Making Our Bodies Matter

A friend and I started talking about communities, alliances and feminism(s) a few months ago — this conversation is a brief culmination of our identities and ideologies.

Me: Writing about bodies isn’t too difficult for me, that was until I realised “writing about bodies” meant writing of bodies other than mine, or even if I were to write about myself, the language automatically becomes clinical, my gaze objective and the talk goes to whatever is ailing me — it’s never about how I feel about my body, my relationship with my scars or what I see when I look in the mirror. As I am now living in a new city and adjusting to the weather patterns here, I have to take more care of my skin here than in I did in Mumbai, I have to leave myself notes to apply [x] cream before my heels crack and bleed — it’s such a jarring experience to see that my body has carried on without me (in a sense), has already started cracking, started healing in some parts while I have gone on and done something else. It all came to a head when I was thinking of Suheir Hammad‘s words — when she says “What am I saying when I say I sit in this body, dream in this body, expel in this body, inherit in this body” — where she posits the body as a start to all experiences, and here I was forgetting to take care of my body altogether, even in the most routine and seemingly trivial ways. I’ve often complained to friends that I feel ‘bound’ in this city — as public transport systems are irregular and auto rickshaws are a luxury I cannot always afford — so most of my ‘movement’ is between my apartment, the massive Uni campus and its libraries. Now that I re-think what I mean when I say ‘bound’, I mean more than just physical limits to where I can go or am kept from, I find limits in my syllables and expressions — precisely because my body feels those limits more intimately and primarily, as if my body translates these borders in the silences that creep up everywhere, from my thoughts to my academic writing. It’s only when I completely stopped producing words and syllables a week ago, went for a three-hour long walk, felt my words come back to me as I described to my guardian just why were my heels bleeding this time I realised how closely my body felt limited here*

*This isn’t to say there weren’t other barriers in Mumbai, just that navigating these particular changes is an entirely new experience for me.

Renee: It’s equally jarring to see your body stopped in time, unable to keep up with you, and trying to formulate contingencies for when it starts to slide backwards in time. This has been my experience since losing my job just more than a year ago.

My teeth hurt all the time now; one has eroded almost to the gum line, and I touch them constantly with my tongue and my fingers to make sure none are loose. I waited out a UTI two months ago, but an ear infection still lingers (and makes my teeth ache even more). There is no money for a doctor or dentist to attend to current ills, never mind the dreams I once had for my body. Most upsetting, when my current stash of hormone pills runs out, in perhaps a month or so, I may not be able to afford more, and at that point the person I know as me officially begins to disintegrate. I never really knew myself before starting hormones, and the threat of losing that is terrifying beyond what I can describe. Already I find myself glancing in the mirror more often, touching my face, to make sure I still exist.

But it’s not just the physical degradation I feel. For now, I’m staying in a friend’s spare room, sleeping upon a mattress on the floor, with all my worldly possessions piled in boxes around me. My days are lived largely in the space between my bed and the downstairs basement, where the household television is. I have few reasons to go anywhere else, and fewer resources to do so. I wear the same clothes most days, because to do anything else means doing more laundry, which inevitably costs someone money, even if that someone isn’t me. I don’t shower every day, or moisturize, or shave, or wear makeup, because all of those things are an expense too…and so again my body suffers.

It’s apropos that my body gets neglected first and most, as it’s the rejection of my body by others that led me here. Slowly it decays, out of sight and forgotten.

Me: Right, we’ve discussed this before. It’s not so strange, when you connect this ‘disappearance’ of any marginalised body (or in our specific contexts: a trans body and a third world woman’s body) to the larger theoretical hyper-visibility in academia, where you have theories on our bodies but empirical absence of our bodies. We’re still people who need “welfare”, we are still debating whether “woman” as a category can be made inclusive — basically, we don’t go beyond the boundaries our bodies set for us in academia, these ‘bodies’ (the way we see and live them) are wholly absent within mainstream feminist discourse. At the same time, there are people voicing us, fixing who we are and who we should be like, either they’re making theory for us or about us. Your bit about ghosts makes me think of our theoretical ghosts in academia. Sometimes I just don’t understand how to counter most theory I find about “third world” people(s) in any field. Recently I came across a study that talks about the dire condition of transgender people in Bangalore done by [x] European academic institution, where the entire focus was to show how pitiful and “unlivable” their lives are — the lives they’re leading sitting in their third worldly bodies as we talk and will continue to do so long after we’re done talking too —  and for a week and a half, I kept on going over their words, unable to respond in any manner at all. There is no denying that people here need help, specifically speaking, I would love help in [x] areas of my life too. But only if you see how much help you need too, how we can both help build each other’s identities. I’m not that interested in “self-sufficiency” as much I’d like to build alliances and common ground where there is little to go by, you know? Especially within theory, [as I’ve often ranted to you] I feel like a lot of my work, or the work the organisations put in, comes to signify very little change, if perceivable at all. There is, often a literal and a metaphorical wall when it comes to the subjects of development policies, between us and the people we are allied with, between my different selves (of different racial and gendered molds), that quite honestly I wonder if my body and voice exist, if anyone is listening at all.

