Perhaps, you have found yourself in the smoking area of a bum club, a fading Drag Queen twirling on a two-foot stage, the sporadic refractions of racked lights, a vague reassurance on dubious floors. Conversation strikes, Punk, somehow invoked – where does your mind trail? Towards images of slicked-back hair, extraordinary make-up, and heavy, angsty beats? My Chemical Romance, Panic At The Disco, Green Day? Does someone make the age-old claim that something isn’t real Punk? Of course, they do.
Materially, Punk is all these things – a judgement, an aesthetic, an artistic genre, a political, cultural and social movement. At its crux, however, Punk is rebellion, a departure from norms, from prescriptive ways of being. It is a refusal to assimilate, request acceptance and mediate the terms.
As a magazine championing bisexual identity, Unicorn did not wish to regurgitate hegemonic Punk – that reifiying the manifest of ideals as gatekeepers. Akin to queerness – radical, not corporate – Punk breathes and lives, yet it has frequently found itself iconised, placed upon an unheralded altar.
With this issue, we wished to explore Punk’s proclivities, diversions, and spectres, those lost in the in-between, that which is perhaps the most Punk of all. To advocate for our perspective, I subvert the late bell hooks’ for a moment and tout for consideration of Punk, not as “being about [how you dress, or what music you listen to], that can be a dimension of it, but [punk] as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”
And so, when choosing a Cover Star for this issue, Essie Dennis, an activist and writer wholly embodying this latent hooksian punkness, was a natural elect.
. . .
Queer Body Power: Finding Your Body Positivity, Dennis’ debut work of nonfiction, reveals an author acquainted with the hybridity of actuality. Transcending genre, veering between memoir, cultural criticism and an essay collection, Dennis’ debut takes the body as not merely a physical vessel for experience but a site of cultural and political discourse.
“There was a relief in writing this book,” Dennis, a British-born influencer, activist and writer, relays, ”You don’t always get the chance in your life to sit down and record what has happened to you.” Citing the first lockdown as allowing the embodiment of their long-hidden goal of being a writer, they reflect, “I always kept this dream close to my chest. It felt like too fragile a goal to tell other people. I did not want to be disheartened by negative opinions. I spent a lot of time waiting for the right book to form in my head, and finally, it did.
Initiating with the personal before winnowing the cultural backwood of systemic community issues, Queer Body Power strivingly relays and contextualises experiences of eating disorders, chronic illness, childhood sexualisation, toxic later-life relationships, homelessness and gender dysphoria. The trajectory of Dennis’ story is one in which many of us will hear echoes of our own. Unable to verbalise our lived emotions and experiences, we turn to complete reign over the available spheres, the closest often being – our bodies.
Dennis grew up working-class, in a Greek-British family, an environment where food nourished not only the body but also – culture and memory. With fondness, Dennis recalls traditional Greek Delicacies – sweet melomakarona, tsoureki at Easter, to benchmarks of Britishness such as jam-butties and a cup of tea after school. “One bite of comfort food can take you back to moments you might have forgotten or to the memories of people who are long gone.” – Dennis writes.
Parallel to such warm recollections, however, exists the reality that as such formative memories were taking shape, the roots of Dennis’ disordered eating were waxing similarly turgid foundations. As early as seven years old, Dennis found themselves ostracised by their peers, confused by the fat on their body, petrified of changing rooms and begging doctors to put them on a diet. Dennis felt shame, a sense of non-belonging in her body, a conviction only exacerbated by cultural messaging and the proliferation of peers, family, and media.
Alongside the candour characteristic of Dennis’ handling of challenging themes throughout the book, personal and of their peers – the book includes testimony from public figures such as Yasmin Benoit, Jackson King and R.K. Russell – there is, throughout Dennis’ writing, a subtext of care. There is the reassurance that, if any time this text was too difficult for us, too triggering – or elsewise – we should put it down and return not when, but if we are ready.
We are relaxed into the text from the offset, secure that we will not be curveballed. Other than, of course, those gentle moments when Essie catches us, weaving personal and collective history, past and present, the healed, mourned, recovering, with just the right placed question, and – we consent to the hug of an elder as epiphany strikes – warm and necessary, painful in its seldomness.
