It would be dangerous to state that we are our bodies. And yet, that is exactly what we are. Our perceptions of the world are fundamentally shaped by this container we inhabit, if indeed we want to separate ourselves from our physical shells. More productive, perhaps, might be a close consideration of the relationships between our somatic and psychic selves. We like to pretend that we are body-less. That our psyches roam free, unencumbered by the weight of our physical being.
There is something seductive about leaving the body behind. Without the body, we cannot be pre-judged. Knowledge – of self, of other – must come from dialogue, conversation, exchange. All that corporeal messiness can be left behind. But as Simone de Beauvoir so astutely stated of the situation of women: women are their bodies. The realities of reproduction fundamentally shape a woman’s life experience, whether she decides to reproduce or not. Bodily rhythms, flow, blood, all of these act a constant reminder of women’s obligation to the species (as Beauvoir would have put it).
But I would take it further: we are all our bodies. Our bodies shape our experiences. Our bodily workings situate us in the world. They are the lens through which we come to understand social relations. Race, class, ability, sex, gender …. All of these are corporeally imprinted and there’s no real way of moving beyond that. Gender may well be a performance, but it is a performance founded upon the experience of embodiment within specific social contexts.
I am reminded of this in reading Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. It is the face that comes to represent all that Grealy is, all that she struggles with, all that she lives … and all that everyone around her fears. Her body is, in this book, herself. And yet, at the same time, it is only a part of who she is. Her bodily experience shapes her identity; but identity only comes through her critical engagement with her bodily experiences. There is an interplay here between the bodily self and the psychic self. Neither has meaning without the other.
At moments, I am transported back to Kristeva and Cixous: “I knew all of my body’s rhythms now, all of its quirks. The smell of my wound was sweet and ever-present, the skin on my elbows and heels as sore and red as holly berries” (57). Stigma is a wound, but it is also a productive and generative opening to the self.
At other moments, I recall my own body history, those experiences that have shaped my understanding not only of my body, but also of my place in the world. Grealy’s comment on the butterfly needle sparks recognition. My body history, too, includes butterfly needles. Big and small. Adult and child. Both in the same body at the same time.
Grealy’s description of chemotherapy is particularly evocative:
“I had never known it was possible to feel your organs, feel them the way you feel your tongue in your mouth, or your teeth. My stomach outlined itself for me; my intestines, my liver, parts of me I didn’t know the names of began heating up, trembling with their own warmth, creating friction and space by rubbing against the viscera, the muscles of my stomach, my back, my lungs. I wanted to collapse, to fall back onto the table or, better yet, go head first down onto the cold floor, but I couldn’t. The injection had only begun; this syringe was still half full and there was a second one to go.” (75)
In this memoir, Grealy’s body has agency. It acts of its own accord, regardless of her will or desires. It moves, it shifts, it changes. It imposes itself on her experience, imprinting itself permanently on her psyche. Her body is and is not her own. She is and is not her body. And yet that body and its workings are intrinsic to her every experience.
It would be dangerous to state that we are our bodies. And yet, that is exactly what we are.