When I pose naked in front of my bedroom-mirror, resolving once again that I will never look like bodybuilder Lenda Murray, I tend to think that my breasts are the problem. I am size 36C. I am just not willing (or disciplined enough) to diet all my roundness away in order to show off the pecs that actually do exist underneath. I work out at the gym for lots of reasons, but one, definitely, is to gain more muscle. It’s a butch thing, sure. Yet, unfortunately I can’t get my muscles to bulk up in more butch – or is it manly? – ways. And within the limits of my laziness, I really do try. My muscles would look a lot more impressive if that womanly fat and these breasts would disappear. If I just worked harder. Or maybe it’s genetics, after all. The heavy leg presses and lots of lat pull downs just will not compensate for the distinctly womanly roundness of my hips and belly. For any or all of these reasons I just can’t work my body into the androgynous hyper muscular double-V that I admire so much in the bodies in the magazines which are delivered to my door.
Do I view my reflections realistically? What and how do I see (when ‘seeing’ is so heavily mediated)? How am I to view my body when desire and perception and interaction with others do not result in the same message, the same coding, the same re-view? I learn – through repetition and practice – to reassess and adjust my performance in order to become what I am supposed to have always been.
Hardly a day goes by that I leave my house and am not addressed at least once as “Sir” or taken to be a man in some other way. Yet, I rarely wear suits or a tie. “Don’t these people notice my breasts?” I ask myself. Often, when in my more terrified mode, I open my jacket and tighten my shirt, sticking out my breasts when I walk into the women’s bathroom, trying to preempt the usual confusion about who is in the wrong restroom this time. It rarely works and usually does not cast off the angry or confused glances, or the persistent stare. However, in the successful cases, when I don’t have to enter a verbal exchange, something (my breasts?) seems to provoke a shift from being perceived as man to being seen as a dyke. Thankfully, I guess, “dyke” is one kind of body that is allowed in the women’s bathroom, although suspiciously so and only upon thorough review (signaling that any transgressive behaviour will be observed). Viewed and re-viewed I continue to (want to) shape shift.
I admire and look at the big bulky boys in my gym and imagine how cool it would be to have a chest like that: massive shoulders, huge arms, and chiseled abs. Most of the women, especially the “cupcakes” as Marcia Ian labels them, aren’t so interesting to me as objects of identification, or objects of desire. However, I don’t really try to become a man. At the same time I definitely try not to look like a (hetero-normative) woman. And I succeed more often than I expect, it seems.
Not That Either
Despite the fact that I do not identify as transgender, it makes no sense to me to think that the confused sales person is mistaking me for a man … because addressing me as “Miss” or “Ma’am” would be just as wrong. Truth be told, when I am not terrified, I (kind of) enjoy interfering with how and what I am expected to “embody.” In some ways, I do like the confusion, the necessity for repeated glances. Granted, my pleasure in this regard (or is it jouissance?) must be viewed related to some of the privileges my body enjoys (Halberstam, Female Masculinity). For example, my skin is viewed as “white” and is part of the enormous safety my body also/nevertheless enjoys/demands in public in the particular culture I inhabit.
In terms of my gender and my body, what exactly do I try to do with my muscles, what do I intend to do when working out in the gym (where I continuously review progress or lack thereof in mirrors all around)? If it is the case that I try to approximate a strangely, but somehow distinctly gendered ideal that I can’t quite describe, and don’t ever quite reach, could I also build my body to conform to a recognizable – or normal, for a change – gender? What exactly happens in the various misperceptions of (my) gender? Can I plan my gender-presentation/perception? How? What kind of body can one have and still be a “real” woman, what kind of muscles does one need to be(come) a man? And clearly, these are not the only two (gender-)options (Halberstam, Queer Time and Place). Besides, do muscles have anything to do with it? What exactly makes bodies or muscles “queer”?
Not (Merely) a Personal Story
The account above is not (merely) a personal story of confused gender identity. Rather, it is an example of a conceptual problem characteristic for the political and academic discussion of gender. Interestingly (to me), many feminists, queers, lesbians, and other deviants would agree that gender and its operations in contemporary culture are a problem and need to be transcended/transgressed/overcome/replaced or challenged. At the same time, our useful, necessary, and highly sophisticated academic discussions about fluctuating gender, hyper-muscular built, cyber-bodies and their transgressive potential, or various gender-fuck-practices of other sort nevertheless replicate the binary gender division – for example, by reviewing books and articles about male and female bodybuilders, drag kings and drag queens, or by gathering in conference meetings or academic classrooms neatly divided into gay and lesbian studies, men’s studies and women’s studies, and all without too much cross-over. It appears that a division of bodies into two genders remains compelling even to those of us who are “against” it.
How could we re-view this issue? Can we begin to imagine some ways of thinking about or describing the bodies we are, see, interact with, or will become in ways not linked primarily to one of two? How can we make sense of the body that wishes to refuse the comfort of being “recognised” and called into safety as “dyke” – instead of the man he/she/I could never quite be(come)? What would it take to think of identity and bodies in ways that are not implicated in masculinity and femininity in ways that replicate heterosexist or binary gender-categories? Thinking of bodies outside of – or without being implicated in – existing discourses of male and female and masculine and feminine, which are set up in binary opposition precisely because they are definitionally inscribed in heterosexuality, requires reviewing available methodologies and imagining new terminologies and (scholarly) practices.
And that seems a project worth another look.