This article performs a close reading of an advertisement of Fenty Beauty's Body Lava featuring Rihanna in order to tease apart the imbrications of celebrity, sexuality, blackness, and labor by using an analytic of sweat. Since sweat is secreted by the body, this article is particularly interested in its relationship to enfleshment and what it tells us about the material aspects of black ecologies. Working through how and where sweat surfaces and doesn't in this image of Rihanna offers a way to unpack the utility of sweat as an analytic. Sweat offers insight into why shine connotes both work and sex while also giving us a way move beyond shine and toward sweating and the intimacies offered by porosity.
Behold Rihanna, casually leaning against a step, eyes closed, long hair wavy and windswept. She turns into the breeze, eyes closed, one hand atop her head gently holding back hair, the other beside her hip (fig. 1). The image is aspirational. I could describe Rihanna's posture as belonging to the desiring in much the same way I have described other images of ecstasy, emphasizing how the closed eyes act as a sign of a private reverie while the slightly parted mouth suggests excess—excess pleasure, excess wealth.1 While Rihanna's pleasures remain inscrutable, their relationship to shine is impossible to ignore. Shoes, jewelry, and tattoos are minimal. The background is a pale echo of her deep metallic bronze. The real shine, though, comes from her legs, cleavage, and shoulders; it even exceeds the light bouncing off her short sequin and chainmail gold dress. The image is part of a press packet for the full-body luminizer Body Lava, launched in spring 2018, six months after the debut of her makeup and skin care company, Fenty Beauty—Rihanna's attempt to bring shine to the masses, a form of inclusivity that speaks to the brand's commitment both to making products for a wide array of skin tones, marketing across genders, and to midrange price points. The chemistry of Body Lava is such that it reflects light to reveal bodily contours, the optics of which, outside of Body Lava's democratizing efforts, are determined by the pigmentation of one's skin. Darker skin makes shine's reflective powers more apparent because it contrasts with melanin's absorption of light. Greater degrees of reflection show more definition.2 Since the image features Rihanna, a Barbados-born multihyphenate, the specific aura of shine cultivated comprises many things: wealth, glamour, leisure, sun, and celebrity.
It is indeed Rihanna's multifaceted relationship to Body Lava that asks us to dwell on the meaning of this embodied shine. Though initially introduced primarily as a performer of Caribbean-inflected songs, Rihanna built a singing career on her vocal and sonic versatility, a range that Arianna Davis encapsulates by writing that “she can lend vocals to a bass-pumping house hit, a mumbled Caribbean dancehall mix, or a tear-filled, wailing ballad best consumed with a side of whiskey, and it's almost guaranteed to climb the charts.”3 Music, however, was just the beginning. Rihanna also became known for her unique public persona: a conglomeration of style, attitude, and performance of accessibility, the elements of which music journalist Doreen St. Félix describes as “a cultivation of lifestyle—her trips back home to Barbados, her tattoos, her laughter, her love of family, her social media presence . . . makes Rihanna the last rock star.”4 The result of these efforts produces Rihanna the celebrity as “simultaneously ordinary and exceptional, intimate and distant, known and inaccessible.”5 Another way of thinking about this work of celebrity is through what Uri McMillan describes as being an “avatar.” In tracing a genealogy of black female performers, McMillan describes complex negotiations of projection that finds a form of agency in the mobilization of objecthood, a surface persona.6 In describing Rihanna's specific manipulation of her image, Jenny Gathwright emphasizes the “emotional and intellectual work” that she performs to appear not at a remove but instead “in the thick of things—not above them, not outside looking in, not past them.”7
In some ways the advertisement for Body Lava encapsulates these tensions perfectly: Rihanna in repose, ordinary, accessible, playful yet also not. Though the suggested affect is leisure, Rihanna is actually at work—she is selling a product in addition to an aura. Notably, one can consume (and enrich) Rihanna in many ways: in addition to her music, she has launched several fashion collaborations before producing her own lingerie company (Savage X Fenty), makeup and skin care company (Fenty Beauty), and couture house (Fenty). The image of Rihanna as shiny, then, correlates with exoticism, eroticism, and business savvy. In her discussion of the prolific use of shine in black diasporic aesthetics, Krista Thompson argues that shine's reflective capacities draw attention to the surface while allowing an interiority to circulate without really being seen, a combination of exposure and coverage that Thompson calls unvisibility, which refuses the annihilation of selfhood that commodification would seem to induce. Thompson wrote, “In many respects, we might see the fascination with adorning and picturing the body's surface in jewels, the taking-on of the shine of things, as a type of screen.”8 Shine offers a rejection of the demand to present anything other than surface, but undercurrents still lurk. While this image exemplifies the imbrication of commodity, shine, and blackness that Thompson describes, it also allows us to theorize sweat.
