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Jessie Opoien: Lizzo's magic let us all shine for a night — especially one twerking UW-Madison assistant professor

Jessie Opoien: Lizzo's magic let us all shine for a night — especially one twerking UW-Madison assistant professor

Lizzo at Sylvee (copy)

Lizzo

“If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine.”

When Lizzo sang it, she meant it.

The 31-year-old musician — real name Melissa Jefferson — is having a long overdue moment. Her kiss-off to bad men, “Truth Hurts,” is the longest-running Billboard Top 100 No. 1 song for a solo female rap artist. Her major-label debut, “‘Cuz I Love You,” was released this spring to widespread acclaim. She’s feeling herself, and the rest of the world is right there with her.

For one magical night last week, she shared that moment with Madison. And in that moment, we all got to shine — but perhaps no one more than Sami Schalk, an assistant professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If you were at the show, you might know Schalk better as the woman who got to #TwerkWithLizzo — and absolutely killed it.

“It feels like this burst of amazing positive energy,” Schalk told me the morning after the show, in a world that “wants people of color and women and fat folks and disabled folks to hide our bodies and be ashamed of our bodies instead of just experiencing joy and pleasure in who we are.”

The thing you should know about Lizzo, if you don’t, is that she is a queen (and she doesn’t need a crown to know it).

The other thing you should know about Lizzo, if you don’t, is that she inspires women to love ourselves. Not just to accept ourselves, not just to reject societal pressures, but to really, truly get to know and love ourselves for who we are — whether we are “thicc bitches” or just embracing our inner thicc bitch, as she encouraged us all to do during Thursday’s sold-out show at The Sylvee.

“Lizzo means embracing who we are, as we are, in complicated and messy ways, and resisting all the systems of oppression that tell us that non-normative, non-idealized bodies are bad and wrong and should be hidden away,” Schalk said. “She resists the body shame that is out there for women, for fat women, for black women. For so many of us she just resists it, and she’s been doing it for so long.”

Lizzo’s message resonated deeply with the predominantly female crowd, most of whom spent the entire night singing Lizzo’s words to each other, back at the artist and to ourselves — even, as a lead-in to “Juice,” chanting “ya-ya-ee” in unison long before the backup music kicked into accompany the refrain. There’s a reason more than one attendee described the experience as “going to church.”

Lizzo’s message goes beyond “who you are is OK.” Her message is, “who you are is beautiful, and you deserve to celebrate and love yourself.”

Or, as she often tells her audiences and herself: “"I love you ... You are beautiful ... And you can do anything."

"It works. It works,” Lizzo said about her affirmations during a recent CBS Sunday Morning interview. “Because talking bad to yourself works. It's the antidote to, 'So stupid.' It's like, 'No, you deserve this. You're intelligent.' Words are so powerful."

Lizzo sings (and raps, and dances, and plays the flute) about love, lust, heartbreak, moving on, self-confidence and female empowerment. And, my god, she twerks.

Enter Schalk, whose research focuses on disability, race and gender in contemporary American literature and culture — and who, like so many of us, listens to Lizzo whenever she needs a confidence boost.

“I love what she embodies so much,” she told me. “I am also a fat black woman. I’m an assistant professor at the university right now and my book came out last year, I’m going up for tenure. In all these ways in the past year I’ve been becoming my highest and best self and then I see Lizzo out in the world doing this on a massive level … She inspires me … I’ve been working really hard as a fat, black, queer person to love my body for years, and Lizzo is modeling this at a level that is really incredible.”

Schalk has written before about how our identities influence the ways we move through the world, and it’s impossible to think about the Lizzo show without thinking about that.

“When you have privilege you tend to be allotted more space and this impacts your awareness of how much space you take up. If you’ve typically been given as much space as you want, you tend to behave as if it’s always OK for you to take up as much space as you want,” Schalk wrote for Our Lives earlier this year.

As a cisgender, white woman, I have benefited from this — although not as much as cisgender, white men do. As a queer, black woman, Schalk has experienced the opposite.

“There are so many times in this city where I feel like I am looked at askew for taking up the space that I take up,” she told me, adding that those reactions are often softened — to her dismay — when people find out she’s a UW-Madison professor.

She doesn’t want her profession or her education or the lightness of her skin to be the reasons people become comfortable with the space she takes up in the world. And she actively rejects the notion that her professional accomplishments are somehow diminished by what she does in her personal life — even, or especially, shaking her ass in front of 2,500 people in downtown Madison.

“I think all fat folks and black folks and queer folks in this city should be able to feel safe enough to be in the world, show off their bodies, dance in the way they want to dance,” she told me. “And lately, I’ve decided that I’m going to do it no matter what and just see what happens … I’m not going to make myself smaller, make myself quieter, make myself into something I’m not.”

Schalk has always loved to dance, but about a year ago, she took a “twerkshop” at Dance Life studio in Madison, where she discovered that “this is what my body is supposed to do.” On Oct. 1 — about a week before the show — she started tweeting about her dreams of twerking with Lizzo. The day before the show, she shared her final effort: a video of herself dancing in a cape she made emblazoned with the “Truth Hurts” lyrics, “100% that bitch.”

It worked. About halfway through the show, a member of Lizzo’s team found Schalk in the crowd and brought her onstage. And together, they twerked, bringing joy to all who were there to witness it.

“We’re just giving each other happiness and joy by being joyful ourselves,” Schalk said. “In a moment where it feels like everything’s going to shit and the world is awful — and the world is awful — it is just a moment of solace from the bullshit around us.”

I, for one, am grateful for it.

Jessie Opoien is opinion editor of The Capital Times. jopoien@madison.com and @jessieopie

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.

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