Writing exercise 1.
Blood hot and heavy fat laden pushing and coursing, veins
Sometimes working passing air usefully shaking feeling the rushing past the pain
Pieces I don’t see of understand the smell of feet protein condensed water and feeling high, concentrated pain breath and pressure.
Feeling and doing, numb and feeling still doing
Pushing, pushing through pushing away would normally run from this feeling
Too big for the room
Arms and feet extend, pass the boundaries
Almost wearing it (the room)
Arms too big to feel
Feet disappearing stood on stalks feet fizz away to invisible
I feel red the noises are disturbed into the rushing of the veins and structures around my face and head. We pulsate together.
Am I exploding or am I exploding?
Witnessed but alone.
Exercise 2: Entering the room
- Reaching the metal stairs, feeling the cold handrail feeling relief to be touching something solid.
- The group of women on the sofas by the door turn to look, nobody smiles, although we are all familiar with each other there is no response, only blank faces.
- Behind the bar the male trainer looks directly at me and nods.
- There is a breeze that lifts high cleansing my path ahead – fresh unbreathed intoxicants into the room ahead of me.
- The room is mine, all the machines waiting. To move and lift, notch and cog, mechanic jungle scene working together in some kind of unearthly blueprint.
Writing exercise 3: Virus, if everyone could feel the joy I feel…
The room would sweat, no one would take offence – the bodies would bulge and pulsate.
The air would be full of grunting, occasionally you would get splashed by another’s efforts and suddenly you would be caught needing to join – either pushing myself or helping them. Effort is contagious it vibrates and resonates. Writing one of these moments you can feel but see very little, momentarily all eyes are turned inward looking for that point, the reason.
Once found or touched in an imaginary war we all slip back and wait for another quake of pushing effort come from, pulsating critique and monsters.
Started in Daniel Oliver’s Neuro-diverse writing group, also in response to conversation with Isa Fontbona Mola.
Reflecting on past choices, initially looking at gender and ways at which I tried to be a successful woman. I had spent so long surviving/ I didn’t have time to challenge where I was really coming from, what I wanted, how I saw myself, how I would like to be. Everything has been reaction, rather than the reflexive inquiry which I believe is beginning to take place now, in my forties.
At some point I decided to challenge my perception of gender by working physically to take on characteristics of the binary opposite. In reflection I feel this may have been in response to:
- Growing up surrounded by some extreme toxic masculinity, equally a time where women somehow stood behind men or even appeared to ‘operate’ them.
- Ingrained family or generational homophobia.
- Repeatedly experiencing domestic violence over many years and other incidents male perpetrator violence.
- Perceiving my ‘successful female-ness’ as currency and part of an economy that could keep me ‘safe’.
- female expressed as victim – culturally this being totally acceptable.
Whilst all these things are happening its hard to contextualise who and what you are.
I came to place where I learnt to modify myself and body being part of that. Here not only could I draw a protective ring but remove myself from the usual pressure of the male gaze – or swap it for one I was less accustomed to. Interestingly, the gaze I swapped it for is one where my body was judged in comparison to male muscular bodies. I became physically self-assured, however not completely confident as this was new and somewhat unstable territory for me.
This brought up a deeper questioning of my personal positioning of gender and where/what was my inquiry via bodybuilding. I had never been ‘girlie’, and some respect totally withdrew and could not associate with some aspects of culturally portrayed feminine. ‘Basic’ traits felt completely alien to me, e.g. playing with dolls. Take away the binary, there is no issue. There’s no pure expectation of women or scale of woman to adhere to. (To be revisited)
Other lenses that might be just as relevant for me around bodybuilding are that of control, substance use+abuse/medical perspective+intervention that may roll into each other.
Self-historical issues like:
- Teenage to early 20s mixed substance addiction (doc heroin), which developed a perspective of control over feelings/states of mind. Also suited my dissociative/dehumanisation disorder.
- Consequentially lead to development of unusual relationship with medicine and deep fascination with the body and anatomy, but also (self) control over body.
- Previously as a young teenager I suffered from eating disorders, Bulimia then Anorexia and was able to display discipline and control over food.
Here, bodybuilding was able to feed different facets of my lived but also comfortable and familiar experience. I find that I have an excessively poor memory, which I link to dissociative disorder – however over and over again, I’m drawn to pieces of a puzzle which I can eventually link together over time. I leave breadcrumbs to discover and trace back to something I already knew.