Technically speaking, sweat is the liquid that emerges from glands embedded in the skin; it is a combination of water, waste from mitochondrial metabolic processes, minerals, lactic acid, and ureic acid. Sweat thermoregulates the body, removing excess heat by evaporating from the skin. However, people sweat for many different reasons, such as physical exertion, emotion, humidity, heat, or illness. Since sweat is secreted by the body, I am particularly interested in its relationship to enfleshment and what it tells us about the material aspects of black ecologies. Working through how and where sweat surfaces and doesn't in this image of Rihanna offers a way to unpack the utility of sweat as an analytic. Sweat offers insight into why shine connotes both work and sex while also giving us a way to move beyond shine and toward sweating and the intimacies offered by porosity.
Black Spectacle and Genealogies of Sweat
Thompson offers a prehistory to the entanglement between black celebrity and sweat in her description of the application of grease or oil to the bodies of enslaved people to emphasize their presumed power and health: “Slave traders actually greased the bodies of enslaved Africans, using sweet oil or greasy water. . . . Many buyers’ assessments of slaves came through visual inspection in the pens.”9 Many relations are at work in this historical nugget, including the promises of sweat and physical exertion—signifying labor and enrichment—in this conjunction of shine and musculature. Moreover, we can also see that the aesthetic appeal of blackness itself is haunted by the specter of the labor of enslaved plantation workers, and the entwinement of capitalism and attraction through (sweaty) physicality. Thompson's description of the application of grease to enhance physical appeal also resonates with Richard Dyer's finding that nonwhite people were lit in photographs “to create the appearance of shine and sweat—a glistening that highlighted the body and its surface.” Dyer argues that this allusion to sweat was meant to “connote physicality, the emissions of the body and unladylike labour, in the sense of both work and parturition.”10 In Dyer's elaboration we see how sweat also moves through ideas about Black gender and sex, imbuing shine with fleshiness. This fleshiness, in turn, speaks to the fundamental contradiction at the heart of black female celebrity, which is born, in many ways, of the tension between blackness and femininity, an incompatibility that emerges when one reads with Hortense Spillers's analysis of pornotroping: the wrenching away of personhood through the violences and repeating presence of settler colonialism, the commodification of the transatlantic slave trade, and enslavement itself. The transit from body to flesh equates blackness with depersonalization, nonsubjectivity, and thingness and estranges black women from femininity.11 While the idea of black female celebrity, like Rihanna, is someone who wears the sheen of exceptionalism and virtuosity while negotiating the eyes and expectations of a public, sweat perpetually disrupts by making visible this shine's reliance on commodification, sexualization, and exploitation.
