December 7, 2014


Throwing Up Huevos Rancheros in a Motel in Napa, 1pm
Natalie Eilbert

This is what I decided to do today. I moved to the small corner of my hotel room that receives wifi in order to transfer the small amount in my savings to the small amount in my checking. I did this to pay the $30 for 7 unlimited days of Bikram Yoga during my time in Napa. It is a good decision. My body needs constant preening. It needs to be alone inside itself. For this reason, I have always had major distractions. When I bend in yoga, there is the distinct sense that my body is becoming taut. When I’m bent over myself and fucking, a consummate heat rises from my folds. I have folds. Sometimes, depending on the position, I’m forced to stare into their elephantine hills. I remind myself in these moments that everyone has folds when their ankles are at their ears, but not like this. This is my unique shame. I like exercising because when I exercise, there is a clear subject-predicate of effort and control. Society would capture this condition of power differently though, because society is normally wrong: my effort and control in exercise are in direct alignment with the ideals of beauty because it is my hope, through exercise, that I merge with the ideals of beauty. Let me be clear here: I do want to merge with the ideals of beauty, and yes, my control does hinge on my exercising my way to thinness. Society might not be off here, but as a feminist with a damaging history of eating disorders, this kind of thinking demands recalibration. I don’t want to be my society. But I need to exercise to arrive anywhere else.

In Chicago the public transit operates so that all ‘L’ trains meet in a center, a downtown, a loop, a place without residence. Due to the infrastructure, it takes a long time to travel between neighborhoods. It takes an hour and a half to commute from Rogers Park to Logan Square, for example, but a quick ping at Uber and you’ll be at your destination in fifteen minutes. I only recently experienced this geographically. My body runs and yogas and runs and yogas, but I am still far away despite this self-contained intimacy, despite how I target these rituals with Super Food Decisions. I touch my clit and note its deep charge. I’m supposed to feel a pure yonic sensation of body, but I feel only the act of this function and not the transcendence of the act. I’m supposed to understand this same transcendence in collective breathing exercises, but my breath feels as acutely part of me as when, for Jane Jacobs, a space in a city loses its economic function to its surrounding economic developments. My body, when prompted to focus on its very function in yoga and when made to consider its central valves, must always be at risk of being disenfranchised by a foreclosing exterior. Perhaps a stubborn and persistent 21-century era patriarchy. Perhaps the agony of aging earns its hum and frenzy from such a patriarchy, so that, at 27 years old, I’d choose to twist and sweat inside this autoclave of a yoga studio over resting in the soft warmth of UV rays. In fact, I no longer desire rest.  I worry what my anxieties are doing and have done to my desires. I am sitting down to write this and the touch of my thighs against the cloth seat sickens me. Even when I set forth to do what I love, which is write, the sensation of skin disturbs me, removes me from the very ritual I’ve sought to construct. Why is this, and how does exercise solve this problem? Or does it merely perpetuate my disturbances?

Gertrude Stein says Act so that there is no use in a center. I’ve always interpreted this point in Tender Buttons to be an axiom on writing and art, to suggest that one should never stop long enough to explain their art; but it comes to me now to mean physical redaction, a desire to remove the body from the act, to restore an entire historical moment to the invisibility writing can offer. Writing on the outerbanks of explanation. I suppose these two thoughts can exist on the same plane, though one can see how this might draw out certain anxieties of creation: how should we both resist explanation and visibility when, as women, we are taught only apology and exposure. I am beginning to suspect my clit lacks a center but I don’t want to omit anything and I don’t want to explain what it is I’m doing in this gaudy hotel room futilely rubbing my twat in the heat.

This may explain why I’ve replaced masturbation with exercise nearly altogether. I am invigorated with the idea of constant motion and crippled to paralysis by calculations, especially where the unique math of a building orgasm is concerned. Pleasure desires an algorithm and I’m into suffering these days, which carries its own special grief tautology. I grieve my physical body because I own my physical body in a way that I will never own anything else; in a way, it is my only possession, because the female body has always been a special commodity. Body ratios charge and recharge the gaze. Beauty feels like ascendency, even as the Bible teaches that women’s external beauty is a blight in the Lord’s eye and that man must punish them with their just desserts. From Ezekial 28:17: “Your heart was proud because of your beauty; / You corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor. / I cast you to the ground; / I exposed you before kings, / to feast their eyes on you.” I do cherish the notion of external beauty because I’m fascinated by its temporary honeymoon with us, and fascinated still by its decay. Women need a proud heart in order to face the men of all ages on the streets who feast on the splendors of our bodies. My obsession with exercise begins to feel like a subjugation of my own making even if all I actually want to do is run in public and burn some calories.