Something interesting is beginning to happen as I start to train again.
A few issues that have arisen that I’m noting here to expand on later or through other writing:
- What is bodybuilding? What is bodybuilding to me? What makes it different from other types of training or exercise? (Diet, goals, method of training, dislocated body parts.)
- Relationship to pain. Pain not only defines the body to self, as in, I can feel my outline via DOMS (could this be a key in terms of dissociation/losing self?). But also, I experience pain when I don’t train – my body aches and some joints feel arthritic/RSI/etc. When my mother died, my legs ached incurably for months, in the end it was suggested by a GP it was emotional pain or linked to grieving.
- Training during and post pandemic may now be a solitary activity – training completely alone, without audience and interaction. Safety is an aspect to consider but I’m relearning my way around equipment trying not hurt myself/trap fingers etc. I’m slowly starting to see this as a positive or ‘purer’ or undiluted, less reactive experience. Somehow potentially a deeper experience.
Some ideas formed through and after a conversation with Isa Fontbona Mola
- Marina Ambramovic called her teaching sessions “Cleaning the house” – ‘house’ stands in for ‘body’ (research https://mai.art/cth2020)
- Traditionally the idea of housekeeping includes ideas that denote female pastimes as cleaning windows and floors, buying/keeping/making food, polishing, tidying, dusting, wiping, washing and making attractive. The house/home becomes the woman’s domain. Heteronormatively, outside the home – the garden, garage, shed, bins but also inside the attic or cellar, is the mans.
- Woman are ascribed the emotional labour, this is the emotional glue of caring, balancing & making sure everyone is OK/functioning or enabling function. Prompt order and request tasks to be done – emotionally taxing – nagging. Seen, unseen (&unwanted?) labour. Got to be ‘just right’ or right enough. Supervising – overseeing – overarching role?
- Can a link be drawn between bodybuilding and the action of keeping a house/house keeping?
- How does male and female bodybuilding differ? What role does attention to detail play? Attention to which details?
- Could female bodybuilding be imaginatively linked to an extreme, extra or deeply defined attention to detail version of housekeeping?
Things to consider:
- Eating disorders
- Body as political statement.
- Not defying female, but re-presenting.
- Not male attributes, but ‘further female-ifying’
- Female fear of becoming perceived as masculine.
- Western cultures to 1950’s definition of gender
- Goal based – what is the goal?
- Has this been done?
I was there at my grandma’s house, and she could see me, she was in a good mood. She was imp-like and dancing round happily, happier than usual. She always treated me as an equal, as an adult or like her and for some reason she never seemed old. We ran around the garden, no – she told me to go and dig up the boxes from the garden. There were 2 wooden boxes, one was hers and the other was mine.
I had almost entirely forgotten until that prompt. I have a vague recollection of mine; at the time I didn’t want it. Even though, things might be different now. It was buried in a box coffin, as was my grandmas.
We took the boxes into the living room to open them up. You could hear the fire was roaring and threw out an orange cast on our backs.
Every so often we need to get them out, look at them, feel how cold they are, see their dollishness and change their clothes. We sat in front of the fire facing the windows onto the garden – the deep blue night grain shifted to a more familiar daylight grey fog fuzz, and that is all I remember.
In my work I go through various stages of being seen and not. The spectrum of this is impossibly profound. I’m never quite sure which Francesca Steele I am going to be perceived as. There’s the one only whispered about, Or the other, that “you can’t believe it’s her”.
At points within these different stages of visibility, I ride an unexpected wave and whilst shopping or walking or asking a question in a lecture become totally invisible. I don’t know how I do it, but it happens I completely disappear. Even my voice becomes paralysed and can only squeak, but then thinks “maybe I shouldn’t be here either” and disappears more.
The only problem is if I become apparent, I’m so full of frustration or confusion, assertion and expression, I don’t know what to do. It’s too much and not controlled, it says odd things and turns the spotlight on itself. It talks nonstop nervously, goes to far, says too much, asks too many questions, says things that other people only think, then stops – And wishes it could sweetly scale down to a full stop and stay there at the end.
Increased physical strength is one of many consequences of bodybuilding, but the recipe itself works to break-down, build-up and create shape in muscle. A further intertwined consequence, found deepest within the muscle, is that bodybuilding provides an opportunity; the chance to refocus or ‘prompt’ to look inside.