Think of the sweat that we often see in depictions of black athletes clutching trophies or with heads bowed in defeat. This sweat testifies to physical exertion and produces what Samantha Sheppard describes as “blackness as kinetic and kinesthetic movement, modes, and meanings.”12 Sheppard means by this that the representations of black athletes “centralize Black athletes’ corporeal performance as spectacle, such that blackness is realized, mitigated, succumbed to, and disavowed.”13 Here, we see explicitly how sweat becomes part of the entity of black flesh: it demarcates a becoming-body that Sheppard names critical muscle memory to include the “shared physical histories and popular consciousness.”14 The spectacle of the sweating athlete, then, reminds us of the multiple ways that black people have been produced as fleshy spectacle for the market. Describing the language of assessment, attachment, and erotics that circulate among those who watch, especially sports pundits and fans, Nicole Fleetwood argues that “the vestiges of slavery cast a shadow on contemporary sports, commentary on the features, strengths, and weaknesses of the body—very often the masculine black body—is routine public discourse.”15 Similarly, Anthony Braxton argues that sweat, rather than sound, was used (problematically) as a marker of authenticity in jazz performance, signaling emotional effort and intensity in a way that threatened to sever intellect from affect: “Jazz musicians are simply supposed to sweat—if they are serious.”16 Kelsey Klotz positions this spectatorial investment in sweat as part of a longer genealogy of black performance in which “sweat simultaneously infantilized and sexualized black bodies, in that sweat symbolized lack of bodily control and other bodily fluids, including semen and excrement.”17 Further, the presence of sweat reinforced the difference between the white audience and the black performer, producing what Klotz describes as “white fascination with black bodies that both perform labor and experience pleasure from which white audiences are some distance removed.”18 The shine of sweat here directs attention not only to physicality but also to how fleshiness orients the world. More specifically, in these instances of performance, sweat invites us to think about the sensuality of kinesthesia. Sweat highlights how kinetics percolates through the flesh, suggesting not only the possibility of exertion but also an openness to sex and all manner of desires. Interestingly, sweat also works to augment the difference between the viewer and the performer. While watching someone else sweat might entice, it also offers a reminder of the physicality one is not currently engaged in, reinforcing a Cartesian mind-body split.
However, thinking further with flesh as offering its own form of intelligence, we might think about what kinds of knowledge exist in the mobilization of this physicality. Dance, for example, as Ariel Osterweis argues, conjoins both muscular exertion and practice—“dance as process”—which she describes as “labor” and “work,” the arena of performance and spectacle that “conceal[s] dance's labor by putting forth a sweat-free image of effortlessness.”19 Notably, Osterweis is speaking specifically about still photographs of ballet dancers in which movement is expected to appear effortless—speaking we might argue, to particular racial assumptions about ballet and its physicality. We might further differentiate between these sweat-free images and the sweat that often becomes visible throughout a performance—especially if one has seats close to the stage. Through Osterweis we can see how “bodily technique, muscular execution, and virtuosity become sites of agency (albeit complicated ones) for the dancer.”20 This is to say that sweat can become a marker of self-possession even in spectatorial scenes, signaling a depth of knowledge of the self and one's kinetic abilities in registers that are not available for consumption.
This other dimension of sweaty corporeality is also evident in Fleetwood's analysis of Serena Williams as racial icon, someone who is unique in their “combined forces of veneration and denigration.”21 Fleetwood argues that Williams subverts the idea of being reduced to “mere” physicality by emphasizing her specific individuality: “Williams's relationship to her body and the commentary on it enacts a striking and powerful mode of embodied presence that demonstrates a deep awareness of her significance as an individuated subject, an exceptional athlete, and as part of a racialized and gendered collective, chosen or not.”22 Therí A. Pickens makes a similar observation about Williams's self-possession, going so far as to theorize sweat as part of Williams's performance of refusal. “In these moments, her body becomes her own, existing on multiple registers that do not give credence to the privileging of written or spoken knowledges and avoid these residues of the Enlightenment (with all their trafficking in anti-Blackness).”23 Instead of capitulating to expectations, Pickens argues, Williams's embodiment testifies, often in ways that people do not know what to do with: “The refusal creates a void that the body with all of its multisensory and multidimensional valences attempts to fill with movement, will, sweat/odor, and/or silence.”24 Both Fleetwood's and Pickens's analyses centralize subversive aspects of Williams's embodiment. Fleetwood focuses on Williams's playfulness, especially in relation to her fashion and femininity, whereas Pickens emphasizes sweat as a sign of refusal. Here again we see that flesh, especially the flesh of black female celebrity, interrupts by announcing—through sweat—a set of relations to which audiences are not privy.