And it’s not just recently I’ve started feeling invisible within academia — I remember reading things like “India is a backward and orthodox third world country” as a child in my geography text books and I’d mouth the words in my mouth, to see if the iteration of the word would somehow make them more believable — where in our daily lives we’re constructing “national pride” (at the cost of someone else’s border, always) and in school I was taught a different tale of India — but it’s now that I am beginning to learn the terms with which this exclusion in academia is accessible to me. Feeling isolated but not having the terms to legitimise your experiences — there’s something to be said about that, no?

Renee: *nods* And to go off on a tangent a bit, you and I feel much the same about the myth of self-sufficiency. The idea that all people need to do to be “successful” (whatever that means) is to work hard is a lie. The idea of individual exceptionalism and potency sounds nice on the surface, but in truth almost no one succeeds without help. None of us are really *that* awesome. And so “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” becomes the refrain of a class of people who, through circumstance or luck, are already where they want to be and have no fear of being in the muck. It’s so much easier to just blame us for our own lot in life rather than take stock of one’s own privileges and extend a hand. It even becomes a way to punish those who do try to help, that somehow you’re a bad person for being charitable because you are doing the disenfranchised a disservice (we may just forget that we’re disenfranchised, you know, and that would be a bad). An even more cynical interpretation of that same idea would be that people in power know the falsity of it, but propagate it anyway, because if we can be shamed into believing we are somehow to blame for our disenfranchisement, that we’ll sit here quietly and suffer our penance without making too many demands of precious time or resources. It’s an infectious mindset; I know I’ve internalized a lot of what’s happened to me as my failure. For example, even though I know objectively that the destruction of my fourteen year career wasn’t my fault, it’s difficult for me not to think I did something wrong to cause this, and that my inability to find work means there is something empirically “wrong” with me.

(And this all goes back to bodies because really, the only wrongdoing I’ve ever been accused of is having the wrong body. How does one “bootstrap” their body, when that body is considered contemptible by the ruling class?)

Anyway, the key thing for me isn’t that being self-sufficient is bad, which it isn’t, but rather how that it’s an unrealistic expectation that’s nonetheless metamorphosed into a mandate that’s philosophically antagonistic towards how alliances are formed, and even affects how people regard each other more generally. It defines roles simply as “giver” and “taker”, and these are essentially fixed without much in the way of power exchange. Also yes, defined by pity (like with the Bangalore trans story), as if pity is necessarily both the cost and wage of engaging in such relationships. Like you say, actual allies are defined by the understanding that we both have something to contribute…it’s not just that I need you, but also that you need me, and we both understand that and aren’t afraid to talk about it. And it’s perhaps a tenuous segue way into theory and academia, but I can’t help but feel like this failure of alliance is reflected in the way marginalized people are leered at, hypothesized around, and spoken about in classrooms and conferences and blogs and what have you, without actually being able to represent themselves. We are reduced to ideas and talking points that a group of people – whether they be politicians or theoreticians – can debate and discuss and eventually come to consensus about, without our participation. And any attempt to insert ourselves into the conversation after the fact is met with overwhelming resistance, as now we have to first position ourselves in relation to what already exists.