I view my body as the ultimate object which I can shrink and fatten depending on my will-power. I don’t want men to perceive me as an object, but, because I must be seen, I opt to resemble a two-dimensional avatar as much as I can. Because I must be seen and I do not want to be seen. Because I crave a radical profile and I object to the knowledge of this profile. In intellectualizing exercise and its effect on my psyche, I know I’m contradicting myself when it comes down to how I want others to perceive me. This knowing contradiction has to do with an important intersection-play with Stein’s center: To be part of today’s feminine iconography is not to participate but to be thrust, pushed into a cajoling realm of parts. If I am contradicting myself about my desires, it is due to the imbroglio of these perceived personas of female identity. My feminist poet self versus my girly vain self. They should not be different but are, though feminist bloggers are doing an incredible job of solving this problem by brazenly occupying Girly. So many women operate under the deadly schism of beauty and brains, as if to be one should negate the other; as if to lack one trait should behoove you to be the other; as if to possess both earns you a very special eye.  I am reminded of Anna Leventhal’s brilliant essay written last year, “Other Girls,” where she writes about the allure of the manic pixie dream girls (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) over the terrors of being seen like “other girls” (Spring Breaker’s pink balaclava’d girlgang). Misogyny wants us special, to walk in bold stencil outside the blur of girly superficial norms, so that we might satisfy a package deal. Where I used to chainsmoke and wear Doc Martens and torn fishnets and Grandma Marion’s vintage slips, now I wear Lululemon and hydrate regularly. Ubiquity, which at its roots means “omnipresence” and which at one point in Lutheran theology pointed to Christ, now paints a scene of faces in a crowd. The Internet balms over this ubiquity with free and open access, so finally these quintessential other girls merge with the singular intellectual. It gives us the opportunity to choose between two modes: Now I have a body; now I do not. I am as special as I am not, and it doesn’t concern you.

But back to having a body. Female masturbation implied feminist subversion when I was growing up. Because rural Republicans can’t get a grip on female sexuality, female masturbation still ridiculously can and does imply subversion. As a child, I was forced by a man and then several to see my body as sexual. I am one of millions of girls whose first sexual encounter happened without her consent, so it’s no wonder that I desire to remove my natural womanly curves. It’s also no small wonder why I might see masturbation a form of control, albeit insatiable control. Shakespeare’s famed description of masturbation, “having traffic with thyself alone,” is a compelling phrase when put into the context of female sexuality, and then again when put into context of any type of lone physical release we perform. Exercise, masturbation, nervous breakdowns. To call what happens in our bodies traffic is to make more complicated traffic. Though of the terrible traffic, exercise is the one that is socially acceptable to perform in public, and the visibility of my exercising is often part of what makes it so vital in my life. Such admittance feels problematic, because the question Do I want people to acknowledge my hard work? implies girl-specific invectives like “attention-getting,” “superficial,” “shallow,” “empty.” It begs Other Girl status. Do I want people to view my body as hard when so much of my impression of the female body growing up was that it was—I was—to be soft and weak? Do I sometimes publicize selfies of my post-workout face, the sweaty cave of collarbone below my neon sports bra, because I want the world to appreciate the labor of my time? Do I sometimes run harder and faster when I hear catcallers cluck and kiss over my headphones? Fuck yes I do. This idea that such a confession might “make” me attention-getting/superficial/shallow/empty puts me in no more a disrepair than it puts society. Remember this is the same society that tells me I can’t even catch a fish or open my own doors.


I’m in Napa now because D has a conference all week. I’m left to my own devices during the day and I worry that I won’t have anything else to do but consume. I don’t have anything else to do but consume. I’ve been going to 90-minute hot yoga every day since I’ve been here, in an effort to wring out the work of consumption with the work of declension. I haven’t stepped on a scale since when I lived with a different D in Manhattan three years ago, noted the ways in which my dissatisfactions in life manifested themselves in units per pound, and worked to lower the number, lower the number. I am not a big person, so the work was immediately apparent. At 5’6 I moved from 128 pounds to 118 pounds in a week, 118 pounds to 108 pounds in two more weeks. It was very easy to do. And I could do it at any time.

The scale assumed the potency of a god or the IRS: when it fed me numbers, it fed me the shame of numbers. Despite my being alone with myself, naked in the bathroom (because I had to remove any shred of excess weight to determine exactly what I deserved) over a scale, I felt the number was publicized the moment it blinked up at me. Sky-written, burned into my forehead, TurboTax’d. Having an eating disorder was the closest I’ve ever come to being religious. I also think capitalism is religious, and I think it is relevant here to point out how, in capitalism, one serves an entity with the purpose of individualized reward; that the work becomes sui generis a method for profit and worse, control, and this work signifies a kind of Apostles-like ascension to achieve a “Career” and be linked faithfully to a predetermined future. Replace capitalism with exercise, career with The Body You Deserve. We can absolve ourselves from anything so long as we obtain good credit, so long as we pay our taxes, so long as we get paid for our good work.

