I want to inhabit a form that doesn’t define me; I want to inhabit a form in a way that lets me define it.
Bend It Like BeckhamBend It Like Beckham
Ebun Sodipo explained this disconnect between my father and me better than I could in the opening of an essay about queer bodies: “For him [a white, cis, heterosexual man, such as my father] and his counterparts, their particular relations to their bodies and sexualities are rarely called into question. Instead, they are promoted, venerated, catered to and rewarded.” For queer people, and particularly for those who try to inhabit a queer body, those relations are never as straightforward.
As a child and up to being a preteen, I played football (again, soccer). I had muscular shins, had yet to grow breasts, and did most of my clothes shopping at the men’s department in sports shops, and most people, even with my long hair, could read me as a boy. But they could also read me as a girl who did boys’ things. While I acted as a boy and looked like a boy, while I had (and still have) a boy’s name that people always commented on, I also tried my best to fit into the purpose of my body and be a girl. “Yes, I am a girl named Michael,” I would say. It didn’t feel like telling a truth; it mostly felt good to resist an assumption.
I enjoyed leaning into masculinity as a kid, but I was also certain, before I even fully understood the concept of identity, that I was not, in fact, a boy. And at the same time, though it was much more of a vague feeling bubbling under the surface than a certainty, I knew I wasn’t a girl either. I was just supposed to be one. My preteen body enabled me to live in it as I’d like—boy, girl, resist either. I didn’t need to think about it. It was only later, when my body began its sure way into womanhood, that things got complicated. It was only later, when fulfilling the purpose of being a woman entailed more than resisting an assumption, that the rift happened—me on the one side, my body on the other. That’s a familiar storyline for a lot of queer people.
There is a rich history regarding queer people’s relations to our bodies and the way society treats them, and for some, like me, that history has yet to reach its culmination. That history still lives in my inability to align my form and my idea of me. Queerness can be invisible, hidden, private, but it can also read in the body—in the way one moves, dresses, speaks, acts. That entails both the freedom of physical expression and the dangers that accompany it in a society that still hates us. In a society that not so long ago used the sickness of the bodies of victims of the AIDS epidemic to “unmask” queer people living among “normal” people. Then there’s the historical butch/femme culture, the queer reclamation of femininity and masculinity through a bodily context, a culture that planted some seeds of today’s freeform gender exploration. I would be remiss not to mention the fact that trans people’s bodies are constantly in the line of fire from conservatives, transphobes, TERFs, and anyone who finds themselves concerned with our genitalia.
It’s not surprising, in light of all this, that when it became impossible to find myself in my own body, I turned to search for myself in the bodies of others. My understanding of queerness has always been a physical projection of an idea, and when one does not have a natural frame of reference for how to express that idea, one must build up a frame of reference. As the historian Neil Bartlett writes in Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr. Oscar Wilde, “even when you have found a book from your own history . . . you have to learn how to read it.” Or as Carmen Maria Machado writes in her memoir, In the Dream House, (where she, too, builds up a frame of reference for something) there are—wherever we look for ourselves—“holes that make it impossible to give oneself a context” when one is queer.
For those who undermine the hegemony, the body is both familiar and foreign, the body haunts us and is haunted.
Inhabiting the bodies of others can be an act of the assertion of the self. It’s like insisting on queer readings of characters to find yourself in a culture, like reading Vita and Virginia’s letters to find yourself in a history. My intellectual process of researching cities and the queer connections and communities that they enable, or arguing with academics about my own existence, turns carnal when I look at the pictures of those histories, those who existed—of a nameless butch in the ’50s, of a drag queen or a cross-dresser from the nineteenth century—and insert myself into that black-and-white fragment of time. The history of queer physicality exists in me because I keep perpetuating it, because I am learning from it. To find yourself in another body is exactly like finding yourself in the writing of others—“Strange to be exiled from your own sex to borders that will never be home” Leslie Feinberg wrote in the seminal Stone Butch Blues, and when I read that, as they say, “I felt that.” Other people’s writing taught me how to read my own experiences, and other bodies taught me how to read my form so I could rewrite it exactly as I’d like to, one day.
It’s a certain type of daydreaming: a physical projection of the other unto the self and of the self unto the other, a sort of ritualistic flick of the wrist, bend of the knee, tilt of the head, a spirit landing over you as you imitate the best you can the way a different body takes up its space, and bam, you are there. You’re not an actor, and these aren’t characters you play, and this isn’t Freaky Friday—it’s a merging of the physical and the metaphysical that takes place inside your head and is projected to the exterior as long as you don’t look in the mirror, as long as nobody talks to you. It’s like you’re a walking, talking, living, breathing Keira Knightley in Bend It Like Beckham, but only you know the secret. The question is, then, why has inhabiting Keira Knightley’s body made me feel good?
