Thursday, 19 February 2009

What About the Body, Leo?

It's a real treat, when reading Judith Butler's books, to encounter her rare, telling autobiographical asides. One of my favorites is in the Preface to Bodies That Matter. She describes being repeatedly asked, "What about the materiality of the body, Judy?" and reflects: "I took it the addition of 'Judy' was an effort to dislodge me from the more formal 'Judith' and to recall me to a bodily life that could not be theorized away. There was a certain exasperation in the delivery of that final diminutive, a certain patronizing quality which (re)constituted me as an unruly child, one who needed to be brought to task, restored to that bodily being which is, after all, considered to be most real, most pressing, most undeniable. Perhaps this was an effort to recall me to an apparently evacuated femininity .... Or perhaps someone forgot to teach me 'the facts of life'? Was I lost to my own imaginary musings as that vital conversation took place? And if I persisted in the notion that bodies were in some way constructed, perhaps I really thought that words alone had the power to craft bodies from their own linguistic substance? Couldn't someone simply take me aside?" (pp. ix-x)

How can you not love her? Apparently evacuated femininity-- I haz it too. My Butler bromance smolders on.

I thought that writing that post on sexual freedom and autonomy would be a sort of summing up. I'd take the thoughts I'd been having about sex and bodily boundaries and childhood experiences and write them out in an essay for you to read and that would be that. Instead the act of writing and maybe more than that the act of putting that up on the blog has jarred something loose deep within me. Or several things perhaps.

And then Jess and Holden and Tongue-tied wrote very thoughtfully about breasts, and even though I was considering ditching this draft post entirely, I decided to go back to it and try to say something about where I am right now in my own complicated views on bodies in general and mine in particular.

You know that picture you look at and you can see a young woman with a hat or an old lady? (No? Check it out here.) My body is a little like that to me. Sometimes I look at it and think, oh, that's me. (I'm usually dressed when I think that, if it matters. I'm usually dressed when I look, full stop.) But once in a while I look at myself and think, yikes, it's the young woman! Where did she come from?

What I mean, in part, is that the mental map I have for my own body is really different from what I think it's 'supposed' to be, according to normal sex-gender identification. When I was sixteen or so I mostly stopped wearing bras. I was super skinny then so it didn't matter that much and it was just so much more comfortable. But in fact it was more than that. One hot day, I was just wearing a button down, loose, nothing underneath. And I was standing in my mom's kitchen, talking to her and FreedomGirl, and my nose was dripping, and I lifted up my shirttail to dry it off. I thought the looks of horror were for my appalling hygiene. But no: it turned out, of course, that I had flashed them. Because to me, those weren't Breasts under there, not in the capital-B belonging to a capital-G Girl way that would have warned me to keep them covered.

When I wrote that post I thought I was putting something away. But it turned out it was more like opening the big locked chest inside me marked "Your Body," and peeking tentatively inside, trying not to be overwhelmed by the gusts of musty sorrow and pain that rushed out.

I grew up with a very embodied view of gender. By which I mean, I got the impression that your gender was marked on your body in ways that were utterly, permanently insurmountable, starting with the obvious bits but extending far beyond that. One of my very early memories is being in the front yard with my mother and seeing a person walking on the far sidewalk. The person was wearing pants and a hat, and I didn't know if they were male and female. "Oh, you can always tell by the way they walk," my mother said. "That's definitely a woman." I wanted to rebel against it but it sounded like higher law: you will never walk like a man, no matter how hard you try. Your body will betray you. The examples could be multiplied but the moral was always the same.

And sometimes this creeps up in strange ways, at strange moments. We're having brilliant sex and a voice in my head says, you pathetic sod. You're a woman and all you're doing is smashing your woman parts up against the back of a plastic cylinder strapped to your womanly hips. Stupid, messed-up sex for a stupid, messed-up woman.

To understand the import of this, you need to understand that I have never thought of myself as a woman, not in my whole life. Even as a tiny kid I never truly believed I'd grow up to be a woman. It seemed like an unlikely hypothesis that adults would occasionally drag out with a shocking lack of propriety or realism. So you know, I have some sympathy with the idea of the body as mainly linguistically constructed. (Sorry, Sublime Femme.)

I don't hate my body. I feel pretty comfortable in it on many levels. Sitting here, typing this, a little stoned on whiskey, a little wordy from loneliness, in my boots and jeans and shirt and blazer, I feel fine. I like the look of my hands on the keyboard, the skin a little rough, the knuckles and ligaments prominent, the little faded Sharpie-drawn heart that was the stamp I got for being old enough to drink on Valentine's Day. I like the feeling of the muscles in my arm, the narrowness of my back and ass where they press against the chair, my legs jutting out and then together again at the ankles. It's all ok, it feels like the home for my soul that I've always known and I'm safe and comfortable within it. It just doesn't add up to woman for me, and when someone or something makes me think it does, everything changes.

What about the body? All my life I've thought to myself, don't even go there, don't open that door, don't touch that topic. It will hurt too much and there's nothing you can do about it anyway. And I thought I was writing a post that put the finishing touches on that approach and instead I blew the whole thing to pieces.


femmeismygender said...

Oh Lord - you butches just make my heart ache. Leo, I am very thankful you are here fimg x

LL Cool Joe said...

Excellent post as always, Leo. I'm repulsed by every aspect of my body, apart from my broad shoulders. Thank God for those otherwise I would have topped myself.

It pisses me off when people say things like "Oh you can tell it's a woman by..." You get to the stage where you are scared to talk or move incase you give away the fact you are biologically a woman. Or is that just me?

Holden said...

So much of this could have come from my own head but "It just doesn't add up to woman for me" is the phrase that really hits home.

I guess what we're trying to do is figure out what it does add up to. But whatever it is, I'm certain that it's good and right for us as individuals.

Leo MacCool said...

I'm thankful for you, too, FIMG.

Joey & Holden. Sometimes I think you guys can read my thoughts without me even typing them. Like, Joey, on topping yourself if you had narrow shoulders (like me btw!)--I actually cut a paragraph about the desire to kill or harm oneself, it was just too much for this post. But there you are already.

hurtado said...

Hi. I'm a lurker who's been reading your blog for a couple of months now and I thoroughly enjoying your writings.

This post made me decide to "show" myself, as I just had to tell you that the second-to-last paragraph of this post is one of the most beautifully honest things I've ever read.

Sorry, hope it's not too creepy to have a lurker come out... And, I hope you don't mind if I continue reading... :)

greg said...

Oh how I adore you, sweet & handsome, Leo.

I am also so very thankful that you're here. Who else could make me cry while smiling with just about every perfect line? You're amazing and I'm so happy to be a fan.

thissideofchanged said...

Very well-expressed and thoughtful. I learn so much from your honesty.

From the opposite side of the spectrum, it surprised me to relate to so much of this. I wonder and struggle and ponder on what I thought my adult body would and should look like, and how it turned out.

Thanks, Leo.

Jess said...


"It just doesn't add up to woman for me, and when someone or something makes me think it does, everything changes."

Sums it up right there.. doesn't it?


Sabertooth Screaming Lemur said...

...Wow. You sound like you needed a hug when you wrote this. Or maybe it's just that I felt I should give you one. (((Leo)))
This is beautiful, and sad, and you're awesome, okay?
Not that you needed me to tell you that.

Sublimefemme said...

I admit that "apparently evacuated femininity" is pretty good. And I'm happy that you don't hate your body (linguistically constructed or not) even if it's difficult to live inside it sometimes.