Mirrors, show tunes, movement: how to live inside a body

Bodies! I’m not an animal. Been thinking about the vessel.  I catch my shadow limping lumpily towards its own reflection in the scratched plexiglass of the bus shelter. I cringe at my reflection before any part of my conscious brain can jump in to stop it. Thirty-one years is long enough to know what you look like. Me and my flesh bag.  It’s complicated.

In January, we moved into a flat full of mirrors. Ben had done the viewing without me, and hadn’t mentioned that there was at least one wall of reflective surface per room, thanks to the standard issue built-in storage doors. Deep horror. Mind jumps ahead. Is there such a thing as adhesive black out paper? There is a reason we say that you ‘catch yourself’ in the mirror. The moment passed but it was a reminder that some impulses are never fully unlearnt.  I dance in these mirrors now.  This has been a decade of slow unpicking, not conscious for the most part, but being finally (and finely) tuned to the frequency of my body’s dispatch radio without fear brings with it new and exciting sounds. Strangely it also means more pain. No longer separate, I’m able to hear from a sore knee, take clear feedback from a gnawing muscle in my back.

Mine is no long line of sleek gazelles, oh no. Even my father has his mother’s hips. My whole family had form for refusing our bodies, struggles amplified during the years when we lived as a five. Mother; a professional yo-yo dieter by her own admission, had grown up a pillow in a house of chair legs.  My sisters, both engaged in their own struggles, whether finding ever more elaborate excuses not to eat at all or riding the exploitative wave of slimming clubs and Sweater Shop camouflage. I weighed my up options, all of which seemed to involve retreating into being, first and foremost, a body, to be monitored, starved, regulated, whatever. I chose refusal and ran from mine. I went vegetarian aged twelve and refused to lettuce or onions because they made me think of cells. Bodies. Mealtimes were a minefield with regular casualties. I pierced my septum with a kilt pin and refused to treat my chronic asthma and eczema.

Applaud the gracious conveyor belt of time, because my sisters are both genius angels alive and connected with their female bodies in beautiful fruitful and liberatory ways, mothers to cars full of beautiful healthy children who eat whatever they like. Me, I’m just about grown out of acting like a brain in a jar. I lift, bro, for one. About my gym. Firstly, it is a women’s gym. I had a brief period of working out ten years ago when an old job gave me a pass, but I did it mostly out of hatred and I spent each session trying to hide from the glistening wet men. My gym is called Betty’s. Betty is a severe Italian-Australian with a turmeric tan whose medals for Miss Natural Body (3rd Place World Champion) are displayed in a case alongside protein shakes and scented candles on sale for $40 a go. I watch myself in a mirror. I am not there to change my body, or what it can do. I clock no progress and count no miles. I just move.  Exercise as a joy not a chore brings with it a reconfigured definition of pain, tied not to dread but achievement. I will occasionally wonder what I must look like on the treadmill, but mostly let the thought pass. I count the thud of my feet making contact with rubber without the need for numbers. I suspect that the 50+ year old cohort of tubby grans are also just happy to stave off angina, so we are as one. Bodies. In spite, or perhaps because of this, Betty has taken a health first approach to her gym’s environment, informative, but with a hint of David Cronenburg. The TV screens cycle through a set of explicitly gory Powerpoint slides where she has Google Image’d the end results of vitamin deficiency, apparently either unaware or choosing to ignore that due to various structural factors, her clientele are largely safe from diseases like Beri Beri and Scurvy. I love it.

Shout out to the one punk out there who must have once contracted Scurvy.  I have always queried how archetypal punks seem to just naturally inhabit their bodies, in a way I never could. This pulls up some half discarded shame memory of having to dart ahead in advance of whichever carefree crew I was marauding with, just in case there would be a fence to climb or a wall to skip, factoring in an assumed deficiency in my body that was never really there. This in mind, the primal joy of seeing and communing with fat punk women is hard to verbalise. The joy is only multiplied when it is big gals playing music, which gets me thinking about the strange power of performance.