A familiar queer conundrum comes to mind: “Am I attracted to them, or do I want to look like them?” The answer here searches for certainty where there is none. Wanting to look some sort of way is some sort of attraction. It’s an attraction to how a body embodies an idea. It’s not for nothing that recently, I spent about twenty-four hours hunting down a jacket that Cate Blanchett wore as Lou in Ocean’s 8 and ordered the most similar one I could afford. This jacket and its connotation make me feel like I am embodying the confident, nonchalant, camp masculinity that the character of Lou embodied in Ocean’s 8. That idea of the “androgynous glam” that this costume inspiration board by Sarah Edwards, Ocean’s 8’s costume designer, explains.
Nowadays, I am comfortable calling myself a dyke, a butch, non-binary, or trans, comfortable with all the implications that accompany those definitions, or lack thereof. My world used to be so much narrower than that, the strict binary the only option I could conceive of, even within transgender identities. Did I really want to change my body? How much of it did I want to change? And to what? I couldn’t tell you. I still can’t tell. The answer, again, searches for certainty where there is none.
Inhabiting the body of Keira Knightley taught me masculinity, and, later on, inhabiting the body of Gerard Way and his famous feather boa taught me femininity. I grew out of playing football, out of Keira Knightley’s body, and into making music, into Gerard Way’s body. My learning of gender was thus skewed, but it correlated nicely with my learning of what I want to do in life, and that, in some ways, enabled me to try to discard interests like I tried to discard bodies and, in turn, genders. By conjuring the ritual of embodiment (flick of the wrist, bend of the knee, spirit, and all), my own body began to learn that it doesn’t have to act a certain way, while I learned that there isn’t anything specific that I absolutely have to do. While I blurred the line between my identity and the identity of characters on TV or celebrities in magazines, I also blurred the lines between my body and me.
I moved from sports to playing drums and then to writing, a profession that necessitates finding words you’ve never before had to describe what you’re going through. There, I realized, I want to settle. After searching so long for ways to explain myself and finding only bodies, it was nice to understand that my obsession with the bodies of others can be a language in and of itself. I do want to be Harry Styles, in the sense that I want to embody Harry Styles. I do want to be Cate Blanchett in Ocean’s 8, in that same sense, and Chris from Christine and the Queens, Bruce Springsteen, the ultimate butch, Gerard Way, Keira Knightley. Am I attracted to them? The answer is that I am attracted to the way their bodies embody not just any idea, but the idea of gender. My obsession with the bodies of others is a language in the sense that I can point at them instead of speaking. “Styles’ clothes aren’t necessarily genderless, but the way he wears them is,” writes Ana Escalante about the fashion of Harry Styles. That is, I find, a sufficient explanation.
It’s like that scene in Little Women (2019) when Laurie, a man, joins the sisters’ theater club and acts out his gender, wearing a costume of a man while being a man. That’s what my Lou-from-Ocean’s 8 jacket feels like. It’s Judith Butler, but primordial. I embody other bodies, and through them I learn that I want to inhabit a form that doesn’t define me; I want to inhabit a form in a way that lets me define it. As I revise this essay for the third time, I am also reading, for the first time, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. “Visibility,” Nelson writes, “makes possible, but it also disciplines: disciplines gender, disciplines genre.” Nelson breaks that genre down in the book, and I want to break that gender down in my visibility.
I am attracted to the way their bodies embody not just any idea, but the idea of gender.
The complex relationship I have with my body isn’t unique to the bodies of queer people. The bodies of oppressed communities are always made more complicated than the bodies of the hegemony. POC and especially Black people in the US, Palestinian people in Israel, disabled people all over the world—these bodies are destabilizing, more vulnerable. These bodies embody different ideas than that of the hegemony, just like queer bodies. And so, the hegemony always tries to tame us. Carmen Maria Machado describes bodies as “uncanny” in this interview. I think that’s a perfect definition. For those who undermine the hegemony, the body is both familiar and foreign, the body haunts us and is haunted. I haunt other bodies, in a way, but they also haunt me. The necessity of the combination between the physical and the metaphysical.
I am aware of the overwhelming whiteness and relative adherence to the hegemony that the bodies I mentioned present. I am okay with people questioning that, and I question that myself when I search for new bodies to inhabit and learn from. More queer bodies, bodies of resistance. It isn’t a coincidence that the only way I could learn how to inhabit my own body is through relatively socially acceptable bodies in which I could find signs of queer physicality to emulate, and it isn’t a coincidence that it’s the comfort of projecting myself into familiar characters or parafamiliar celebrities that helped me most. It’s part of the deal. We begin to find ourselves within the socially acceptable before we create ourselves outside of the socially acceptable. Nevertheless.
When I inhabited the bodies of others, I learned what it means to wear a body rather than being it, which means I learned how to inhabit my own body and be comfortable in my ability to communicate who I really am. I don’t know what I want people to see when they look at my body, just yet—I’m still figuring out if I want to go on T, what kind of changes I would like to see if I do, what kind of clothes I want to wear and how to combine them. I am slowly learning the ways in which I want to embody the idea of me.
Michael Elias is a writer of prose, poetry, essays, plays, and anything in-between. You can find them published in Homologylit, Gold Flake Paint,Jewish News Detroit, The Niche, Harana Poetry, Pass The Mic, and elsewhere. They are currently studying comparative literature, history, and arts at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.