This invisibilized sweat is what circulates around Rihanna's Body Lava advertisement. On the one hand, it conjures the physicality of performing and the tropical heat with which she is associated, but most overtly, the sweat we do not see has to do with desire. I speak here of how Rihanna's image, especially after 2009, when photos and details of her then-boyfriend's physical assault became public, has emphasized her erotic subjectivity. Drawing on analyses of Rihanna's music and videography in tandem with the biographical, Fleetwood describes how Rihanna publicly presents as “a highly eroticized and highly desiring woman.”25 Included as evidence is the November 2011 Esquire cover that proclaims Rihanna the “sexiest woman alive” (fig. 2). Fleetwood notes how Rihanna structures access to her body as an “exploration of modes of violence structured into heterosexual desire and practices” while also providing space for her own desire to exist outside of projection: “On the cover, Rihanna poses nude with one leg propped, blocking view of her breast and crotch. The entertainer stares out provocatively, with mouth slightly ajar. Seaweed clings to her glistening body. A small gun tattooed under her right arm directs attention to her partially revealed breast. Rihanna's hands brace her body, and her nails dig into her skin.”26 By emphasizing how Rihanna controls what is seen and not, Fleetwood argues that the image is intended to invite what she describes as “heteronormative male fantasies of what can be done to her body under the rubric of consent.”27
I dwell on this image because its echo with the shine of the Body Lava ad is unmistakable. Here, shine underscores Rihanna's gestures of resistance—her posture is inwardly curled, there is visible tension in her body (her fingers claw), her gaze registers as defiant, and even her hair rests protectively over one eye. The aesthetics of shine function as invitation and protection, echoing the opacity of her private pleasures in the Body Lava ad. What we gain by comparing the images, however, is an understanding of how shine invokes sweat by conjuring eroticism, not only in the fantasies that might be projected onto Rihanna but also by foregrounding her own sensuality, which might manifest sexually but is actually most prominently exhibited through her taste and style. These, too, are facets of embodied intelligence that Rihanna has not just put on display but commodified.
Interestingly, amid its articulation of shine's ability to both attract and cover, the copy for Body Lava highlights the power of this form of bodily self-commodification: “It makes you look like you're dripping in light—there's nothing else like it. With a body veil like this, who needs clothes?!”28 And, since everyone has a body, if not wealth, this makes it appear as though there is democratization in emphasizing the accessibility of shine. However, how Body Lava's shine signifies on Rihanna is profoundly imbricated with a genealogy of black sweat in which shine is entangled with the racialized aspects of fleshiness. These properties form part of Body Lava's appeal hovering around its commodification.
Sweating, Metabolism, and Porosity
In addition to illuminating formations of corporeal knowledge, eroticism, and commodification undergirding shine, the active form of sweat—sweating—brings us toward the metabolic and collective forms of sociality. Here, Audre Lorde: “One of the most basic Black survival skills is the ability to change, to metabolize experience, good or ill, into something that is useful, lasting, effective.”29 Metabolism functions as a way for Lorde to describe corporeal processes of converting racist violence into communal strategies of survival. The shift that Lorde describes is perspectival: rather than focus on individuating and isolating moments of pain, an orientation toward survival emphasizes shared practices of resilience, resistance, and care. Sweating, then, allows us to consider the nonsingularity of bodies and the intimacies formed in relation despite duress.
In this vein, I am interested in how we might think about what it is to sweat to (or with) Rihanna. Here, I am thinking about the overall effect of her musical stylings and the act of dancing itself—both things that are embedded in capitalism but that exceed its parameters. Though Rihanna performs in many different genres, much of the dancing that accompanies her music (and her own choreographed movements) tends toward what might be called black vernacular dance, which Jayna Brown argues “was formed out of the modern conditions of disorientation, dislocation, and alienation. Yet contingent moments of communality were continually being created.”30 Brown's emphasis on black vernacular dance's ability to metabolize conditions of constraint and repurpose movements to create collectivity and modes of being-with is important. It shows us the world-making possibilities of sweating. While Rihanna's sound is more inflected by dancehall, Brown's arguments about black vernacular dance still resonate.