I have sort of always sung, not generally that well. I remember the day when I finally quit my protracted four years of progress-free piano lessons. It was just after I had taken (and failed) the third grade, which was assessed in a locked room above a shop selling manuscripts of Chopin and the Beatles (the ‘pop contemporary’ section) that reeked of mould and children’s fear. I was only allowed to quit dreaded piano if I took up something else, and persuaded my tired, defeated teacher to just switch over to singing. Miss Todd had slightly translucent skin, magnifier glasses and brown-grey hair tied in a knot. She was English too, which marked her as doubly ‘outsider.’ I felt certain that she loved other women but I didn’t know what shape this could possibly take. Someone had used the word ‘spinster’ to mock her, which also sounded horrific. Soon, she had me belting out scales and parroting weird folk songs from the fifties about lavender bushes and ‘gay mulattos.’ I was told it was all in the technique, so despite her best efforts I never did learn to read sheet music. The idea of pulling sound from my body in accordance with the black dots seemed like witchcraft then and still does now even as I acknowledge that is literally what reading aloud is.

Soon, Miss Todd realised these lessons would be more productive if she just sang to me and I sang back with my eyes closed. Time moved on and I got an Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats, Phantom of the Opera, rank old Tory) song book. Bitch knew I loved those show tunes. Transported out of time and place, I dug the overblown romance and the charm of playing a character. I didn’t know all the plays, but one of songs had a verse that begged “Don’t call me at threeyaayeemm from a friend’s apartment.” I was a flat-chested Welsh girl who’d never been to an apartment or three in the morning, but I instructed my imaginary lover in a full throated soprano just the same. There is another line which is burnt into my brain. “I’m a woman, when you touch me, I’m child when you are leaving, I’m a woman, every time our bodies meet, complete.” My whole body cringed crimson with embarrassment as she projected out each line, and I duly sang it back. Repulsive and obviously written by a foul old man on reflection, but neither of us were getting any, let’s be real, so maybe it was as therapeutic for her as it was me. The words could have been anything, but I was thirteen and my body had still never ‘met’ anyone, and I was terrified, so there was comfort in the strange psychic cosplay. Pretty soon after this I used one of these songs (from which play I still do not know) to audition for a local youth theatre, and the rest isn’t in any way history unless you’re a historian of patchily attended Dylan Thomas plays staged in the late 90s, but certainly helped me out.

I played a gig for the first time in over a year last week. Singing properly this time, too, not just shouting. This time I stretched first because, like I said, I live inside my body now. I fold, inhaling the burn as it blooms down from under my bum to the start of my ankles. What is more corporeal than jumping and shouting and writhing in front of people?  With sweat, spit, hair stuck to face, piss leaking from between legs. (My friend Katie told me a few days into tour that wee sometimes comes out when she sings. I have never felt so validated although with me it’s more likely to be a fart.) On stage – even if the stage is floor – I am forcing them to see me. Them is also me. I am pure energy. No one here knows me beyond a few months of carefully curated interactions so this sensation is only heightened. The euphoria pours out of me. This is what I can do. I drink tea from a bottle before we play like a diva, terrified for the first time of being tripped up by my vocal chords.  I am in my body, moving it. Dancing between outside it and inside it. I’m staring accusingly at the blank space where a set of shoulder should be holding up a face, but there are no lit features to reflect me back. Project yourself. I express and you are forced to sponge it up, at least for five songs plus a cover, sucka. The mirror we hold up to ourselves melts in the moment that self-perception becomes self-realisation. Only for as long as the song, sure, but perhaps karaoke is the closest many people will get to this. An audience is a window not a mirror. Half way through the set we sing a cover of one of my favourite songs. I wail out the words in an entirely different tune to the original. It works. “I hold your colour, when my vision is gone.”

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