Cooties is a sound portrait series by Brandi Fullwood

This series explores the myths and perceptions put onto the body. There are a lot of ideas to cover and each episodes captures the story of individuals that embrace or reject the norms of race, sex, gender, religion, class, and more!

So, what exactly are cooties?

As of late, “Cooties” is a school yard quip that suggests physical interaction can infest you with a horrible, socially ostracizing bug, and disease. The thought is that children can pass cooties to one another and that its scary, gross, or bad to work together because of gender differences.

The school yard quip didn’t just fall into the lap of children, in fact, it has a long history associated with marginalizing bodies that are coded as other or different. It isn’t exactly a make-believe bug so much as a continuation of discrimination based on rumors, assumptions, and prejudice.

In the aftermath of World War I the United States admitted over 14.2 million immigrants. Earlier reports of the war led many to assume that anyone from a war torn country or immigrating to the U.S. at the time had cooties. Sine the barracks during WWI were recorded as so filthy, uninhabitable, and filled with such pervasive cooties, the mere idea of them jumped into our lexicon.

South Bend News-Times, July 13, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

With no real insight into the origin, many assumed that new immigrant groups brought the bugs in and that they were not a result of poor sanitation and disregard of city life.

Nevertheless, the rumor stuck and expanded.

Before it would become a school yard remark, ‘cootie’ brought together ideas of filth and infestation with stigmas in race, national status, class, and eventually sexuality.

Beyond the actual sanitation problem in larger cities, cooties became a way to validate several perceptions of the body — many of them prejudice. What cooties ‘are’ is a loaded question because despite losing its original meaning and use, it reflects the way many of us come to understand one another….through assumptions.

Outside the school-yard, conversations around who has “cooties” has led to swimming pool, political, and economic segregation. It seems as though the idea of ‘cooties’ is put onto people we don’t understand or can’t figure out. They’re different and so, they must be bad, filthy, gross, and avoidable.

Whether we say someone has cooties or not isn’t exactly the point. In so few words and instead with actions or policy, cooties has continued as a practice of discrimination.

The cute washing of xenophobia and prejudice against embodied identity is in a word as marketed and catchy as cooties. However, this sound portrait series is a collection of conversations addressing just that! These are real stories of identity, interest, and even trauma that are very much connected and shaped by the idea of perception on the body.

Each episode captures a different person’s experience with misperceptions or “cooties” on their body and how they’ve dealt with it…or how others have. Thereafter, I build a soundscape under a story related to these misperceptions of the body covering broad topics of race, gender, sexuality, immigration status and more.