A black and white patched ball bounces along dry, brown needles that used to be grass. A fury of small feet pound after it from every direction. I catch a glimpse of John as he races up alongside me, tunnel-vision blocking out everything but that lopsided ball. I narrow my eyes in a determined scowl and dig my toes into the dirt a little harder. We’re neck and neck, shoulder to shoulder. As we race, we struggle, and John’s elbow catches my stomach hard. His bony jab seems to dislodge my stomach and send it sailing north to my throat. As I gulp at the air like a dying fish, John dribbles the ball right into the goal. He turns back with a cocky grin, but it slips when he realizes I was the one he knocked down in his march to triumph. I’m angry with myself that I can’t just catch my breath. He didn’t even hit me hard. I’m not hurt. He just knocked the wind out of me. The boys are starting to gather around me, some of them worried, some of them annoyed. I hate the way they’re looking at me.
“I’m fine! I’m fine!” I gasp. I don’t want them looking at me like that. I’m one of three girls that plays soccer with the boys at recess and if I cry when I get knocked over I’ll just reinforce their beliefs that girls aren’t as good as boys. At soccer. At sports in general. At anything. That I can’t keep up. That I don’t belong. I still can’t breathe very well, but I manage a facial expression and posture that I hope reads “nonchalant” and, as I brush off my knees, start running back to the other side of the field. I give John a playful shove on the shoulder as I run by and laugh, “Watch it! I owe you now.” He smiles. The game goes on.
Flash forward. I’m a sophomore in college, being introduced to the ideas of Michel Foucault for the first time. As my professor talks about docile bodies—pliable, shapeable, controllable bodies—I think about being an athlete. I think about all the weightlifting, the sprinting, and the training I did to get bigger, faster, and stronger. I think about my thighs—these massive thighs that, matched with a tiny waist, make jean shopping impossibly frustrating but also make it possible for me to run without tiring for 90 minutes straight.
I belong to that complicated category called “female athlete” and I take pride in all the complexity that that title allows me. I think sometimes people who identify as feminist feel a need to disparage the aspects of the self that have become imbued with heavily gendered connotations. I know I acted repulsed by make-up and jewelry throughout my adolescence in an effort to distance myself from “girly-girls.” Similarly, Bartky criticizes the taut, small-breasted, narrow-hipped women as abnormal, claiming that ordinary women don’t have those dimensions. As a small breasted, narrow-hipped woman, I resent (and resemble) that remark. Reflecting on my childhood shame and repulsion at acting in “girly” ways, I wonder if some of this criticism is rooted in a type of self-hate?
Revisiting Foucault (1979), these many years after my first introduction, I find myself lingering over this one passage in which he writes, “We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth” (p. 194). Yes. My body exists within power structures, it is controlled and repressed and censored at times. But my body also actively participates in the construction and deconstruction and reconstruction of society.
My lived body, my “body-in-situation” as Young calls it, is a physical body equipped with muscles and ligaments, breasts and a vagina. As an enculturated body, this anatomy, this physiology, achieves meaning through its situation in a particular time in history, a particular place in the world. And yes, sometimes I like to go to the gym and work out so hard that I’m sore for three days. Sometimes, in the words of comedienne Maria Bamford, “I like to put on my Led Zeppelin CD, plug in my curling iron, and just get full-on balls-to-the-wall pretty.”
This is a strong body.
And this is a gendered body.
It is my lived body.
I am me.