Painting by Rocio Montoya
“Writing with the body. I have long-held an intense fascination with the idea and I must confess that I still do not have a crystal-clear understanding of the concept. Rather self-indulgently, I am using the publication of this short essay as an attempt at clarification. Luckily for my own peace of mind, I have always believed that the magic of creation is in the attempt.”
Helène Cisoux said to écrire le corps, write the body. Write about the feminine experience to break the tradition of female silence and claim subjectivity over our lives, our stories.
In her work, Luisa Valenzuela has talked about escribiendo con el cuerpo, writing with the body, saying, “where I put my word, I put my body”.
Cisoux exemplified the union between the female body and the female textual body by underlining that a woman’s way of speaking must be utterly subjective. She doesn’t only express herself with her voice, all that she is becomes her voice. Her body is so implicated in her speech that what she thinks, she expresses with her body – not in terms of body language, but rather her body literally inscribes what she says.
Writing with the body encourages us not to deny our body in favour of thoughts, words and ideas, but to write these out with the body that we have. To be present in our body – here, our female body – and use it for what it is. Start with the tool, the body, and discover its limits and possibilities by peeling away its layers and connecting with every part of it in order to write a story that is true.
As the protagonist Augustín says in Valenzuela’s book Novela Negra con Argentinos, “I am the master of my own body and therefore also my story.”
The body becomes the central axis around which the word is built. This idea of putting your body completely at the service of your speech is one of the points on which Cisoux and Valenzuela coincide. In doing so, our speech and our body are one. What is created is not literature, but rather a continuous story, an incomplete sense of subjectivity, a state of being. An attempt, perhaps.
Writing with the body. The paper is the world or the universe. The ink? That’s up to the individual. I call it poetry: that indescribable something that arises when I connect with art, touch a person that I love, or feel the breeze in my hair. The magic that makes those moments so momentous is what makes me get out of bed in the morning and keep writing my story. Some people call it art, some people call it love. I think we are mostly referring to the same thing.
The story told by each body is unique. We may write about similar things in similar places with similar people, but the way in which we tell it is always distinct. Our body is the tool with which we read the world, through sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. Our body translates outside sensations into inner thoughts. In turn, it inscribes our perception of these onto the world with its actions and reactions. Our individual tales add to the universal, eternal, myriad narratives of pleasure, grief, friendship, power, love, joy, hope…
We each have our story to tell. But we are not here to read a story that was made for us; we are here to write it.
Write with all of your body, your female body. Your body that does not measure up to female beauty standards, nor to the objectifying gaze of others, nor even perhaps to your own expectations of what a female body should be. Write with it, anyway. It is not there to do the work of others, nor to fit into their moulds or meet their beauty norms. It is the tool you were given with which to write your poetry. It is there to work with you and to write your story alongside your mind, your thoughts, feelings. It is them.
We cannot always control what happens to our body and how it is perceived. We can, however, develop practices that allow us to make sense of and accept the things that happen to us, by being the author of the parts of our story that we can control.
Imagine a world in which, culturally, it didn’t mean anything to be female. What would your body write?
What would your story look like? Dress up, dress down. Write it out and rewrite it. Cross it out, smudge it, start the sentence again. But keep writing. Keep the story going; the story of your body as it moves through space and time. Because it’s always there, even when we don’t wish to see it, when we don’t feel connected to it, when we don’t want to know it. Our body is there.
Societally, having a female body is significant. Biologically, too. Yet that female body you have, it is yours. So what does that mean to you? We owe it to our body, which bears us, lets us run and jump and swim and laugh and feel, to get to know it completely. Write with your body in order to understand what it means to you to be the possessor of a female body. In that way, its societal and biological implications can be easier to understand and to deal with.
(I must recognize here the implications of non-cis women. I see you, but upon your story, I am woefully under-qualified to comment and am therefore only sharing my thoughts as I understand them, as a cis woman.)
With my friends we often dress up, playing with the way we look and trying on different characters.
One night, I dressed up as a man. Pushing a penis-like object down the front of my trousers, I marvelled at the sense of power and masculinity I felt as my body reacted to its presence. I felt compelled to move in a different way, in accordance with my own interpretation of masculinity. These feelings were not triggered by the appearance of the phallus, but they were undeniably amplified by it. Writing those “masculine” traits into my body by physically adding a phallus to my appearance had, however briefly, made me more inclined to feel and later claim those aspects of my personality. I realised then that this was what I understood by writing with the body.