Dancehall refers both to physical spaces and to a Caribbean style of sound and movement. David Scott describes dancehall as “at once a venue (where the popular is constituted and performed) and a style of (sartorial and linguistic) self-fashioning,”31 Elaborating on dancehall's historical exclusion from the “respectable” side of Jamaican culture, Thompson positions its aesthetics in relation to escapism from harsh economic conditions following independence. More specifically, Thompson argues, dancehall enacts performative consumerism and overt sexuality to “produce a modern black subject who is precisely not the laboring black body that sweats.”32 Dancehall participants might signal this metabolization of economic precarity into spectacularity by turning themselves into reflective surfaces using video light, skin bleach, and other forms of shine to attain recognition that is often elusive outside of these spaces: “These sartorial expressions presage an emphasis on surfaces in dancehall, whether the surface of the skin, flashy fashions, or screens.”33 While it might be tempting to write off dancehall's imbrications with capitalism, colorism, surface, and shine, Dyer's robust 1979 defense of disco is instructive. Against arguments that disco is superficial and capitalistic, Dyer argues that “capitalism constructs the disco experience, but it does not necessarily know what it is doing, apart from making money.”34 More specifically, Dyer points to disco's production of a full-body eroticism, which itself is “part of the wider to and fro between work and leisure, alienation and escape, boredom and enjoyment that we are so accustomed to,”35 a rhythm that supports work, yes, but also allows us to consider leisure as enacting its own reorganization of the sensoria and the communal.
Dancehall cannot help but inflect our reading of Rihanna, sweat, and Body Lava. On the one hand, many elements of the Body Lava ad—especially the ways that shine signals wealth, eroticism, and self-authorship—resonate with Thompson's description of dancehall aesthetics, but to focus only on shine misses what it is to dance together. As Dyer suggests, when we collectively come together to dance, there is potential to produce moments of “full body eroticism” and queer intimacies, ephemeral though they may be. Dancing together is also a collective embodiment of a fantastical elsewhere: on this night during this song, we move to the same rhythms and lyrics, react to each other's movements and sweat as we work to hold the light. Brown's analysis of black vernacular dance allows us to further amplify the temporal dimensions of this dancing, to think about how these resignified movements create their own intergenerational and diasporic sweaty commons. Brown also lets us think about how even if we are dancing to Rihanna by ourselves, we are never technically alone but part of a larger citational chain.
Additionally, while some (her fanbase, the self-proclaimed Navy) might position Rihanna as central to their own cosmology of sorts, we can also think with the transcendental possibilities of sweat. Here, I am thinking most explicitly with Anthony Pinn's analysis of sweat in the context of the black Pentecostal church. Sweat, he argues, marks as “the body as a bio-chemical reality meant for labor, or it might serve as a sign of Black bodies seeking to press against . . . boundaries” imposed by white supremacy, which seeks to determine the “markers of consciousness and meaning.”36 For Pinn, the emission of sweat challenges hierarchies that would demean physicality while offering a “sign of intense contact between the divine and the human in spirit possession and in spreading the word of God. In this sense, sweat, a seldom loved substance, is signified and given religious importance.”37 This is to say that thinking with sweating is part of a movement toward casting off white supremacy:
Even substances that ooze from the body, such as sweat, take on deep meaning and importance. This aesthetic shift marks the acknowledgment of the misinterpretation that had, up to that point, defined the nature and meaning of Black being. A recognition of beauty gives deeper meaning to the one who has been “other-ed” in that it points to the inner workings of identification: beauty recognizes beauty. We see the divine in ourselves, and love it.38
This resignification of sweat by connecting it to spirituality speaks to the difficulty of using language to describe spiritual experiences. In this context, we can see how sweat functions not only as a biochemical and spiritual sign of the porosity of the self—porosity as an indicator of its metabolic properties—but also as an acknowledgment of marginalized cosmologies. I am thinking of the way sweat hovers around descriptions of Vodou. Katherine Dunham's Islands Possessed, for example, presents sweating within the context of overwhelm during her Vodou initiation:
The joy of dancing overwhelmed me and I found myself . . . in the ruptured movements of the feints, then gasping, stumbling, teetering on the verge of rhythm- and fasting-induced hypnosis, returning to the sheer joy of motion in concert, of harmony with self and others and the houngor and Damballa and with all friends and enemies past, present, and future, with the wonders of the Haitian countryside and with whatever god whose name we were venerating, because by then a number had been honored and I had lost track.39
Dunham's descriptions highlight the intense porosity of being that the ritual produces, punctuated by sweat. In concert with this, Ana-Maurine Lara positions sweat as integral to Vodou aesthetics, which she describes as including “temporal dislocations, reembodied blackness (black bodies flying, reappearing/disappearing, melting into words, sweating, crying, becoming), yearnings for memory and language with which to illuminate notions of human experience as of yet unexposed, and a bending or breaking of the rules of this world to expose what could be possible.”40 Here, sweating emphasizes an extension of being beyond conventional framings of the corporeal by indicating a spiritual or transtemporal dimension to perception. In relation to sweat's association with fleshiness, this aspect of sweating illuminates the possibility of enacting intimacies and connections ungoverned by, although not entirely outside of, commodification.
