The Body is a Blade

By Madeline Kennedy

I can’t watch women’s gymnastics without crying. It’s not that I possess a sustained personal connection to the sport; like nearly every other person I know who was once a girl, I enjoyed a brief stint in classes as a kid, dropping out after a day upon deciding I disliked the feeling of falling. There’s a specific era of girlhood, in my experience, in which one might halfheartedly do this kind of thing: gymnastics, figure skating, dance lessons. There’s a phase of life defined, in part, by being awakened to the idea that such traditionally feminine endeavors are romantic, not just because they look beautiful, but because they require so much of you, as a person and a body. Girls learn early on the romance of practicing severe self-discipline, of denying yourself things: free time, food, pleasure.

For reasons that are both intensely personal and tied to the sociopolitical problems of this particular moment, I have taken an interest in the ways women reclaim their bodies after trauma. I spend a lot of time reflecting on the relationship between women and pain: ways women are hurt by men, ways they hurt each other, ways they hurt themselves (as an exercise in masochism, as a way to survive). Beyond that, I’m also interested in what it means to be a woman in the first place. Can gender hold any universal truths, given the incalculably varied ways in which it is inhabited? What is a woman’s body, really? What is a woman? And what do women do with their rage: how do they wear it, when does it speak, what does it say? Watching these women, watching their performances, I’m struck by what they reveal about beauty, power, the pain of womanhood, and how that gets expressed: hair pulled back into an impossible tightness, smoky eyes and glittering tear ducts, blood-red uniforms that cling to the figure.

There’s a life-affirming strangeness to the sport; humans throwing themselves in the air and contorting their bodies hardly seems a natural or obvious choice of recreational activity. I think often of McKayla Maroney’s near-perfect 2012 Olympic vault, which is stunning in the moment, but even more so in the slow-motion playback, where she’s soundtracked by a few seconds of choral music—presumably sound bleeding from another athlete’s routine—that grants her actions a level of mysticism, that makes what she’s doing ache with an ancient heaviness. This is the central resonating quality of women’s gymnastics: its tethering of gendered expectations to age-old power structures. Of course beauty is tied to pain, practice, and performance. Of course women would be graded down to the decimal point on their ability to execute these routines. Haven’t we been doing this forever?

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To watch women doing gymnastics means watching women become visibly, viscerally hurt. The pattern exists across history: Samantha Cerio, Kerri Strug, or Elena Mukhina, whom I watch from my bedroom as she competes at the 1978 World Championships, the specifics of her figure made fuzzy and distorted in the aging footage. In less than two years, she would become paralyzed while practicing a dangerous skill her coaches pressured her to learn, despite her repeated warnings that she felt uncomfortable doing so. In 2006, she died as a result of complications from the injury. In nearly every photo I can find online, she appears strikingly young and sad, in that way that gymnasts sometimes can--they can look like people who have always known what is coming, like people who are profoundly aware of their own impending doom. It’s not unlike seeing pictures of women before they’ve been killed: did they know, on some level, the fate that would befall them? I want to believe I can see it in their eyes, but I can’t help it; everything looks like death to me.

Watching Elena leads me to another video, ten minutes in length, titled “Terrible!!! The worst injuries and falls in Olympic gymnastics.” The amateur compilation begins with a close-up of an unnamed woman, eyes fixed toward a field of midnight blue as an objectively sinister, jumpy church organ follows her movements. Gradually, the sound speeds up, growing haunted-carnival-esque, holding her at the climax as she plummets toward the ground, face-first. I’m surprised by how quickly the medical team lets her get up and walk away, how the man who was supposed to spot her does nothing, merely staring at her in her collapse. Maybe this is protocol, I don’t know, but I find it difficult to shake.

I watch Aly Raisman’s 2016 floor routine, with its defiant power, set to Russian folk music. When it’s over, she bursts into tears. Both her athleticism and activism are marked by an insistence on visible presence, on taking up space—an act of no small importance, it should go without saying, in a world where women are consistently diminished and disbelieved. Raisman’s entire being seems to become a force for whatever fight she commits herself to. In the statement delivered at her abuser’s sentencing hearing, there is a moment in which she tells him you are nothing, pausing to stare him down with as much strength and focused rage as I have ever seen anyone possess. I think about her getting ready for that moment, how the preparation might have felt foreign or familiar or both. I picture her in a hotel room in Michigan, doing her makeup in the morning, setting her pink blazer out the night before. Did it feel like going to a job interview? A protest? Church? Or maybe it felt like something else, a situation you can’t pretend to understand unless you’re way down deep inside of it. 

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What are ways of building a discourse and a resistance that are inclusive, moving beyond the central concept of a pussy that grabs back? If what unites women is not adherence to a specific anatomical reality, or a universal experience of oppression, then we ought to ask: how might the category of ‘women’ be blown open, made expansive, almost endless? When we consider what happens to women and their bodies, should we not also consider who is speaking about which bodies and why? It occurs to me that maybe this is what poetry is for, and so on my bedroom wall, beside images of Patti Smith and a Peruvian saint, I tape a list of ideas:

ballet class

books of blood

an amorphous blob

a house on fire

something very sharp

a minor

suggestions welcome