In that scene, my body wrote out the “masculinity” of my character. It had always been there, yet acting it out and feeling the physical presence of masculinity made me feel more connected to that part of myself and consequently made it easier to articulate in my own words. The phallus was never the possessor of those aspects – that had always been me – yet the story of my body and the phallus was what allowed me to write my own, true narrative of masculinity.
Let us not make the mistake of assuming that the story we write with our bodies represents an irrevocable, unchangeable portrait of a fixed identity,
On the contrary, we are writing draft after draft, perennially constructing and deconstructing ourselves in order to prove the scope of our possibility and get to know our limits. The important thing is not to decide definitively on a set of behaviours or characteristics, but rather to practise feeling connected to our actions. The objective is to minimize feelings of shame and regret about aspects of our body and instead to embrace them as ours. We may want to change parts of ourselves and to adapt our behaviour but I believe that we must first claim those aspects in order to do so.
When I write with my body, I assume responsibility and ownership of my subjective actions. I am conscious and present when I bite into a nectarine, when I look into the eyes of another person, when I walk through the city. I try to live deliberately. I feel connected to myself and, consequently, more connected to others because I can go to them with an acceptance of who I am, without seeking their validation.
When conducting the research for The Cool Girls’ School of Authenticity, I asked women the question: “When do you feel most like yourself and why?”.
Many of them answered, “when I am in the water”. It makes sense. Weightless, light and free, there is no hierarchy between the body and the mind; there is only movement and sensations. The pleasure of those moments is inscribed onto the body, as the body inscribes them onto the world. It is unique not because the fact of enjoying being in the water is such, but because it is experienced by the body in a way that is utterly subjective and free from the external gaze. The body and mind move as one. The body, in the water, writes freedom, liberation and joy.
I answered, when I do yoga. Moving intuitively, my body writes the story of my practice onto the mat. My body takes over, my mind takes a break. I feel present in every inch of my being as I turn my attention and my breath to completely focus on my physical body, to listen to it and feel what it is saying. Other women said it was when they danced. Then, the body writes the physical narrative of the music, expressing the individual’s interpretation of it.
Moments are inscribed onto my body. I choose to honour them. In my soft hands, I crack walnut halves into a bowl of fragrant herbs.
In doing so, I mirror a man I once cared for, who taught me to squeeze two whole nuts together so that their shells shattered, releasing the fruit inside. I can see his long, steady hands reflected in mine. I write out his memory with my body.
Sometimes I do an exercise that involves pinpointing in which parts of my body I feel certain emotions. Anxiety and excitement, I feel in my stomach. Stress lives in my head. I feel fear in my hands and feet, and fatigue in my legs and shoulders.
When we write, we use our body: our fingers and our hands. But we also write with our blood, tears, sweat and breath; we write the emotions that provoked them.
Write the body, write with the body. At the end of the day, they’re the same. It’s about being both. Body and mind. Sexed body, ungendered mind. Write them both. Use one to express the other. When we express ourselves with words, we talk about what our body did and how it felt. Indirectly perhaps, but indubitably. Our bodies experience our emotions. We should not deny that.
What do you write with your body?
Me, I write strength. I write the pain of losing love. I write a narrative of self-care and indulgence as I feed my body with bread, tomatoes, olives. I write the joy of drinking champagne. I write the wonder of inhaling the scent of flowers, of feeling the silky grit of sand running through my fingers, the crisp of saltwater in my hair. I write verses and verses about the magic of mixing my saliva with someone else’s saliva, about holding and being held. I fill pages with the celestial relief of sinking into a warm bath, and even more about the shocking pleasure of standing under a cold shower, smiling. I write about childlike longing when I recall the feel of my mother’s cool hand on my forehead, the sound of my father’s laugh. I write out the steady comfort of having breakfast in the sun. I write desire as I dive into the eyes of a stranger. I begin a new chapter every time I step off a bus, train or airplane, arriving somewhere new. With my body, I write myself into existence every moment in which I breathe, watch, touch and feel, walking on cobbled streets, twisting and winding ever further, ever homeward, ever on.
This is the poetry my body is writing. This is the story of my body.
About this article
In this series of short articles, poet and journalist Lara Gilmour is reflecting on the process of coming to terms with one’s identity as a female. Drawing on the words of female and feminist thinkers, these pieces aim to explore the way in which we construct our individuality through the collective feminine body. This series is written as part of the project “The Cool Girls’ School of Authenticity”, a platform aiming to provide a space for women and girls to explore their identity through the lens of the female experience. We focus on asking powerful questions about identity and femininity in order to encourage greater connection with oneself and the female community.