model of engagement (which only people of certain privileged identity categories have access to), all others can fall under the radar.
A competitive model of activism also fails to respect very real, oftentimes insurmountable barriers to accessibility: A student job, for example, or family troubles that may preclude full-time involvement with an organization. Especially on this campus, with an administration that has routinely failed to address pressing questions of class stratification, mental-health care and racialized/gendered marginalization, it is absolutely essential that we monitor our activism to make sure it does not unconsciously reinforce those same problems.
When our efforts to promote social change become more about performance than they do about social change, then we have lost sight of our purpose. The solution to this problem goes, of course, far beyond sartorial choices, but the politics of how we present to each other can never be ignored.
No one is asking you to wear a suit — just that you put on some real pants once in awhile.
Henry Robinson is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .