The Body is Present

I have been trying to remember my first time. Sorry to disappoint, but I am not referring to my debut orgasm, which involved me getting it on with a spin-cycling washing machine. Nor am I invoking my first sexual experience with a live person rather than an inanimate object. [Aside: I can hear those material culture types railing: ‘objects have agency, you know!’ Oh, my textile-loving friends, I do know. Only too well.] In any case, it would take little effort for me to recall that intense, life-changing, fabulous, and completely hilarious event. I am tempted to describe it in detail right now but fear that you will not believe me, or else will accuse me of exaggerating. Plus I am saving that scene for my novel, which I am currently writing in my head, developing characters by means of astute observation, especially at airports. To be fair, I can give you a teaser: during my initiation all those years ago I went nuts, made a lot of noise, and shouted, ‘why on earth have I never done this before?’ ‘Oh yeah,’ I remembered, ‘because I was unfortunately born straight and all of the boys in highschool were moronic.’ After graduation my standards were lowered by my relentlessly dictatorial Eye of Sauron, otherwise known as ‘the idiot locator.’ [Thanks google search!] Back to the delicate matter at hand: what with all the commotion I somehow managed to remove both contact lenses from the peepers of my lucky date. Despite later crawling about naked on our hands and knees to search, they were never recovered. When he lamented, ‘that just cost me $100,’ I laughed my ass off, which in those days was rather taut if I do say so myself. You will no doubt be surprised to hear that I was zero sorry. My sexual mantra was and to a certain degree still is: ‘what I lack in skill I make up for in enthusiasm.’    

I am brimming with enthusiasm these days, my warm and likely dampish readers, although it is directed at German and French philosophers—hopefully wearing cheap glasses. My scholarly side is back with a vengeance as I complete the FFG manuscript in a crazed flurry of intellectualism. This book has little in common with the blog that you are enjoying. For instance, the chapter that I am working on, entitled ‘Female Embodiment and the Sensation of Muscle Failure,’ engages with phenomenological theory—think Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Beauvoir—to suggest that lifting heavy weights to failure is a radical event liable to alter the living body and its situation. At least for many women. I am not sure about the male body, which remains to me an enigmatic mystery wrapped in random furry patches and surprisingly placed fatty deposits. I did briefly consider expanding my knowledge of the masculine dark continent by reading about ’25 sex tips that will blow his mind’ in Cosmo magazine while standing in the grocery check-out line today, but was distracted by the ‘Perky Jerky’ being purchased by the client in front of me. 

So my first experience with muscle failure was with the fabulous G-Smash, during one of our early training sessions. Ah. Wave of nostalgia. I will never forget that moment: I was seated, performing dumbbell shoulder presses, again and again. G-Smash was encouraging me with her usual shouts of ‘keep going’ and ‘shear me!’ when suddenly my arms froze in mid-press. My brain kept telling them to move. Astonished, I commanded ‘push you lazy bitches,’ but my shoulders did not comply. I looked in noncomprehension at my muscular trainer and she just laughed. From then on I was addicted, pursuing this sensation whenever possible, without ‘overtraining.’ I loved how the feeling of failure made my body materially present, as an active agent that was both me and not-me. I understood then that my body was essentially beyond control even as it would agreeably get bigger and stronger as I wished it to do. 

Last week I took a break from thinking about how repetitive motions make me feel by going to the movies with my LSP. We had selected the documentary, ‘Marina Abromovic: The Artist is Present,’ which centres on her 2010 retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Abromovic is a groundbreaking performance artist who featured her own body in her work during the 1970s and 80s, often in violent, aggressive or dangerous situations, and brandishing what now seems like a shockingly huge batch of pubic hair. Selected younger artists restaged some of these dramatic performances at the MOMA, while Abromovic created a new work, called ‘The Artist is Present.’ It involved her sitting almost motionless in a chair in the art gallery for 90 days in a row, looking directly into the eyes of whoever chose to sit across from her. Here is a photograph, which can by no means capture the intensity of this event.

Hundreds of thousands of people participated, lining up for hours, and even camping outside the gallery doors for a few nights. Many visitors cried during their seating, and even watching it on film was quite emotional. I cried. What on earth could be so moving about something so simple? It is hard to say but the compassion and vulnerability of Abromovic was palpable; she physically embodied a kind of overwhelming aura. At the same time, being looked at, without judgment, is crucial to becoming human. I later recalled a visit to my partner’s family, which included his brother’s young children. I love kids and am really good with them—will wonders never cease?—but my partner was unsure of himself, admitting ‘I have no idea what to do with children.’ ‘Just look at them,’ I said. ‘Spend time with them. And they will fall in love with you.’ The same goes for adults, even if we rely on artists to relate such basic truths.

‘Our culture favours motion and undervalues stillness,’ claimed Abromovic with her usual insight. I grabbed a crumpled cinema program from my purse and wrote that down. Yes, I thought, realizing that both art and weight lifting have the power to change the world.

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About feministfiguregirl

I am a 49-year-old professor named Lianne McTavish who receives as much satisfaction from working out at the gym as from publishing my academic research. I decided to combine my two primary identities (scholar/gym rat) to create "Feminist Figure Girl," a fictional character who both analyzes and participates in bodybuilding. I competed in my first figure show in June of 2011, and then wrote a book inspired by the process, published by SUNY Press in February 2015. In this blog I will write about and consider my ongoing research on the body, while regularly making fun of myself. I recommend that you start reading my first post from August 2010 (available on the home page), instead of backwards from the most recent one, in order to get the full FFG effect.

5 thoughts on “The Body is Present

  1. Having competed at my first powerlifting meet this past weekend, I will say that the question of the gaze of a crowd on a competing lifter is one I find interesting–perhaps more interesting than I should. My sense of the crowd’s eyes on my form was entirely eclipsed by my physical exertion and the concentration needed to perform each attempt to my max ability, but I was often in front of the crowd/other lifts and NOT lifting and therein lay a slight question of how they saw me versus how I see myself as a lifter–more specifically a powerlifter. I’ve struggled with this question for a few months now–I’m a very small woman who’s relatively strong for her size, but that size has, I’ve been repeatedly told, surprised many who see me when it produces high levels of strength. I have had to define myself as a strong athlete without the benefit/aid of being judged as such under the gaze of most of those who look at me. It has actually been my efforts at self-definition without the backup of others’ acknowledgement of my identity that has factored into my resolve to excel at this sport. I know myself for what I can do, and have constantly surprised/proven others wrong in the face of what they judge from visual cues. When your performance belies your image, it has a bolstering effect.

    • Yes I am currently using phenomenological theory to argue that athleticism is typically defined in terms of intense movement or measurable physical accomplishment, which leads some to doubt that bodybuilding is athletic—after all, it features stillness especially in popular photography (if not in the process of building muscles or consistently at shows). The stillness of the pose is ultimately what raises problems for some critics…

      • What about bodybuilders who break the classic ideas of posing? I’m thinking of Kai Greene. If you aren’t familiar with him you could check out a few routines on Youtube. He certainly blends these lines even more. The exception might prove the rule, but there has been a slight trend amidst (mostly amateur) bodybuilding to add some flair to the evening event.

      • Thanks for directing me to the video clip of Kai Greene on stage at the Arnold in 2012. Wow. Very acrobatic/gymnastic/dancelike. He is definitely showing off his athletic ability and grace, his muscle control, in addition to posing. In bodybuilding scholarship, attention is still paid to still photographs more than to posing routines, lending credence to the idea that bodybudiling is about display rather than being an activity based pursuit. I think Greene and others are challenging that idea!

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