The Shapeshifter

The Shapeshifter


If you could be any kind of body, what would you be, and why?

I have spent way too long trying to answer this question. When it is initially asked, my mind becomes machine-like, a film carousel filled with slides, clicking clicking clicking through body after possible body in my head. One body falling away in place of another body, and that body folding over in place of the next. The violent daydream continues for days, whenever I return to the question. As I try my hardest to shake this method and find another—or find an answer—I attempt to track my various jagged strategies.

I begin with a straightforward method: what don’t I like about my body’s physical attributes? What bothers me? What would I get rid of? Once I got rid of those things, what body would that leave me with? Or, more pointedly, what answer would that give me to this question? I begin with this method because such a process of elimination is, admittedly, quite reflexive. In retrospect, I understand that such an instinctual move towards elimination as a path to discovery as problematic. In On Female Body Experience: Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays, Iris Marion Young writes, “We often experience our bodies as a fragile encumbrance, rather than the medium for the enactment of our aims.”1 I didn’t begin to answer this question by asking myself what my body does well for me, and which of those abilities I’d like to enhance. I didn’t begin to answer this question by answering it with the most straightforward approach: this is the kind of body I want to be. Instead, the question becomes loaded with possibility and with a heaviness: a need to zero in, to take up less space, to remove any “fragile” part at all in order to understand the true “aims” of my body, which—surely—I must be missing.

This whittling away brings to mind Susan Bordo’s Reading the Slender Body, in which she writes about shaping the body with diet, exercise, and plastic surgery: “it has been so easy for contemporary images of female attractiveness to oscillate between a spare, ‘minimalist’ look and a solid, muscular, athletic look,” Bordo writes. “The two ideals, though superficially very different, are united in a battle against a common enemy: the soft, the loose, the unsolid, excess flesh.”2 For a moment, I allow myself to consciously surrender in this battle: is this “‘minimalistic’” body truly the kind of body I want to be in? The easy answer would be yes. The easy answer would explain my quick, near-militaristic move to remove what bothers me. But that answer is too easy—and quite honestly, completely frustrating. I am only left with more questions.

My second method of answering this question is perhaps more positivist: what body dont I want to be in? This answer is also easy: I do not want to be in a male body. This could be interpreted as surprising, by many who know me. I grew up with two older brothers and indeed, my earliest memories are of trying to talk like them, walk like them, dress like them, and even pee like them: I can distinctly remember hoisting my small body to straddle the toilet seat around three years old, and leaving the door open while I peed standing up, hoping someone would walk by and congratulate me on such an impossible feat. I have since grown out of that, but still, never quite grew into the feminine grace that perhaps awaited my legs, my arms, face, hands. I am clumsy—not because I constantly fall, but because when I do, I fall hard. When I speak, I am not gentle. When I laugh, I am loud. And yet, it is these very masculine gestures that make me feel the most at home in the female body.

Young writes about the female’s “objectified bodily existence,” and explains, “to the degree that the [woman] does live herself as mere body, she cannot be in unity with herself but must take a distance from and exist in discontinuity with her body.” She describes this as the “objectifying regard that ‘keeps [woman] in her place.’””3 I feel such a distance every day. I am aware of the tension between my body, its motions, and the too-loud reverberation of those motions against a world which would be more comfortable with a certain quiet. I watch that tension unfold as I move through the day, as if from afar—but it is specifically that tension that fascinates me. It is specifically that discontinuity which makes my body—a female body—transgressive. In my female body, I break boundaries just by existing outside my “place”—even if just in smalls moments and gestures at a time. While I live in a privileged body, I do see this type of transgression as one that can be performed by any female body who refuses her “spatial modality of being positioned.”4 This is a performance that can only be done by the female body. So when I am a little loud, or a little blunt, or a little messy, I can open a gate, and trespass into a world that is not readily given to me—and that access is rife with possibilities of being. Even if I stand on the other side of being for a split-second, I have still been there. I have still wrapped my female fingers around a male feeling, and the motion has been radical, simply because my hands are female. This is something I would not give up. Incidentally, this ‘hijacking’ also seems to me to be a distinctly confidential female experience: one that we can keep for ourselves.

So I do not want the male body. And I am trying my best to not want the idealized, minimal, barely-there body. But past that, my mind blurs. This is the problem that I keep coming up against: there are so few alternatives made consistently available to my eyes. It is either the minimalized female, or the any male, however small or sprawling he wishes to be. The more I try and think past this dichotomy, the more exhausting it becomes. I begin move away from flesh, and towards other bodies. Young touches on these other bodies in Throwing, when she discusses Luce Irigaray’s concept of “being as fluid rather than as solid substances, or things . . . A process metaphysics . . . where the being of any location depends on its surrounding and where we cannot delineate clearly what is inside and outside.”5 Young explains how such a metaphysics could be a “liberating” epistemology for the feminine subject, in that it would eliminate the “clear opposition between subject and object, because the two positions constantly turn into each other.”6 At first reading, it is instinctual for me to envision this “fluid being” as water—a body of water. This is what my mind first comes to, once I’ve finished with flesh. It is easy to understand such an epistemology when using the analogy of water: formless, flowing, containable, yet always free, always just in some form of itself.

Here is where my third method of reckoning begins. It would be simple to end on a body of water. Water can not — will not —be eliminated. Water can be messy. Most things will yield to water. Water can seep into things, and water can permeate borders. Water is a body that is not asked to necessarily define itself. And yet water, to me, seems too unstable. It seems dangerous, as a female, to identify with water, or to want to be it. Young touches on this, when she writes “Irigaray’s idea that women are specially linked the aqueous is the subject of much ridicule, which sometimes makes me wonder whether there sis a fear going on even among feminists, a fear of the loss of ‘something to hold onto.’”7 And perhaps that is part of it: this lack of something still to grasp, to base myself around. Perhaps, however, the more significant part is that there is no part of water that is ever truly still, ever truly just with itself. If the “being of any location” is ever-changing, when comes the chance to sit with and know one’s own self? This knowing is perhaps the true secret that I keep close to my chest; it is the same assured feeling that hoisted me over the toilet seat when I was small, or that allows me to reach unflinchingly each morning for the menswear in my closet. This feeling is solid; it is a confidence, however small, that situates me, and positions me in my own, self-assigned “spatial modality.”

While parts of me might still shift, move, slide around, there are moments and spaces in which I am so resolutely solid: a body of land—or small little lands—rather than water. A grouping of dirt, both durable yet so entirely granular: little pieces in themselves, moving past each other, but always, in part, clearly defined. Solids that shift, mix, blend, that add and subtract from one another—but solids that stay solid.

At this point, the answer becomes a bit more clear. I have recurring dreams like this: watching my body separate into grain, or dirt, or watching my body disappear into the ground. This transformation is never hopeless or morbid, but instead, full of possibility: what might become of me next? This is never a question that gets answered, in the dream, or once it’s over. But it is the becoming—the shifting, the mixing, the always-changing—that seems equally as important.

  1. Iris Marion Young, On Female Body Experience: “Throwing like a Girl” and Other Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005),  34.
  2. Susan Bordo, “Reading the Slender Body,” Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (California: University of California Press, 1993), 191.
  3. Young, On Female Body Experience, 45.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid, 81.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
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