Engaging a State of Becoming: Coming to Understand My Body
My body became different. Over the span of a year and a half the body that I knew became smaller, got stronger, ate new things, felt different. Discussions of weight loss are often shrouded in the language of “newness,” as if the person inside the body went to a car dealership and traded their Toyota for a sleek new Lexus, furnished with that new car smell. Commentary surrounding the “new body” is eerily similar to that of trading out an older car for a new one: “congratulations,” “it looks so nice,” “you must be so happy.” The difficulty of thinking of my body as “new” is the implication that somehow, I am also brand new. I opt instead for thinking through my body as becoming. Becoming allows for autonomy, agency, a sense of ownership in the actions that have brought me to this point of understanding my body. Becoming encourages movement in all aspects, does not necessitate a final point in a linear narrative of the self. Becoming is something that we all do; we become and move at many different stages in our lives. We become parents, we become knowledgeable and experienced, we become carriers of joy and grief. The becoming self allows for us to understand the active verbalization of what we are doing. It also distances the self from misunderstandings of newness as a complete change of identity. The difficulty of the becoming body is the loss of control in my attempts to hold myself together. This is a semi-autobiographical exploration into negotiating the terms of self, a body, and the becoming.
Over a year ago I gave into the radical idealism of the body as a mutable vessel. My body has the ability to bend at the hand, change shape, change, and become something other than what it is. Something changed within me allowing me to recognize how a body could have a mind of its own, become an unruly, beautiful thing, and I wanted to call my body my own for the first time in a long time. It is not that my body became lost, but for so long it felt as if this body I call home was no longer my own; I can only say that this happened because I lost sight of who I was inside of this body. I set out to regain control. How often do we hear the circulation of fitness as a way to “gain control” of the body, and in praxis it is a way of control—biopolitical control. Foucauldian notions of biopower/biopolitics run rampant in the weight room. The state promotion of health and fitness fall within a system that takes away from individual control over the body, as a way to enhance the life of the state—live longer to produce more.[i] How then does one control their own body when we are not in control of ourselves? It is hard to negotiate this reality that St. Foucault has written for us because in a perfect neoliberal system we write the destiny for ourselves, but in a perfect neoliberal system we are also cogs within a state that ask us to progress the limits of production. This became the first hurdle for my becoming body to overcome. While eating a whole cheesecake, one of the ones with four samples of different cheesecakes, I realized that the first step in taking back the body was acknowledging that the body exists in a shared space. It is mine, and also not mine, but the more I try and take it back it starts to feel more like home. The becoming body is mine in the sense that it can mold to my imagination; while at the same time, the state creates pay blocks and other limitations to the mutable nature of the body. My body began changing for myself and the state, but for many the body never gets this opportunity.
Becoming smaller and stronger was a very strange experience. I remember crying after putting on a button-up, collared shirt that I hadn’t been able to fit in for three years, and it not stretching or pulling at my midsection. It was both joyous, and crippling. Grieving the pieces of myself that were getting lost in the becoming became an almost inherent process. Grief was strange because I began to imagine the missing things were still there, when really, they weren’t. I imagine that the body I inhabit is still not mine—that looking at myself is a lie, that I still take up too much space, that at any moment I will lose myself in the consuming different. The body as an entity in space has been an ever-present thought experiment; how do I fit here, right now? The comparison of the body to what it was, what it is, what it isn’t, and what it could be never stops. This comparison of the body filters into discussions of perception and embodiment, which is the major work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Bodies are experiential, and can never fully be realized, as they become context dependent on the space and time that they are found within.[ii] Anxiety over the becoming body never goes away, but it becomes different. It is less of “what is happening,” and more of “this is happening.”
Embodiment and perception are not wholly processes of the self, but rather a moment of communal discourse. A body, while a personal artifact in some ways, becomes reliant on other bodies, other people, and the singular becoming body is perceived in various ways within the process. As the body becomes it can be unnerving for others. My body was stagnant for so long that it was a constant. I was happy, I lived life, I enjoyed doing things, going out, taking photos, and existing within my body and my self. Becoming does not negate this, it just becomes something more. I can’t help but think through the limitations of Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, which posits the notion of a dual self—the inner and outer self.[iii] On the outside, our bodies embody face work, or the manipulation of perception in groups. This manipulation often goes outside the limits of the inner self—its easiest to think of this as putting on different hats at different parties. What Goffman does not discuss is how the face work is just a manipulation, and that the inner self does not necessarily have to change. I think the assumption that others have when a body is becoming is that the interior is also becoming. Of course it is in many ways, but it is also still the same person. I still post stupid shit on Twitter, can demolish an entire thing of Oreos in an evening, cradle my blankets and weep to the sounds of Beach House, laugh at old Vines no one remembers, the list goes on. The becoming does not erase the past, but complicates it.
One of the hardest parts of the negotiation of the space that my body is in is the politic that my body was once in. Discussions of fat and the oppression of fat bodies has always been something that spoke to me. Reading Louis Peitzman’s “It Gets Better, Unless You’re Fat” as a young, bigger gay man was mesmerizing.[iv] Yes. I felt that feeling. I knew what it meant to be a gay man in a community that hated you for the space that your body took up. That I received messages on Grindr form guys saying that I was too fat for anyone to fuck. Now that I occupy a different size the men that come out of the woodwork, who never gave me the time of day before, is at times disheartening. Receiving a message that read, “you look pretty sexy…now” was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I understand that I look different now. That I carry a different confidence. Hearing someone acknowledge that “now” I am “sexy” is the ultimate double-edged compliment to pierce the skin. It is an affirmation that what you are doing has positive affect, but simultaneously it is a defamation to the me that became me. I ache for the boy who is both me and not me, in my past and future, the pieces of myself that some will never understand
This is the difficulty of becoming. All of this and more. That somehow I am assumed to know that I am different when most of the time I just feel the same as I always have. I’ve always been a narcissist who will check himself out in any reflective surface—I’m a Leo—and that has not changed. When looking in the mirror, both then and now, some days are better than others. Some days I think, “well fuck yes,” and other days I think, “well fuck no.” I don’t think any amount of becoming changes this. No amount of becoming will change the me that has always been here, and that is the beauty of the becoming, and thinking of the body as a space that can become, it is never over. Becoming does not have to look the same throughout the course of a life. Becoming encapsulates the ups and downs of the body. Illnesses, accidents, highs and lows, successes, milestones. The body will never always be our own, but in the moments where it can be, take it back from the forces that took it before.
[i] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume I (New York: Random House Vintage Books, 1990).
[ii] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013).
[iii] Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1959).
[iv] Louis Peitzman, “It Gets Better, Unless You’re Fat,” Buzzfeed (October 10, 2013).