Ever since I learned about the definition of “work” in Physics, my notion of work is quite different. That is, work happens when a force acts on a body, and when, consequently, there are counter-forces against that body. When one lifts a phone to take a selfie, the work done on the phone is the force it takes to lift it multiplied by the height from which it is lifted. That means it takes more work to angle your iPhone just so; in other words, so the ribs appear perfectly knit, the hips extend perfectly outward. I apply this definition of “work” to my relationship with writing: If I exert the minimum amount of force, my piece will not lift. This is, without perhaps being aware of its mathematics, what people mean when bad art earns its casting as a “dud.”  I apply this definition of “work” to my relationship with exercise, though interestingly, the conclusions are more pathological than even writing: If I exert the minimum amount of force on my body, I am a fat piece of shit who doesn’t deserve her next meal. If I measure the weight of my desire to be thin against the heights I yearn to achieve as a poet and feminist thinker, the work will always need to be greater for any lift at all. Therefore, I must exercise my way out of the dysmorphia, society’s most successful funhouse mirrors, in order to see proper change. Exercise is as much a curse as it is a solution to my bodily anguish. I want the sweat pouring out of me to be the liquid of choice for my ablution to vanity when, of course, the only thing exercise can truly be for me is vanity itself.

I blink away the urge to take a selfie in my lonely wanderings through Napa. In my more curmudgeonly moments, selfies infuriate me for the very fact that they perpetuate the self-obsession that the Internet has so swiftly culled in the last five years. Often what infuriates me about selfies is the effort involved in omission. Omission is  always trending. The clever selfie-taker knows that ducklipping smacks of trash, but then there is also the shorter pout now known as swallow-lipping which is less policed. The selfie pose, which acts as a removal of an accurate personal record, has since assumed the role of the quotidian record. Nobody looks like their selfies, but people tend to look good in their selfies. Rare is the person who can wander around with a half-pout and uplifted chin in the druggy haze of Amaro. Lately though, I’ve found pleasant irony in the selfie for this very infuriation. That no one really looks like their selfies offers a kind of Internet mask, a temporary annihilation of the yucky responsibilities in their everywhere yuckiness. I have used the word temporary to describe beauty too, which can be a mask as much as it can be a weapon.

The selfie can also become a mask of inactivity, a way to freeze gravity and oppositional forces and bad shadows. A beautiful all-face shot of a woman gazing out in her bedroom, not moving, not needing to move. Disembodied. Our choice to fragment ourselves one part at a time, whether as a staring face or a shot of our legs or a our feet standing here, resting there—this nacreous focus on our body parts communicates a need for an immediate gaze, and this troubles me most of all about selfies.  Though I too participate. I too need the immediate gaze at times. “To probe oneself is to recognize that one is incomplete,” says Clarice Lispector. I return from runs red-faced, sweating, inspired by my own spirit. Aside from sex, it is the only time I am the most charged inside my body and the least aware of my self. In these moments I am the least compelled to seek out approval from a public eye. I am willing to spit my healthy spit in a public eye. I am complete until I remember I am a body again. I compulsively pinched my sides just now and thought, The side-planks aren’t working. “Nothing works until it does,” opens one of D’s stories. This is obvious but it needs to be said constantly.

As a girl I took no pictures of myself. I believed I had too much face, too much body, and that a photo capturing these things would be an insult to the photographer and a further injury to myself. I always believed myself chubby, and after a great loss in my life took place, any photographic evidence of my childhood was destroyed, so I maintained this notion that I was indeed a fat little girl. The quick accessibility of the mediated self has encouraged and obliterated self-affirmations of body. We are all like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando when he/she says, “I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.” Despite the appeal of a double-life Instagram can give, any given Instagram account might do the work of conveying the cautionary tale of Narcissus’s pool without the obvious fact of drowning—though of course vanity can drown us if it can so thoroughly consume us. Orlando had centuries to experience him/herself. I take selfies when I feel old or fat or sorrowed in some other way, but I immediately delete them if they seem to communicate that I feel old or fat or sorrowed. By the truth we are undone, again says Woolf. A few years ago, I found a photo of myself as a girl in my aunt’s photo album: I was rail-thin.  I had always been rail-thin.

As I said earlier, in the Bikram studio, there’s a scale in the bathroom. I thought about it, decided that I was above the fray of past Natalies, stepped on the scale, and closed my eyes. My hope, and this was my mistake, was that I would look down and see a small number smiling up at me. I would feel the full girth of pride that, even without starvation, I could maintain a tiny number with healthy exercise and diet. Then wings would form from my neat shoulder bones, and, by a golden hymn illumining my path, I would fly into the clouds a weightless exceptional thing. But this is not how Work works. And so I opened my eyes. The number frowned. My muscular frame placed me back in that Manhattan apartment, 129 pounds of living wellness inside me. A darkness filled the bathroom like the stink of singed feathers. Even now in contemplating this number, I know my shame is ludicrous, but I also assume someone is thoroughly judging me. I feel the deity of my neurosis like a bad light shed somewhere nearby.

Dietary restriction is an amazing feeling. There is power in refusal. I have a choice in saying No thank you to any number of dishes and this therefore shirks me of the awful shame later on. I’ve never understood how anybody could feel tired after eating. It suggests a complacency that is entirely mysterious to me. After I eat, I want to do anything but remind myself that there is now more content accounting for my body. I’d walk forever after I eat. To remove the act of eating from my daily work implies a new engagement with the work. I romanticize the artist who abstains from nourishment because I imagine a sharp and exacting power of the intellect instead. I work a 9-5 and I either exercise before work or after work, so I’m often writing while I consume. I have no choice, so I dream up an alternative. Like everything, the alternative is so much better than the stuff of my particular life. 

Starvation gets artists incredible points in retrospective discussions of process. Performance artists and especially long-durational performance artists like Marina Abramovic, Frances Barrett, and Kate Blackmore, enter into a kind of purifying trance of processing their art. Whether watching a week of The Simpsons while fasting or living on public display without sustenance, starvation imposes itself as a sufficient trope on artistic sacrifice. Starvation is difficult to replicate, but it is also easy to do, at least theoretically. I want to be the kind of writer who can relate abstemiously and psychotically to artistic endeavors, but daily exercise enforces a diet necessitated by routine. At the hot yoga studio in Napa, my instructor can relate to my jetlag during our practice because during teachers training, she was required to endure weeklong sleep-deprivation and fasting. She means to say she relates, but it stings like an immediate judgment call on my will power. No extra flesh peaks on either side of her. Committed. For a long time, eating was such a self-indulgent act, which I now see as an extremely privileged take on food, but also, exercise is an extremely privileged take on mobility and time. Either way I am a nest of privilege in spite of myself in that privilege.

What ultimately happened was this: I had seemingly infinite time in Napa to make the right or wrong decisions for my body, and, like everywhere else, I made both and focused on the wrong decisions as if they were committed by a self divorced from my true self. I get why Catholics have Confession boxes. I am constantly ill-at-ease with the idea that we each only have one life, so the idea of singularity starts to become a myth with time’s pull. I correct my choices to the point of dismantling my choices in favor of some higher authority of Good versus Bad. I will do 270 minutes of hot yoga over the course of three consecutive days during my vacation, allow myself on the third day to consume a post-Bikram huevos rancheros, remember the scale’s clinical fact, and chug two Nalgene bottles worth of water until I vomit all the eggs and black beans and water up from my guts. It feels like erasure: my indulgences can be removed with only the act of exercise remaining. There is a delicate material which divides my fitness from my deprivation. My center is a clearing out of joy and I am working on solving this quality of my life.

I accept that I am the type of person who spirals into obsession. I could conclude and say that all my life, I’ve been forced to scrutinize my body by an outer group and this is why I can’t find equilibrium. I could also say that it is my ego which is at fault in this regard. Exercise has made me deeply conscious that I am a thing in need of repair, and why shouldn’t it. We are all of us damaged things in need of repair. Yes, I do bad things to my body as I also do good things. Yes, I am only just linking my occasional heartburn with my occasional need to purge. Should this be an essay written in hindsight that acts as a story and its addendum to one of those Inspirational memes? Emerson opened his essay on “Self Reliance” by saying “Our age is retrospective” but I don’t believe our ruined conditions can lend a third eye to those selfsame ruins. Every day I exercise. I preen. I challenge my own take on myself much in the way one checks their harmless but problematic bigotry. Everyone needs to change their dialogue. It should constantly be in flux. Exercise gets complicated when you introduce the female body into the equation. There is a pressurized ghost of the perfect woman’s body hidden in every machine, and as we ellyptical, as we lift ourselves up, a new iota of self creeps out. We notice the dimples of cellulite now more than ever, the light that doesn’t radiate out from between our thigh gaps. Exercise re-navigates our investigations of mind to inspections of the body. And yet, despite this potential obsession, exercise is very good for us. And so we embrace the need to do it while reconciling its imperial presence over our psyches. But it is good for us. It is good for us. Nothing works until it does.

Natalie Eilbert's first book of poems, Swan Feast, is forthcoming from Coconut Books in Summer 2015. She is the author of two chapbooks, Conversation with the Stone (Bloof Books) and And I Shall Again Be Virtuous. (Big Lucks Books; Oct. '14). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Kenyon Review, Tin House, The Philadelphia Review of Books, West Branch, and many others. She is the founding editor of The Atlas Review.

1 comment:

Mgt said...

"Having an eating disorder was the closest I’ve ever come to being religious." made me laugh then cry