One of the first things that the two women, a burlesque dancer and a party organizer, mentioned to me was how hard it is to be a woman in their businesses here in Brazil. I was interviewing them for an anthropological project on sadomasochism. In the room below us, a man was lying face up on the floor while a woman in a pink dress and four-inch stilettos was dancing on top of him. Another woman watched with a beer in her hand, sitting on the back of a man on his hands and knees. They were playing The Smiths very loudly when a man asked to worship my feet, but I informed him that I was just a researcher, thanks.
It’s my semester abroad, and I’ve been reading Bodies That Matter slowly and carefully, watching the bodies on the beach in Rio de Janeiro, considering how they came to matter. The text by Judith Butler expands on her theories of gender as a performance set out in Gender Trouble, and in it Butler dissects, among other things, the materiality of the body itself.
Around the time a professor in Berlin lent me Bodies That Matter, six months ago, I was redefining my own relationship to the matter of my body. The excruciating pain that I was getting to know with every meal I ate gave me little time to appreciate that my clothes had become looser once again. In a dark place I ran into an ex-boyfriend who noticed that the boundaries of my body had shifted. He told me I looked better back when we were together. I didn’t cry because I wasn’t feeling anything, or I cried weeks later, I don’t remember.
Meanwhile, my grandmother’s body was becoming matter. She was so thin because of the cancer in her esophagus. We were both flickering and fading, but she never came back. It seemed more crucial than ever to me to understand what it means to be a body or to have a body or to not fit into your body at all. When the pain was at its worst, I left my body for Brazil: physically I might have still been in a German hospital bed, but in reality I was already on the beach in Rio watching butterflies, and my skin was warm and empty. Disassociation is a survival tactic. I wonder who my body belongs to when I’m not there to claim it.
I arrived in Brazil, bringing my whole self, I think. In class one day, the professor asked us why we came here. All of the European boys in my class at the Brazilian university said: the women. They meant The Brazilian Woman with tan skin and perfect curves, I assume. They didn’t come here for the pale women or the bony women or the tired women that I see every day on the subway. (Those women struggling to keep their worlds together, they can be found in any country.) Their image of Brazil didn’t include those women – it was constructed in their space as if they were not there, as if they occupied no space at all. But I already know from having found my place there that the section of the subway reserved for women is full.
I get used to the feeling of taking up space again. I can feel that I’m getting better and I’m challenging myself to think of bodies in new ways, to see them without their boundaries, or inverted, or to not see them at all. I had a Brazilian lover – we went to the movies together; we argued about art; his body didn’t really matter. But then he said to me I noticed you gained weight, Charlotte.
And for a few minutes my matter became a body, and it didn’t fit, it was suffocating. This man always held doors open for me in public. He lent me a text by Sigmund Freud. He told me angrily that gender is a matter of simple, undeniable physical difference. Through his eyes my body became a cage again, a sheet of glass between myself and the world. My body stopped being a body and I was forced to live in the places where I was too much, it was all that was left of me, globs of flesh and blood that made me who I was, no body.
When then he started talking about my health it was absurd and dull to listen to. I would like to see him and my ex-boyfriend debating my ideal body: passionately arguing their opinions about my health, I guess.
I left the sadomasochist meeting unexpectedly disappointed. I realized I had been hoping to find some answers there – to understand the significance of willfully recreating these dialectics of dominance and submission, in a world where untold numbers of people suffer and die under systems of violence. Is it Subverting? Perpetuating? Reclaiming? Deconstructing? I wanted it to fit into one of my clean academic categories, ready for sociological analysis. Is it some kind of morality theater, fiction to reveal to us the truth? Is it fiction at all? I should have known I wouldn’t answer society’s existential questions in a dungeon-like club decorated with red and black balloons. So, what is the place where I can understand the brutality of being alive?
There is so much more than gender at stake here, so much more than sex, much more than me. Meanwhile Brazil is full of bodies that Don’t Matter. It is a country where the police murder six people a day, mostly young men whose deaths aren’t mentioned on TV. I want to make sense of these things, but it’s no longer self-evident to me how and why bodies come to matter.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a body for as long as I can remember, but Judith Butler hasn’t had many answers either. I continue to be a body across time and space, and this body continues to be mine even though it is always different. It is like speaking in a language that is constantly changing, it is like driving a car that has no dimensions. It is like clinging to religion in the bloody climax of the Crusades. If we all hold our breaths and let go of who we are, everything might melt together and then none of this will matter anymore. Is this just wishful thinking?