Me: It’s really interesting that you said entry to academia means having people acknowledge and legitimise your subject-position — on someone else’s terms of course, the very categories that bind us further. This week as we’re writing this, my classmates and I are also scattered all over  [city] in various lower caste and class communities — where we’re working on transformative masculinities to see if we can work with (mostly) men of these communities, to see if we can shift some definitions of dominant masculinities, if some we can help each other conceptualise different ways of “being masculine” that will directly effect the women of these communities*. We’re working with men as most government-sanctioned plans focus on men when it comes to awareness of sexual health (and we don’t have adequate resources to work with women too within this time-frame). Usually, some [American] NGO in collaboration with the State government talk about wearing condoms, personal hygiene, some programs teach men to take responsibility in household chores — and as it turns out, some men from these communities do start wearing condoms, helping out in the kitchen but don’t stop abusing their families. It seems ridiculous, that why would you start helping out in the household, but not stop violating people in your family? It seems, they do [x] as the NGO and State tells them because there are either laws, some amount of compensation given or fear is drilled into their psyches that they will ALL die of AIDS (when it comes to wearing condoms). So people who are more-or-less on the ‘outside’ — either geographically as the NGO is or structurally as the State is, where most people divising these policies don’t take their whole realities in focus, and still mandate things to do that will bring about “welfare” — which is why the people in these families aren’t seen as victims/survivors/perpetrators (for there are no fixed categories ever, but this doesn’t negate or rationalise the violence) of abuse, because academia (here the people from the NGO’s and the State officials) don’t see the manifold structures that are perpetuated, legitimised, forged over and over again, to make this abuse invisible and an aspect of [community’s] daily reality.

What happens when such invisibility looms over you? When this invisibility comes to define you? And is the job done only when some structures are “made visible” (again, by whom? for whom?). I won’t even insinuate my personal contexts are identical to this community’s; however similarly, many times my contexts are made invisible in academia and elsewhere as again, it’s someone else gauging my “needs”. Given this, how can you and I ally each with each other when the lives and hierarchies of power that we mediate are so different? As always, I have no clear answers, or even perceptible “solutions”, I just know that if an alliance has to be made, these differences we’re constantly talking about, they have to be brought to the fore, and from there on can we start building any community whatsoever (whether virtual or otherwise). Talking about us specifically, I have to be routinely and perpetually invested in writing or in praxis about *my* contexts, the multiple spaces I navigate as well as remember (an act done out of choice and love) your voice, your contexts, especially in the way you choose to identify yourself. So whether I choose to re-member you within my academic writing, talk about trans issues while working on transformative masculinities or to interrupt a classmate who equates gender with a person’s sex function and/or organ — what I do want to highlight that it’s a process, an unending one at that. This isn’t to say that you or I will never make mistakes, that we can appropriate each other’s identities or dislocate anger, rather we’re invested in listening to each other. Building alliances can be non-coercive only when we acknowledge and are responsible for each other’s complicity within the community. Non-coercive alliances have to be navigated, every moment — like we’re doing now.

*The idea that “transformative masculinities” are only something the ‘lower’ castes and classes need is a whole another rant on development altogether.

Renee: The idea of coercive alliances – alliances defined by a one-way power exchange, and/or by what one party is willing to give as opposed to what the other party says they need – gives me pause. It doesn’t seem like an alliance at all, but something else entirely. Alliances, in my mind, are formed through consent – “Hi there! You have a problem? I have a problem too! Perhaps we can help each other, yes?” – and yet I meet so many people who claim to be my ally who have never talked to me or any other trans person about what it means to be an ally to us (and not just trans people, of course, that’s just me drawing from personal experience). It is complicated, of course, because certainly not every person has the same resources, the same tongues, the same ability to assert…we build (not “built”, because like you say, it is ongoing) ours through shared language and Internet technology, but those are privileges not everyone has. And it’s not that such obstacles are always insurmountable but at the same time, doing it without creating power imbalances is something humans have historically been pretty bad at.

Interestingly, if I recall correctly, it was our frustration with so-called “allies” and our relative invisibility that was our connecting point. The ubiquitous blogs, media outlets, activist organizations, and theoreticians with their abled white western cis het opinions, assumption-laden perspectives, universalizing tones, and frequently hostile demeanours were our shared nemeses. I still wonder how much of it was a need to vent and how much of it was a deliberate desire to show how alliances could be done, and I suppose it doesn’t matter, but something got us talking. And I remember those first tentative talks, how every little thing was predicated with ‘Is this [topic] okay?” or “Can we talk about this?”, and how we punctuated our conversations every few minutes with “Are you okay?” or “Is there anything I can do to help?” (and how sometimes we just sat in silence, supporting each other wordlessly in our chatroom). We started with the things we knew we had in common, and we talked about ourselves in the ways we wanted to, without provocation or prompting for more than we were willing to give. Although we often asked questions, we never felt entitled to an answer…we weren’t each other’s encyclopedias. Ultimately, we knew that no space was ever totally safe, but chose to occupy the one between us anyway, and endeavoured (and continue to endeavour) to make it as safe a space as possible. Yes, we still hurt, we still bleed, and we remain unseen and unheard in so many ways, but somehow, a white middle-aged unemployed trans woman from Michigan and a graduate student in [city in India] came together to create a model of the way they wished things were. And it worked. Is working.

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