. . .
Body Positivity, underscoring the thesis of Queer Body Power and Dennis’ approach to activism, the internet and life, refers to the movement liberating bodies from oppression and marginalisation. It can refer to size alone, and often – considering the movement’s optical whiteness – is.
Dennis, however, strives to address the complex marginalisation of bodies wholly; marrying Queer Body Power with the pioneering Body Positivity movement – the Fat Acceptance Movement, originating in New York in the late 1960s.
Queer Body Power acknowledges bodily discrimination as a systemic issue affected by identity markers; race, gender and sexuality. Advocating for Body Positivity as not a feeling of “intense affection” for your body at all times, Dennis holds Body Positivity as a galvanised driving against the oppression of those excluded and endangered by privilege markers of white thin, able, heterosexuality.
Dennis’ Instagram Page, initially kept as a digital journal motivating and tracking their eating disorder recovery, discovered cyber prominence through this association with the Body Positivity movement. For Essie, however, they reflect that influencer-status was never the ultimatum. They acknowledge, however, that it has brought many opportunities their way. About this reality – Essie does not presently feel a need to justify themselves – as they used to. “You don’t just become well-known online for no reason; people usually like you, your message and the creativity you put out there. I wanted to write a book so that there was something tangible in the world that people could have from me because who knows what will happen with social media?”
Despite being a nonfiction writer, Dennis, in her reading tastes, does not lean toward likeness. “What I read and what I write are completely different. I took a lot of inspiration from my own social media and tried to relax into writing the way I do there. I tried to make it feel like an older sibling sitting down with you, to talk out all the queer shit you have been repressing.”
This intention may move towards explaining their unique style and palpably media-influenced voice with excerpts of Queer Body Power periodically reading like an idyll of how social media and communication could be. With facility, Dennis demonstrates how we may write about issues that do not directly affect us by centering the experiences of others, how we may restructure a canon and have fun doing it.
. . .
Demonstrating a concern conversant with contemporaries such as Shon Faye, Shiri Eisner and Judith Butler, Dennis tackles one of the issues most to the fore of our community, the systemic discrimination and erasure of the trans community.
In its second wave, the Body Positivity movement digitised, and with its reification by many thin, white, able individuals – it veered from its genesis. Mainstream media recognised an opportunity to engage without wholly disputing their discriminatory values and latched.
Whether emphasis on trans liberation may be considered a third wave, or a continuation of the second, springs semantic, trans centrality to this movement – as Essie rightly highlights – is not.
Dennis recalls the testified story of Jackson King, a young, black, trans man. Relaying his transition story, King reflects,
“It’s likely I will be forced to undergo a restrictive diet and exercise regime in order to qualify for gender affirming surgery. This is very common in trans healthcare and isn’t talked about enough. Fat trans people are often denied surgeries unless they lose a certain amount of weight.”
By decree of the healthcare system, King’s weight determines his capacity to gain access to what most would perceive to be his civil liberty: personal autonomy over his body. Dennis webs this with her story, reflecting that while for Jackson, it is transphobia and healthcare interlocking, for her, it was ableism and healthcare which intertwined.
Being denied the right to live in a body that affirms us, in which we feel ourselves, is a human right. I struggle to relay why another’s gender identity is nobody’s concern to influence than their own. Dennis, in a similar vein, when I enquired on how she felt about literature that purveys as though trans people do not exist. They commented, “I’m certainly interested in how transphobes attempt to reconcile their morality with harming trans people.”
Queer Body Power is not a work lingering in the past, it is one honouring that which Dennis and many of their peers have passed through, recognising growth and honouring their former self. Throughout, Dennis, at their heaviest, healthiest and happiest, offers advice, becoming the elder and the figure they did not have, refraining from censure, they realign our contexts, encourage exploration and perhaps most significantly, they centre the voices of those more marginalised than them.
. . .
