“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: NO FEAR!”, my laptop’s speakers boom.
The first time I heard Nina Simone say this in an interview, I was rocked to my core. What a profound thing to say in so few words. I have always thought of freedom as something you had to acquire, like adding tools to a chest. I never considered freedom to be available in the absence of anything. Since then, in pursuit of my own freedom, I have found this absence of fear in the most unconventional places.
When I think about what it means to be free, I am reminded of the school-age children who I once shared a bus route with. Years younger than me, I was always impressed at how maturely connected they were. They were careless about their surroundings and what people might think about how their bodies moved. Arms draped over each other, limbs kicking limbs, all while I could barely work up the courage to move through people to find a seat. I marveled at how they didn’t seem to mind how their voices carried, or if their jokes landed, or how loud they were giggling. Sometimes they even sang. The girls were just as rowdy as the boys. The boys were just as affectionate as the girls. They were not bound by any of the societal restraints that some of us older people are. They were just happy to be there, with their friends, for the ten or fifteen minutes the bus ride lasted. When they got off the bus, one by one and some in pairs, they made sure to yell their goodbyes.
Their freedom was almost contagious.
I used to joke to friends that the kids’ comfort was brought on by the fact they ride the bus for free and that it was genuinely fun for them, not an exhausting commute like it was for others. But it was truly the absence of their worrying, the absence of being scared to be called “annoying” or being judged that gave them the freedom to enjoy the company of their friends. I reflected on all of the times I made myself small in a public setting or held back my emotions for fear of being made fun of. I should’ve borrowed a page out of the children’s book, abandoning my fear, thus giving me the freedom to enjoy so many small moments.
Sometime last year, I was again confronted with my fear about the way that I present to others. I remember sifting through my closet, considering for a moment that perhaps the shirt I’ve set aside makes my arms look too long. After an agonizing twenty minutes, I went downstairs to greet my sister in sweats and neon green socks with slightly mismatched flip-flops. One grey, one black. I screamed, feigning horror at her fashion choices. She laughed. “We’re only getting groceries,” she said, and it did not matter what she looked like. I opened my mouth to tell her what people would think and that she is crazy, and then thought better of it. I was embarrassed for even thinking about this. I have immersed myself in work that deals with the way we look, theories around “pretty privilege” and desirability, and the way we (often women) perform just to get by in daily life, and was about to encourage my younger sister to engage in that same sort of performance.
We are told to dress nicer, or at least pay attention to what we’re wearing so that others may not punish us for it. So much of the way we look and act and dress is our banking on the fact that others will accept us, not us choosing to exist in ways that make us comfortable. Rising above that takes a lot. Freedom, in this context, would be wearing whatever we wanted, but there’s also freedom in acknowledging that outside forces (the patriarchy, capitalism, you name it) exist, but for as long as I have some control, they will not dictate how I move through the world. We laugh about it now, but upon deeper introspection, I know having the freedom to wear bright socks with mismatched flip-flops for a grocery run acts as a metaphor for something a little bit bigger.
I mention these small anecdotes to say that I have found that freedom is like a muscle.
It must constantly be exercised, in small ways, and large ones. Lighting a candle on a stovetop is very different from throwing a bonfire, which is to say that not all freedom is alike. There are greater issues wrapped up in freedom, but like all good politics, it starts at home. Ridding oneself of the fear of being judged and mistreated happens in steps. You start by taking up space on public transport, then wear mismatched flip-flops, and pretty soon you are interrogating social norms and questioning the politics of desirability. While trying to rid myself of fear, I am nervous and excited by the freedom I can find in its absence: the freedom to be and show up as my uncompromising self.