Sick Woman Theory is an insistence that most modes of political protest are internalized, lived, embodied, suffering, and no doubt invisible. Sick Woman Theory redefines existence in a body as something that is primarily and always vulnerable, following from Judith Butler’s work on precarity and resistance. Because the premise insists that a body is defined by its vulnerability, not temporarily affected by it, the implication is that it is continuously reliant on infrastructures of support in order to endure, and so we need to re-shape the world around this fact. Sick Woman Theory maintains that the body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression – particularly our current regime of neoliberal, white-supremacist, imperial-capitalist, cis-hetero-patriarchy. It is that all of our bodies and minds carry the historical trauma of this, that it is the world itself
that is making and keeping us sick.
To take the term “woman” as the subject-position of this work is a strategic, all-encompassing embrace and dedication to the particular, rather than the universal. Though the identity of “woman” has erased and excluded many (especially women of color and trans and genderfluid people), I choose to use it because it still represents the un-cared for, the secondary, the oppressed, the non-, the un-, the less-than. The problematics of this term will always require critique, and I hope that Sick Woman Theory can help undo those in its own way. But more than anything, I’m inspired to use the word “woman” because I saw this year how it can still be radical to be a woman in the 21st century. I use it to honor a dear friend of mine who came out as genderfluid last year. For her, what mattered the most was to be able to call herself a “woman,” to use the pronouns “she/her.” She didn’t want surgery or hormones; she loved her body and her big dick and didn’t want to change it – she only wanted the word. That the word itself can be an empowerment is the spirit in which Sick Woman Theory is named.
The Sick Woman is an identity and body that can belong to anyone denied the privileged existence – or the cruelly optimistic promise
of such an existence – of the white, straight, healthy, neurotypical, upper and middle-class, cis- and able-bodied man who makes his home in a wealthy country, has never not had health insurance, and whose importance to society is everywhere recognized and made explicit by that society; whose importance and care dominates
that society, at the expense of everyone else.
The Sick Woman is anyone who does not have this guarantee of care.
The Sick Woman is told that, to this society, her care, even her survival, does not matter.
The Sick Woman is all of the “dysfunctional,” “dangerous” and “in danger,” “badly behaved,” “crazy,” “incurable,” “traumatized,” “disordered,” “diseased,” “chronic,” “uninsurable,” “wretched,” “undesirable” and altogether “dysfunctional” bodies belonging to women, people of color, poor, ill, neuro-atypical, differently abled, queer, trans, and genderfluid people, who have been historically pathologized, hospitalized, institutionalized, brutalized, rendered “unmanageable,” and therefore made culturally illegitimate and politically invisible.
The Sick Woman is a black trans woman having panic attacks while using a public restroom, in fear of the violence awaiting her.
The Sick Woman is the child of parents whose indigenous histories have been erased, who suffers from the trauma of generations of colonization and violence.
The Sick Woman is a homeless person, especially one with any kind of disease and no access to treatment, and whose only access to mental-health care is a 72-hour hold in the county hospital.
The Sick Woman is a mentally ill black woman whose family called the police for help because she was suffering an episode, and who was murdered in police custody, and whose story was denied by everyone operating under white supremacy. Her name is Tanesha Anderson
The Sick Woman is a 50-year-old gay man who was raped as a teenager and has remained silent and shamed, believing that men can’t be raped.
The Sick Woman is a disabled person who couldn’t go to the lecture on disability rights because it was held in a venue without accessibility.
The Sick Woman is a white woman with chronic illness rooted in sexual trauma who must take painkillers in order to get out of bed.
The Sick Woman is a straight man with depression who’s been medicated (managed) since early adolescence and now struggles to work the 60 hours per week that his job demands.
The Sick Woman is someone diagnosed with a chronic illness, whose family and friends continually tell them they should exercise more.
The Sick Woman is a queer woman of color whose activism, intellect, rage, and depression are seen by white society as unlikeable attributes of her personality.
The Sick Woman is a black man killed in police custody, and officially said to have severed his own spine. His name is Freddie Gray
The Sick Woman is a veteran suffering from PTSD on the months-long waiting list to see a doctor at the VA.
The Sick Woman is a single mother, illegally emigrated to the “land of the free,” shuffling between three jobs in order to feed her family, and finding it harder and harder to breathe.
The Sick Woman is the refugee.
The Sick Woman is the abused child.
The Sick Woman is the person with autism whom the world is trying to “cure.”
The Sick Woman is the starving.
The Sick Woman is the dying.
And, crucially: The Sick Woman is who capitalism needs to perpetuate itself.
Because to stay alive, capitalism cannot be responsible for our care – its logic of exploitation requires that some of us die.
“Sickness” as we speak of it today is a capitalist construct, as is its perceived binary opposite, “wellness.” The “well” person is the person well enough to go to work. The “sick” person is the one who can’t. What is so destructive about conceiving of wellness as the default, as the standard mode of existence, is that it invents illness as temporary
. When being sick is an abhorrence to the norm, it allows us to conceive of care and support in the same way.
Care, in this configuration, is only required sometimes. When sickness is temporary, care is not normal.
Here’s an exercise: go to the mirror, look yourself in the face, and say out loud: “To take care of you is not normal. I can only do it temporarily.”
Saying this to yourself will merely be an echo of what the world repeats all the time.