Dennis, who is genderfluid, expresses an adamance anent fashion’s capacity to bring us queer joy, gender euphoria and a means of outward expression necessary in striving towards internal grasping. Scrolling through Dennis’ social media, I see the joy fashion brings them. From high-femme to punk masc, there is nothing as dull as trendiness, no return of the Y2K lowrise pants ocular, rarely a wide-leg jean – or a jean of any kind. Instead, it is wholly Essie – there are flowing dresses, corsets over shirts, dopamine offering materials – from satin scoop necks to gingham, tulle tops and boxy blazers. There is a James Dean meets Martha Woertman-like masculinity and, as they put it themselves, a “bubblegum princess Barbie” femininity. There are no attempts to be refined or acceptable, but there is a will to be free.
Their active following appears to be a profit of authenticity. Flooding Dennis’ feed is moments of ecstasy, with masculine women dancing in clubs, loosened of expectation, gorgeous meals, candid body shots with their book, its swirling pinks and ambers, a body, fed, loved, living.
With technology, how we relate to the world, relationships, and ourselves – is different, a departure that does not need to be negative but may be sensual, joyful, and empirical. Dennis highlights that benefiting from social media requires a significant commitment, an energetic commitment that, like anything we may boon from, appeals to criticality.
They reflect on times when they would alter their features to the point that friends, seeing their pictures online, would not recognise them. Instead of using Photoshop for creativity, they would use it for self-erasure – as many notable culture-shapers still do. Nowadays, they are honest online, but they – like all, continue to learn.
Their goal now is to share more of their masculine side online. Evoking a shirt thrifted in a local charity shop, they recalled, “I wore it with my binder just today and got this little jolt of euphoria. My feminine side is incredibly visible online, but I am trying to show more of my masculine side.”
In one of the only acts of censuring this book contains, one I wholly support, they condemn doom-scrolling – the act of devoting inordinate periods online to absorbing negativity. Emphatically, Dennis highlights that the advance of technology can shape our minds, as does therapy, the literature we read, and the people we surround ourselves with — technology, and how it has become near one with us, is its ability to more insipidly, effortlessly weave itself with our agency. Not always active in their stories, unlike many creators’ ubiquitousness, I sense the health in Dennis’ relationship to social media – their boundaries with technology.
As we swell in our identities, we often, by happenstance, distance ourselves from the awkward young queerlings we once were. For many, self-realisation will not lead to immediate euphoria but often to years of silence and self-denial. For the burgeoning few, I think of a friend who grew up in Oakland, California, in a flagrantly variegated foster family, queerness can flourish. There may be genderqueer parents who share your experience, a wider community of non-normative identifying folk who do not censor but rather listen and embrace. Better than nothing is – I find myself included here – youth on the internet – a cyborg from the age of twelve, Omegle, Amino, WattPad, all became havens for my queerness. For some, however, I invoke my partner, there is time spent in pockets of the world where culture demands queerness does not, and may not, exist.
My experience of this work was not one not of revelation but returning, reminding that that our community requires not only our support and allyship but our accomplice – our radical, consistent protest.
Rolling through the trigger warnings with far too much arrogance, after reading the text once, I had no desire to open it again, to twirl through it with my highlighter and my sticky notes, my felt tips and my gel pens, to do what brings the softest parts of me the greatest, most secure, joy. I did not expect that many of the issues and the feelings in this text would be so raw for me, resisting intellectualisation and channelling into figurative, obedient prose.
I was triggered, in a creative lull, releasing trauma and stress cycles. I had worked hard to heal from and then, perhaps too promptly, forget. In this quiescence, I lost myself – in memories of my once languageless version of self, the distant, once destructive rage of my body as she ached to be allayed and cared for, the undoing frustration of spiralling crushes, the sepulchral tears of many moonless adolescent nights, fagged grieving the idea of love without shame. I grieved her, once again, this strange spectre, that doesn’t quite leave, yet could never possibly stay.
With effort and the love of my partner and community, I return, to the present of my life, a very different, queer, reality. Anchored, I rigged myself up, I dove back in – to my Queer Body Power journey.
They / She | Instagram
Essie Dennis was interviewed by Maedbh Pierce | Cover art by Harry Thory