Sarah O’Toole: This Is Not My Body

If I had a different body I know my name would be George.

I wouldn’t be very much different otherwise, though. In fact, I wonder if I had George’s body and not mine, would I be more me than I actually am at this current moment in time?

I like to imagine that George looks not too dissimilar from the way I look now. That – say if I fell asleep tonight and woke up in the morning, magically metamorphosed into George – I could walk into the kitchen for breakfast, greet my flatmate and not have her run away screaming “INTRUDER!”, or, less dramatically, assume that I was narcissistically banging someone the spitting image of myself.

George definitely doesn’t mind me banging men who aren’t the spitting image of me. He’s probably a little bit queer. In fact he likes it. He loves beautiful boys with delicate, dreamy features. But he also likes bearish men with a good-natured growl in their natures, the kind he can stay in stasis with for hours in a metaphysical naked arm-wrestling match. He doesn’t meet their kind very often. While he’s is not unaware of their erotic qualities, he’s shy with women. But his greatest joy in life are my fascinating friendships with those females who wear their inner Harolds and Sebastians and Moseses on their sleeves.

George and I are lucky and unlucky because he was never properly killed off by the Panopticon Panzer Division of the Gender Gestapo. (Never met them? They’re fucking everywhere.) His nagging existence – and George knows better than to mind me tarnishing him here with what could be seen as an incorrect gender stereotype – has been a source of great unhappiness and discomfort in both our lives.

George would secretly love to be an actor – most definitely not an actress – in the extravagant yet gentlemanly tradition of Peter O’Toole or Errol Flynn or  even Al Pacino. He’d hate me to marry one of them, but he definitely wishes we could wake up in his body – possibly drunk in Corsica with no idea how we got there – so he could have a freer pass to be a rollicking rogue and not only get away with it but be completely loved for it. He would love the chance to inhabit Lawrences and Hamlets and Michael Corleones and Heathcliffs. But his guiltiest, most secret dream is to play Professor Henry Higgins and unrepentantly sing those deliciously naughty lines:

“Let a woman in your life and you invite eternal strife

Let them buy their wedding bands for their anxious little hands

I’d be equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling

Than to ever let a woman in my life!”

For all that, he loves me. And I’ve learned to love him. For we know it is not our fault that we make one another so unhappy. He appreciates how hard my poor body has tried to execute many of the actions that his exuberant vision for our life demands.

He was really proud of me when I outdrank an entire regiment of British officers at Bassingbourn Barracks in head-to-toe dominatrix-style Dolce and Gabbana. In spite of the constant side-eye suspicion and, once, outright bullying, from male mountaineers, we continue to emulate our hero Mallory (another George) by investing time money and effort into climbing the Seven Summits. So far, we have two down and five to go. And, at the same time, he’s mad about fashion – from floaty dresses to tailored tailcoats – as much as I am and if I dress for anyone, it’s for him.

George and I have a sore, shameful secret. That we have failed in achieving one of the things that we hate to admit now really, really matters to us. And that, for some reason, it’s because we are in my body. He knows how much I sacrificed to give us the acting career that – even if it couldn’t be the one he dreamed of – was one we both quite frankly deserved.

But people never knew what to make of George when he glinted out from behind my long-lashed eyes and when his voice boomed into my soft, feminine tones. It was worse when I was younger. I’m girly-looking, I have curves. But we’ve never really figured out what to do with all that, and when we tried to “use” it, we just came across as fucking weird. So what this body does and says jars. This is definitely not androgyny in the sense that we combine the best of masculine and feminine, and what the hell is that anyway? We just are and, more and more, I do not know where he begins or I end.

But we’ve been told we’re too much. Or, we’re not enough. Or we’re not told anything at all. I remember starting my career and wondering why I was the only young actress in the cast that the male director couldn’t even be bothered speaking to on a casual, friendly level. It happened a few times. I felt like a freak, a misfit, and, over time, George and I realised that we would never find the space to do what we loved while being all of what we were, even when we tried to be less in order to find any way to fit. And this continued even after I gave up. I wondered for years why so many men don’t seem to know what to say to me, nor I to them. Which is a shame because, insofar as I am a man, I adore the company of men, and many times these were men I respected and would love to have gotten to know better.

Virginia Woolf waxes optimistic about the androgynous mind when she says:

“In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female…the androgynous mind is resonant and porous…naturally creative, incandescent and undivided”

but she forgets to place that mind within a body. Or, when she does, in her famous novel Orlando, it is necessary for the hero/heroine to change bodies half-way through

in order to access his/her capacity for full human experience. I envy Orlando because he/she never seems to asphyxiate within the nebulous cloud of internalised self-loathing that seeps into the pores from the semi-hostile, uncertain glances of those her arbitrary body comes into contact with.

Our long-dreamed of, quasi-Kafkaesque metamorphosis is not forthcoming beneath the current laws of either biology or common-or-garden magic and George would hate for me to ever go under the knife. No, we are not our body, but that’s not because of any physical short-comings on the part of our physical form. In fact, we are rather attached to our physical form.

In the meantime, all we can do is try not to get our metaphysical arms pinned in a strictly uniformed wrestling match with a boorish brute who believes in binaries.

Sarah O’Toole is a theatre practitioner, activist, writer and occasional mountaineer! She tweets at @sashavonthulen, Instagrams at https://instagram.com/sashavonthulen/ and has a blog forthcoming at www.slowmode.ie

(image of Claude Cahun via)

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