Caribbean Ecologies: On Mobility, Climate Change, and Debt
Perhaps you can already see where thinking about the porosity of sweating bodies might lead. I am thinking here of the Caribbean or, rather, the idea of the Caribbean, which, as noted by St. Félix, is part of Rihanna's appeal and, as such, some of what makes up the desirability of Body Lava, which persists even in an image that is remarkably devoid of conventional signifiers of the Caribbean, such as lush vegetation, sea, or beaches. However, the advertisement's description of “dripping in light” brings one toward the idea of a Caribbean vacation and its attendant mixture of leisure and sensuality. This is a romanticized vision of the Caribbean, one related to but separate from the geographic location, which consists of many intersecting languages, cultures, ethnicities, nations, histories, and colonizations—past and ongoing. This commercialized version of the tropics is a place that it is nice to visit because of its year-round warm weather, relative proximity to the United States, and “friendly” locals—friendly functioning here as an indicator of the islands’ dependence on tourism and service industries and as a marker of the processes of eroticization, exoticization, and exploitation that accompany this economy. M. Jacqui Alexander wrote: “The significance of tourism is that it foregrounds sexual pleasure as a commodity, based in the sexualization of land (through the old imperial trope woman-as-nation) and people. . . . European fantasies of colonial conquest, the exotic, the erotic, the dark, the primitive, of danger, dread and desire all converge here on virgin beaches and are traced back through the contours of imperial geography.”41 In Alexander's description of the lure of the Caribbean, I note especially the conflations between place and people—especially black people—and the idea that these are people and places that can be consumed, if not outright possessed. This is to say that there is something that is imagined to be “graspable” about the Caribbean, and this has to do with the specific economies of blackness in which it traffics—notably, an equation that threatens to erase other ethnicities and sexualities.42
Indeed, Body Lava invites consumers to “celebrate the look and feel of glistening skin after a day of island hopping.” Although Fenty Beauty avoids noxious chemicals—it is cruelty free and uses artificial mica—its politics are still complex. There is a split between the idea of the Caribbean, where some sweat suggests leisure and consumption and other sweat comes from work and enduring economic precarity. The difference between these ideas of sweat, which also reverberates in the distinct signification of shine and sweating, is indicative of the multiple embodied relationships to colonialism and its after(?)math, forms of racialization, and access to mobility and leisure. In explicitly connecting Body Lava's shine to recreational island hoping, an activity that makes the Caribbean an attractive tourist destination, but also one—in tandem with tourism more broadly—that has a large carbon footprint, we are further reminded of Mimi Sheller's argument about mobility as a driver of climate change.43 After relying on sugar farming, the type of backbreaking labor that underlies the complexity of the black sweating body, Barbados's economy now centers on tourism, but the sweating continues. Now, however, sweating is driven by climate change, to which Caribbean islands are particularly vulnerable. On Barbados, it erodes land on the coasts, alters rainy seasons, and creates more frequent and stronger hurricanes.
