Thinking about the ways that we formed ideas about our bodies and who had influence, especially in relation to our identities, is always a headfuck. Doing this project has been a reminder of this so I wanted to try to include an action that felt more nourishing, gentle and caring than my other research.
I asked a new friend, Melissandre Varin, who I had met through an online performance workshop, if they would have a conversation with me about these body topics. I had attended Mel’s artist talk and I find the way that Mel speaks about bodies and their own personal experiences to be very candidly honest and at the same time generous and kind.
Relation, displacement, multiplicity, identity, interdependency, and language emerge from melissandre’s work. Making from an Afro and Caribbean diasporic context, melissandre add layers of complexity using a situated Black feminism. Through poetic performance arts, moving image assemblages, and site-specific installations – among other things – melissandre interrogate how the encounter between bodies that have been marginalised, everyday materials, and institutional spaces transgresses normativity.
Commissioned nationally and internationally, melissandre co-parent 2 years old Eole in Birmingham. They currently work on a pro-Black arts and library space, prepare transnational afrofeminist performances, are an editor Studies in Theatre and Performance and are a Coventry Artspace Advisory Group member.
You can follow Melissandre’s work on their instagram: https://www.instagram.com/vmelissandre/
We started our conversation at the point of ‘butchness’, as an identity and feeling, and let the conversation flow from there. This is an unfiltered unedited written recording of the conversation which we had by email (the best most accessible way for us to do it):
i don t identify as butch and i secretly wish i would embrace my butchness way more.
As a hairy person i have always been mis/malunderstood as a gender fluid body.
Gender as a set of binary efforcement rule did not seem to apply to me.
For -ever i tried to wax, stretch, reduce, my body to fit in with the sex i was assigned to at birth.
i am attracted too bodies that are modeled as enigma. This goes for romantic, romantic-friendship, sexual relationships as well.
i am attracted to those hybrids beings because i feel safer nearby them.
i also felt that having caried an other human being within the realm of my hairy, stripy body provided me with a dose of joy, pleasure, and celebration for that body like i never experienced before.
Everything was suddenly ok – it was ok to eat, speak, and show as much as i wanted to.
i wrote this poem when pregnant for the first time about Black bodies being objectified on a whole new level when carying ‘life’ – random beings touching my belly with little to no notice.
Thinking back at it now i think i would appreciate even more beings daring to touch my body – with consent – i do want beings to touch my hairy body for what it is and not only to reach an infra-frequency life inside.
Thinking about butchness it relates to possibilities to touch and be touched for me – on both side the physical and emotional level.
It is about being seen as a possible body – not as something weird special hard to approach just as a body with its own possibilities.
i have removed my beard for so long – why except to protect the other from the vision of a monstruous body masculine/feminin? i am quite comfortable being the question mark only at the moment i am alive and trying to find ways to learn from and with my body.
My sisters, mother, grandmother… removed or lamented over their beard. My grandmother even refer to it as a curse. Since i only see them via video call for years i feel more comfortable making space for these erased embodied /embodying stories of mine.
What a chance to have such a messed up body for an unbinary person.
Same for the forest contained over my genital and hips – i am in owe of being such a complex embodied thing.
Sometimes it makes me feel unsure unsecure not-quite desirable enough.
i also have large shoulders from an active childhood and teenagehood in artistic gymnastic. i am not yet at peace with how present and visible they make me feel.
i love my boobs. And even more so as their size reduces again and again as i stopped breastfeeding Eole about 3months ago. i remeber how impressed and uncomfortable i was with those exploding boobs end of pregnancy and the 6 first months of chestfeeding.
It did not please the version of my body i like to see. It was just the way it was. Cis-men would look so much more interested in me suddenly i hated that attention.
Now they are floppy and way lower than they used to be – but aiiight i love them the way they balance as little things part of this body.
