Aesthetic as Activism: Shay Akil

by Nia Hampton

Shay Akil

In the late 60’s, a widely used slogan in the feminist movement was, “the personal is political.” And this past year, we’ve seen an overall increase in political awareness around the world. Everyday our favorite brands are vocalizing their support for a certain cause. Our favorite fashion institutions are taking a stand against injustice. We here at All the Pretty Birds are getting in on what we hope is more than just a trend. For a long time, Aesthetic was seen as something frivolous or only necessary in the world of art. But as the study of identity politics gains more traction, we’re realizing, you actually ARE what you wear. I’ve decided to talk to some very powerful people in their own right.

Activists who use their mediums of art to fight for their personal cause, and find out not only what’s in their closet, but why?
I know Shay Akil through Twitter and was always impressed by their opinions on subjects I thought I knew all about. Writer at, Shay was featured in’s “15 Trans Folks of Color you should follow on Twitter” in 2016. I’m so excited for them to share how their aesthetic can be activism.

What does aesthetic mean to you?

When I think of the work “aesthetic”, I think of ‘a look’, appreciation of beauty but also about expression, the basic components of who you are that shape how you move through the world. So for instance, when I take this & think about my own aesthetic, I think of some of my principles and characteristics that shape how I move in the world, I can consider then how that influences my stylistic choices.

What looks are you going for right now?

One of the biggest things for me was engaging in one of the simplest acts of self-determination through wearing whatever the fuck it is that I want to wear, whatever expressed me. A friend and I have cracked jokes about me looking like the main character Marcus from Watch Dogs. I wear comic book t-shirts and shirts with some of my favorite political statements. My look is quite reflective of me, I’m usually among the nerdiest in the group, & you’ll very rarely see me without a book bag, my over the ear headphones, & a book in hand.

What does activism mean to you?

Activism is generally understood as activities directed at influencing social, political, and economic structure in a society. But activism also has another meaning, which lends itself to a culture, to a look, the discussion of engagements; in particular activities we have come to associate with specific histories, language, and ideologies. Ultimately, I’ve strayed away from the use of the word, especially due to it being generally misunderstood as the result of protests, rallies, marches, and chants. It’s more than that. Everyday we to some extend have a choice to perpetuate the unhealthy and hegemonic relations that exist in our society. I commit myself to doing the work of making better choices each day, to choose people over profits or protocols. Sometimes that looks like sharing a meal with community members, sometimes that’s taking out the time to design learning tools to share online, sometimes its organizing a teach in, sometimes its organizing resources for those in need, but it’s always found in interventions that are made every single day. If we look for the opportunity to better take care of one another, to build relationships not based on profit or domination then a better world becomes a lot more accessible, its then a do-able project.

What are some internal/external changes you’d like to see in life this year? What changes are you making personally and what changes would you like to see in the world?

The internal changes that I want to see this year fall in line with my general desire as time passes: that I learn, grow, and make better decisions that don’t perpetuate systematic harm. I want to be able to heal, so I can enjoy my life, those I love, and continue to do the work that I do (& aspiring to uselessness, or in other words I hope that one day this work is not needed). Externally, I think those internal changes, as does the work of self-reflexivity, I would like to hope that materializes in me in doing more writing, learning to not hide myself and bury my voice in my work. Recently, I’ve made some personal changes that are helping me be more consciously aware of when I’m not doing what’s necessary for myself. This has also made it easier for me to understand and tend to the relationships that I have with others in my life.

The changes I would like to see in the world are ones that bring us to question our place in the world (in the sense of asking what and how, not necessarily why) so that we can better ask what our role has been in society up to now and so that we can better understand what role we can choose to play in the future. Effective action is possible when we understand what we are facing and how it works (is generated, achieves its end, etc.). And more than anything else, I wish that we would learn to DO the thing that we wish to see in the world. Scientific socialism is not just some grand utopic trope, it is something that should inform and guide everyday practice. What are we doing everyday? If the capitalist aims to generate profit through exploitation of resources, land, and human labor; then what does socialism DO? It can give metro card swipes to teenagers to keep cops from chasing after them; it could share a meal with different community members once a month; it speaks up in defense of the right to self-determination that every human being has; it does not see the humanity of any person as solely a means to an end. So at the simplest scale; which can in many ways be seen as the grandest scale; I wish to see more imagination in the world, that we come to learn how to meet the basic needs and legitimate expectations of one another and we truly come to believe and act like we believe that the world doesn’t have to be this way and collectively DO something about it, every single day.

What’s your makeup/haircare/skincare/self-care ritual looking like?

I’m simple, I don’t have too much of a hair care routine since I have a low cut, I have natural oils that I use for my hair & beard.  My skincare routine mainly includes all natural body butters & making sure I drink enough water.  My self-care routine mainly includes reading books I want to read (versus what I have to read for classes), playing video games (I have yet to finish Mass Effect Andromeda) or working out.  I go to school in central Illinois so there isn’t much out here to do besides work.

What are your Muses/Inspiration at the moment?

This contemporary moment has been particularly jarring for a lot of people.  You can feel the hopelessness, its almost like a tightness, a kind of tension.  The inspirations that I have found time and time again have been in the people who I see everyday who make sure that general statements of hopelessness aren’t actually all that accurate.  People, who when I want to give up they remind me why that isn’t really a viable option and that though I’m tired, I can’t bring myself to do so.  My best friends, chosen family, they are my inspirations everyday.  They challenge me to do better, they calm me down when I’m in a rage, and coach me through difficult moments, as I do for them.  Right now, at this moment, I’m trying to pay close attention to the beautiful people and things I have in my life.

What creative projects are you working on right now?

At the moment I’m working on finishing designing a scientific ethics statement and reading guide for scientists interested in learning how to do grassroots oriented work. I’m also looking to invest some of my time in finishing up the “Critical Thinking” series and the “Decolonizing Queer Masculinities” series posts on my website.

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