To roll my eyes inwards and pursue my personal mental landscape – my own maze, with only myself as witness. The outside might be sweating, pushing, contracting tissue. On the inside I calmly pick up and move obstacles effortlessly through dark muted and harmonious tones, repeated until I easily gain failure.
I stay long enough to momentarily forget, when re-delivered the comparison is stark. The swift and sweaty return stuns.
Evolving questions: Practice involves trauma, when visible, it becomes excruciating. Is this a kind authentication? Could these shifts be easier? I’m drawn to things that make me feel vulnerable, that pull and push, shock or scare -or is that the remnant or afterglow I leave for myself? The process happens with all of the work; bodybuilding, performance, one-to-one and writing.
Daniel Oliver’s Neurodiversity Writing Retreat to the prompt word of neurotypical.
Today I am feeling full of nerves, like my body is fizzing, like the stress is bubbling over – I can’t pinpoint the reason or where it is coming from in my body – the virus news or the fact I have pages and pages of marking to do & that my articulations are too long and hard work to make sense of.
My head, my nasal passage, my navel, my back passage all inflamed and not thinking straight – I’d like to be less nervous or less gibberish – but waiting for the effervescing to leave or wear itself out. Whatever, my body has an agenda.
Which strand of non-typical does the iterations come from, I’m told I romanticise difficult issues and talk viscerally or visually – in art is that not a skill? Writing works best for me when it flows – today is barred from that ease. Constantly looking for something to put right or waiting to be put right, not quite in control, drunk without the alcohol, feeling fallout I can’t quite touch. High on unrooted nerves.
Making the work because I felt I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to say or form sentences – or even engage an audible voice. Relying on facial expression or a poker face, to get into where the crowd was and then still not quite fitting. Literally having the opposite thought to the rest of the class and self-marginalising.
Not being able to tell the difference between a word, a thought, a body or a being. All amplified as colour or an electric nerve pain, or both clouded and sharp. Still trying to shift the right bit into focus, the bit I want you to see. Could it be something about learning to hide yourself and then becoming scared of your reflection.
With no audience: A new facet of training (or now, often, not training) in a domestic environment is the pronounced lack of audience – or, the people that come to the same place to do the same thing as me, at the same time. Accidently and politely we learn each other’s routines, just as well as we know our own – the gym becomes clockwork maintaining each other’s rotas of particular machines, at particular times and small or silent acknowledgements.
My motivation is slipping without those who casually looked, watched and noted how I was doing, those who witnessed and supported what my body or attitude revealed. Each rotation of clockwork is a marker, another small check-in where we become intuitively aware of how each other is progressing.
Sometimes motivation forms from jealously or aspiration, it can come from a need to escape – or to get to somewhere else. But without the people that come to the same place to do the same thing as me, at the same time – I seem to have lost a reflection that kept me locked in.
Domestic turn: Shifting my training routine to a home-environment is bringing with it lots of unexpected sensations. Weights seem heavier, supports (including chairs) are the wrong position or height for training, as a consequence I am feeling much more injured. This comes after waiting at least a month, maybe 5 or 6 weeks for my left knee to heal – after turning it slightly in the wrong direction, a minor rotation that put me out of action. Maybe my age is showing through my body. Maybe healing is taking longer.
Yes, at home, I cannot go full power. My weights lie on a dark teal silky shaggy rug, dotted around a sofa and padded ottoman that has become my chest press flat bench. There is little room and no mirror, it is impossible to check my form – it’s all happening in my head and I’m clearly not quite getting it right. Gym equipment colliding, engulfing colour schemes making intriguing, almost exciting combinations. Movements and actions need to be adjusted to the new parameters – avoiding the low lampshade, and my collections of trinkets; the many armed doll, Franko’s stitches and grandparents nick-knacks. All now part of my gym, forming an imitation audience of the one I hadn’t quite acknowledged that I had – or that I performed for.
So, in the gym, you constantly judge yourself in relation to other people. The gym is a place of transformation and everyone there is moving along their own axis – back and forth, maybe with slight adjustments, and then back and forth. This is all visible, in that way, the gym is an honest place. You see people try to do things and fail, here, failure after failure becomes success. Real failure is getting fat or not coming to the gym for a prolonged period, but you can always turn that into a success story.