My belly gets bigger than them and i love it Cf princess nokia tomboy
I relate to many of your thoughts, especially regarding body changes during pregnancy and post partum. I feel lucky that I never experienced a lot of body dysphoria in my life and never cared much how others perceived me or my gender but in early pregnancy I was crying a lot at too much external feminisation and the obsession with the unborn person’s gender inside me which I found gross and perverse in many ways.
And now I feel it again post partum because of similar reasons to you, the curvy fertile and lifegiving ‘goddess body’ gets a lot of unwelcome attention or presumed feminisation. I didn’t realise how much I attributed a slimmer body frame to my gender identity until these experiences.
The other day the postman saw me working by the window and Lex was outside with Cyd and he asked Lex if he was ‘babysitting’, I thought, you cheeky fuck, it’s not babysitting if you’re one of the parents. But I am also very encouraged by the children in the area who ask us questions about why we wear ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ clothes and being open and positive when discussing it. They think we’re some kind of ‘crossdressers’.
Sometimes I feel like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire when he puts the body suit on, it doesn’t feel like mine at all. I was worried it was some kind of body dysmorphia or internalised fatphobia, it could be partially this for sure, but I find fat and curvy people very attractive and in theory I am happy to be this too, I just find it difficult in conjunction with the role of feminised parent and the way people perceive me because of that.
I also have a condition where I have a higher level of testosterone in my body naturally so when my body is surging with hormones from early pregnancy and body feeding, it is like a fight inside of myself.
I also like you enjoyed being pregnant, by this time the hormones had found their own way and I could make a genderless character out of my physicality, ‘the egg king’ and imagine I was dressing myself like an easter egg creature. I want the surreal and the fun experience of bodies and not to play a part that someone else has written for me, like in binary gender.
I was raised in a house where there was a lot of ‘2nd wave feminism’ contradictory ideas. It was burn your bra but also don’t dress like a slut or you’ll get stalked and/or attacked and it’ll be your fault. There was a lot of space to express myself but not without a lot of judgement. My Mum worked for a domestic violence charity and had experienced it herself, she suddenly took on a very butch aesthetic, shaved her head and only wore baggy ‘men’s’ clothes she bought in charity shops. Kids at school would ask me if she was my Mum or Dad. She had been lifting weights and body building since she was young, but at the same time there was and still is a lot of fatphobia, body shame, hair removal and discussion of weight and attractiveness that I have tried to unlearn. I want to believe that I don’t associate an androgynous or genderfluid body as only slim and muscly.
I also wish I could express my butchness more or that I could express it in a way that people could see and understand it, the way I feel it.
I like the term ‘ladette’ because I feel like it was a cultural moment in the 90s that I was definitely influenced by.
I have a funny relationship with hair too, my conditions also make me experience hair loss and in general I am not very hairy but in post partum my hair has grown a lot everywhere. I have one very long grey pube and every time I get infantilised, I hold onto the feeling and image of this one very long white pube. I have pretty hairy shins too and I forget that people are still shocked by this, it’s funny to me when I catch them looking and it takes me a minute to realise what they are confused or disgusted by.
I’m sorry that people touched you without consent. I of course can’t imagine what being racialised adds to this whole experience and I am grateful for you sharing your experiences with me. I would love to read your poem if you want to share it but there is no pressure of course.
I wrote this small poetic text about being an egg king: https://www.covenberlin.com/how-to-boil-an-egg/
Hello beloved egg king,
You know how briefly touching upon a topic sometimes just mean that it stays with you for ages and you start to observe how the transformation errupting from the implicit encounter between the topic and your body manifest.