Body Lava, however, is indifferent to these aspects of Caribbean life. While it alludes to the Caribbean, Body Lava is marketed to appeal to those who are only transiently there—Body Lava, the copy reads, provides “that post-vacay glow.”44 To describe someone as glowing implies that we are seeing the skin as youthful—that it is elastic, dewy, and slightly shiny. Most often, glow is used to describe radiance, the idea being that happiness or spiritual balance emanates from within. Notably, glow is feminized—it suggests a level of exertion that does not belong to the category of labor. In relation to sweat, we might imagine glow as its precursor, when moisture resides on the skin but has not been coalesced into droplets or dampness. That glow is a euphemism for sweat offers an echo of its status as a cosmetic, which activates the connotations of sweat without the intimate possibilities sweating. Cosmetically produced glow in the form of highlighters or blush is designed to add shine to check bones, tips of noses, foreheads, eyelids. This not only suggests that skin is healthy but also signals health by amplifying its sheen—the way sweat might reflect. This shine is purchasable, granting the aura of sweat yet another point of attachment to commodification.
However, in the face of climate change this superficial allusion to sweat reveals another key aspect of sweating's intimacies: thermoregulation. Sweating is a reactive process—we sweat to be more comfortable in our surroundings; in other words, sweat acclimatizes us. Sweating is also a by-product of breathing, which itself is a step in the metabolic process of respiration. Breathing brings oxygen into the body, where it ends up producing energy, carbon dioxide, and water (sweat). Although respiration occurs at the cellular level, it offers insight into thinking about the importance of sweat's regulatory function by linking it to our requirement to breathe. Sweating, like breathing, is a sign not only of work but also of living itself. In a talk on Frantz Fanon and breath, Achille Mbembe argues that Fanon sought to help others breathe as a form of care. 45 By drawing attention to Fanon's fight to increase access to breath, Mbembe inadvertently highlights the ways that breathing (and sweating) offers the privileges of adaptability. To be able to breath is to be able to modulate how one brings the external in and sends the internal out.
However, this embodied responsiveness exists in tension with the disciplinary norms of the modernized body.46 Some early justifications for colonization were based on a form of environmental determinism which argues that warmer climates produced less moral and less intelligent behavior, thereby necessitating the intervention of those from temperate climates. Later theories argued that these behaviors and differing abilities to function in the climate were signs of immutable racial difference.47 This overlay of discourses on imperialism, health, race, and environment often coalesced into a naturalization of the racialized laboring classes in colonial landscapes with arguments about fitness for labor being grafted onto the ability to tolerate the heat, marked especially by the body's ability to sweat. Employing the reverse logic also became important, in that sweat and its associate smells became a descriptor of racial difference. We see this particularly in William Tullett's discussion of the idea of “black odor”: “It was this central role of sweat in identity that, according to eighteenth-century physiologists and natural historians, allowed dogs to trace races or individuals. It was also, William Cruickshank and others believed, the cause of blackness and odour in ‘the skin of a negro.’”48 In this schema sweat becomes a marker of racial and class positions, especially as it is marked by its presumed relationship to odor. We can see contemporary echoes of this aversion to sweat enfolded into Body Lava's emphasis on glow and even the fact that one can appear almost sweaty without the effort or discomfort.
Lack of sweating was taken as a sign of superiority, signifying the elevation of an enclosed body rather than a porous one, a distinction that overlaps neatly onto other forms of disciplining bodies and behaviors, one of whose most pernicious forms, as Sylvia Wynter has argued, was the colonial production of the idea of “Man.”49 While Wynter dwells most extensively on the different genres of the human produced, embedded in this argument is also a severing of people from place, which results in a discourse of the environmental (background) rather than understanding the depth of connection between living and nonliving entities and processes held in proximity. This separation prevents us from seeing how sweating is part of a process of the dispersal of selfhood—each saline droplet of “waste” is incorporated into the world at large—even in a cycle of nourishment or breathing. We are all constantly engaged in processes of dis- and reintegration.