My family from the Caribbean with whom i have spent the most time is an essential gatekeeper when it comes to fatphobia. i grew up with all its drama at home being the slimmest of my family – they would praise my body- i would feel proud about it. But it means that de-polluting myself from fatphobia takes lots of work attention and care. i love to see bodies opening in general and do not have a particular desire to lay in bed with sculptural body holders – but i also like having agency to care for my body and to model it for it to be more androgenous – and my version of it at the moment is a slug – a bright colour slug. You remember giving a talk about it maybe 6-9months ago? You planted a desire/fatasm in my head that day. i think as for everything that craving for oneself and to undertake the changes that makes us as individuals embody a fuller version of ourselves is ok. But it has to be inscribed in pluriversality – i just dream of many shapes, form and most importantly in my imaginary colours in the streets and our communities. i dream of all of us.
When my body dysphoria kicks in it is definitly linked to family trauma whether too hairy – hide / shave/ wax it – or too feminin – too similar to the matriarchs of my childhood. i want to be on a funambulist rope all of the time – it is where i feel safe and loved not within boxes.
i used to be offended by this word you used ‘creature’ because in my circles growing up it would be used as us creatures of god shall fear god. i hated it – i do have a very particular realtionship to authority. But now that time has passed and most importantly distance to my biological family as settled in i feel warmth in that term.
i love to get to know more about you. i have a couple of grey public hair too – it appeared to my eyes when pregnant -i am not sure if they were there before – but i explored my body way more with processes of pregnancy and found them with joy. i love there silver look but also their textured are different. i feel safer with them on me. In particular because my mother passed away when i was 12 – so i am always somehow preparing stuff for Eole to remember me with their own memory and my own words just in case i transition to the unknown sooner than later. Those mark of time, change, transformation makes me feel alive -a little bit more.
i desire more masculine-femme / butch beings and i thought that i would find more joy and pleasure in my body following our conversation in allowing myself to desire myself too. So lots of clothes that do not represent my current realities went to charity shops – i feel lighter – possibilities arising – by allowing myself to cater for more of my needs rather than putting them all in other beings hands.
In the end on an individual and collective level it is always about love and justice and this conversation outgrew my de-limited visions of myself.
i need to go to work.
i feel more loving and caring – after those exchanges – thank you Laura, – i love you.
Wow, I appreciate these words so much Melissandre, thank you. I think it is great that we managed to have this conversation slowly at our own pace without pressure and to have the time to think about it more in between emails and everything else we have going on of course!
I really resonate with and feel validated by what you said about preparing to be your child’s memory. I lost my biological Dad when I was 3 and I never had anything of his until recently, just one photo and a couple of tshirts. He is on acid in a lot of photos and flashing his arse so my Mum never wanted to give me these photos as a child and I was also banned from being in touch with any of his family when I was about 8 years old. It really caused some kind of identity crisis in me when I was a teenager (also because I don’t relate much to my Mum’s family), which I heard is common for people whose parents die when they are a child. I get anxious sometimes that I don’t have enough photos with Cyd in case I also cross over sooner than I hope for and that they won’t have anything to remember me with.
I love so much that you enjoyed the sea slug fantasy, I definitely see you as a bright colourful sea slug! I like to adopt these bodies to escape from physical pain and discomfort or also dysphoria. Helps to expand or release myself outside of human and gender pressures of identity.
That’s also really good to know about the relation you and probably many more people have with the word ‘creature’. My ‘step-dad’, or alive/current Dad as I call him, was about to be ordained as a Buddhist monk when he met my mum so I was brought up around a lot of Westernised appropriation of Eastern religion and not really any Christianity so I didn’t know about that but I’m glad to be aware of it and those connotations.
After we last wrote I had the realisation that although I come from a very gay family on my Mum’s side, they are simultaneously quite homophobic and that has probably been a headfuck that I’ve been unpicking for a while and now I feel quite released from it since this conversation so thank you.
I am so happy that this exchange has set some ideas and actions in motion for you. I am waiting for my body to figure out what shape it wants to be after bodyfeeding, so I can find the right clothes to put around it, but I also feel more sure of expressing my inner self more authentically. I’m ready to work too. And I love you!
Such warmth and tenderness in this conversation and in your poem also, thank you for sharing.