While forms of coloniality would disavow the importance of sweating because of its racialized associations, climate change complicates that calculus. Mbembe, for example, also speaks directly about the destruction of ecosystems due to industrialization and looks toward reembedding humans into the larger category of Earth-based life that relies on oxygen (and therefore breathing) to survive: “With the increasing emission of greenhouse gases, the atmospheric concentration of ultra-fine dust, toxic emissions, invisible substances, tiny granules and all sorts of particulate matter, soon there will be more carbon and nitrous dioxide in the atmosphere than oxygen. Now is the time to expand our freedoms by instituting a universal right to breathe.”50 In describing the decrease in atmospheric oxygen as antagonistic toward living, Mbembe asks us to consider not only beings who need oxygen to breathe (and perhaps sweat) but also the balance of ecosystems. Higher amounts of carbon dioxide trap heat closer to Earth's surface and exacerbate extreme weather, including hotter temperatures and more hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and torrential rains. Deforestation, produced by industrialization and climate change, further exacerbates these effects because fewer plants are available to perform photosynthesis, the mechanism that plants (and other entities with chloroplasts, e.g., some fungi and algae) use to transform energy from the sun and carbon dioxide into glucose and oxygen. By drawing our attention to the fact that breathing requires both photosynthesis and respiration, Mbembe underscores the webs of connection among beings. Although the increased heat and humidity produced by climate change incite more sweat, access to oxygen is actually decreasing, signaling our emplacement in a spiral of imbalance.
We exist, then, in a time of more sweat, and presumably more shine, but Body Lava does not and cannot address the physiological adjustments required for a climate that is getting hotter and more unpredictable. Likewise, in its focus on self-commodification, Body Lava also misses the larger economic picture. That is, it does not address the relationship between climate change and the cycles of international debt in which Barbados is entrenched because climate-related disasters wreak havoc on local communities by destroying housing and other forms of infrastructure, forcing the government to borrow money to rebuild with the demands for fiscal austerity—preventing more governmental spending on infrastructure—in addition to the knowledge that these new structures are vulnerable as well. The extractive design of this cycle of debt is partially why Macarena Gómez-Barris uses the term colonial Anthropocene to emphasize the expansive and durational destruction wrought forth by colonialism. This term highlights the continuations between colonial forms of domination, climate change, and contemporary financial relations of dependence.51 While Mia Motley, the prime minister of Barbados, works to force banks from wealthier nations to be accountable for the damage that their nations have produced, sweat endures as an undercurrent to these geopolitical discrepancies, speaking to all that cannot be packaged as shine.52
Special thanks to Jayna Brown, Vanessa Agard-Jones, and Aimee Cox for the conversations on Black feminist ecologies, which provided the origin point for this essay; Jayna Brown for providing the nudge for completing it; the anonymous readers for very insightful comments; and Ben Krusling, who helped finalize the manuscript.
This reflective aspect of melanin offers a partial explanation for why body builders darken their skin and apply oil before competitions. Strong, “Language of Bodybuilding.”
Klotz, “‘Your Sound Is like Your Sweat,’” 37.
Alexander again: “Black bodies the economic pivot of slave-plantation economy, were sexualized. Black women's bodies evidenced an unruly sexuality, untamed and wild. Black male sexuality was to be feared as the hypersexualized stalker. These dominant constructions worked to erase indigenous (Lucayan, Carib and Arawak) sexualities. Indentured Indian femininity (in Trinidad and Tobago) was formulated as dread and desire, mysteriously wanton, inviting death and destruction, although it could also be domesticated. Indian manliness was unrestrained, violent and androgynous, the latter construction draws from Britain's colonial experience in India. Free coloured women, who outnumbered Black woman in the Bahamas, and their counterparts in Trinidad and Tobago who were believed anxious to ‘acquired property and wealth by inheriting land for the natural white fathers,’ were also sexualized, but positioned as potential mates. Even with these differences in the construction of ‘native’ sexualities, however, colonized sexualities were essentially subordinated sexualities” (“Not Just (Any) Body,” 12).
Fenty Beauty, “Body Lava.”
Quoted in Cruickshank, Experiments, 92–95.