Language: The whole body of words and of methods of combination of words used by a nation, people, or race; a 'tongue'. In a generalized sense: Words and the methods of combining them for the expression of thought. The form of words in which a person expresses himself; manner or style of expression.
(Both definitions are excerpted from the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary).
Legibility/ literacy/ meaning/ description/ misreading/ communication/expression/ double entendre/ articulation/ misinterpretation/ fluency/ terminology/ vocabulary/ diction/ translation/ illegibility/ interpretation/ symbolism/ connotation/ signification/ representation/ etc.
I'm at the corner store a block and a half from my house. A quart of milk sits on the counter, and I hand the cashier a five-dollar bill. It isn't until I'm on the short walk home that the tragicomedy of my shopping trip hits me: this vegan trans dude (that's me) is walking home with a carton of milk with which to cook up some pudding. The pudding will be spooned into latex gloves, tied up, and stuffed into my shirt to serve as tits*. My parents are paying me a visit this weekend, and I have not yet told them about my chest reconstruction surgery, a surgery I recently underwent to create a flat—some would say "male appearing,"—chest. There is quite a bit I could say about the specifics of what it means to go in tit drag to partially erase my transness for the sake of my parents**. I won't go into immense detail around this question, though I don't mean to undercut its significance in terms of privilege, oppressive gender categories, parental expectations, shame, and strategy. However, I want to focus on a particular dimension of my Pudding Tits Project: a case study in bodies as readable (or unreadable), as legible (or illegible), and, in a more general sense, as metaphorically attached to language.
Some bodies seem to lend themselves to a simple reading and an almost automatic process of categorization. Some seem more complex, though perhaps confusing. Others seem to many to be entirely incomprehensible. The simply-read bodies might be read like a stop sign, without even having to read the instruction "STOP," and instead relying on the shape, color and predictable context of the street sign. The complex-to-read bodies might be conceptually dissected and pored over, like a complicated passage in an unfamiliar dialect. The incomprehensible bodies might be regarded with the baffled look of a person confronted with a paragraph in a language they have never before encountered.
To understand bodies in terms of language and reading, we must also examine a) who composes the audience that is doing the "reading", and b) to what end, and with what significance, do people read and categorize bodies in the first place? As a person who is sometimes scrutinized, I am familiar with the immense range of audience/reader. I am also familiar with the distasteful feeling of being taken apart in the ray of some disgusted person's stare, which is my most frequent experience with people reading my body. In terms of race, I am almost always read as white. With respect to gender, there are those who read me as simply a girl, those that read me as a dyke or a lesbian, those that regard me as confusing, and those that find my identity to be clear (whether or not their assessment mirrors my own). A limited audience might read my body and gender as trans, as faggish, or as dude. I'm nearly always read as a person without disabilities. I'm almost never read as a Jew. It always matters to me, but it often doesn't always seem to play into people's assessments and readings of me that I might define myself and my identities in a manner different from the ways they might be reading me. Most particularly, it irks me when people don't see an aspect of my identity that is important to me. And this is common, in reading bodies, that visual clues are glossed over, are not readily visible, or are read as indicating something other than they might actually stand for.
That which is complex to some makes complete sense to others -- one's legibility is entirely dependent on an audience/reader's familiarity and fluency with a particular set of meanings, symbols, indicators, and aspects of presentation. Furthermore, depending on context, the process of a person "reading" your body might feel triumphant, or it might feel creepy. I usually experience the latter. Those whose bodies get "read" most carefully are those who deviate from a particular set of "norms," and those norms are tied directly to privilege. Many institutions rely upon white, straight, able, middle-class, male bodies as a center, as a default, as an implicit ideal. With this at the center, any other bodies are seen as variations on this; a straight, white, able, middle-class woman is removed from the center; her identifying feature, that which is "read" most saliently on her body, is her femaleness.
My gender is the aspect of my visual identity that is most readily scrutinized, while other aspects of my identity are, more or less, unanalyzed, and understood to be in accordance with a "default" that doesn't demand such a conscious process as reading. The act of reading bodies oftentimes relies on oppressive categories, and the purpose of reading bodies is often related to enacting oppression and perpetuating privilege. Hence the creepiness.
However, there is something fascinating about the ways in which language, as a metaphor for bodies, can exist as a subversive tool. Back to the Pudding Tits Project. Clearly, there are a lot of aspects of my tit drag that were not entirely empowering-- I felt obligated to hide an important aspect of my identity, and that felt shitty, for one. However, the way I was able to exist in my weirdly-gendered body in mutiple forms, and to have the consciousness over the span of one day, during which I got to be a titted and a non-titted person, was fun and interesting. It allowed me to focus on tittedness as a bodily articulation, and an aspect of bodily articulation that is potentially, for some, changeable (of course, only for those who either have lots of money, great health insurance, or access to pudding and latex gloves). And it is this alterability, this aspect of control over articulation, that allows for a certain power and navigability in language and in bodily language. What does it mean to create a visual, bodily riddle to a person (though perhaps not my parents right now), to appear to them in the same night as a stacked "woman" and, two minutes later, as a bare-chested "dude"? It's a loaded question for many reasons, not the least of which is the dangerous tendency to pretend that transness only comes into existence through and after surgical alteration, a myth that really raises my hackles. However, the visual riddle makes me think about all of the ways in which some people wrestle with aspects of language—a language that was not formulated with complex notions of gender or modes of thinking that depart from polarized dichotomies—in order to successfully shape methods of communication that *do* begin to articulate these complexities. Pudding Tit Project also points to ways in which we all change, translate, and rearticulate our bodies in a multitude of ways to carve out spaces in the world for us to exist, to self-define, and to thrive.
Right after I got surgery, I felt strange. I felt strange that I spent so much money on something so self-indulgent. And I felt really strange about my place in the world. I called a friend who, like me, is not taking testosterone, gets read as female fairly frequently, and who had chest reconstruction surgery. I tried to articulate the fact that all of a sudden, it felt as if I didn't exist in the world, save for in the presence of a few people that understood my wonderfully freakish, spectacularly monstrous gender. He both reassured and disappointed me with his reply: "We're illegible. But everyone is, it's just that most people are never confronted with the situation of really realizing it." We are all constantly misreading, misunderstanding, and misinterpreting others in the world. But if identity were simple and easily readable, it wouldn't be fun and it wouldn't be interesting. What I hope for is a way in which we can actively articulate, rewrite, translate, and metaphorize, both in terms of verbal and bodily language, in order to continue the long project of fighting ourselves into existence. At the same time, I want us to remember the ways in which we read other people, and to remember that there's always something lost in the translation, that there is something sinister in the process of categorizing people even with good intention, and that there are multiple and changing ways to interpret and represent. In these simultaneous and related practices, it seems that there is room to both better understand the complexity of everyone's identities (including those that we, as queers, as artists, and as freaks might otherwise write off as "simple" or "one-dimensional"), and to further articulate our own identities, to each other as well as on a much larger scale. The details are always the best part of the book, anyway.
*This brilliant (and quite convincing, I might add) idea comes from a zine written by Annie Danger called "Go Fuck Yourself." It's full of excellent tips, mainly on making your own sex toys, and also on making your own gender-altering devices. Write to her for a copy of your own right now: Annie Danger/379 40thSt./ Oakland, CA 94609/ firstname.lastname@example.org
**Without expanding excessively on the situation with my parents, I will say that part of my Tit Drag during their visit had to do with strategically holding off from utterly alienating them with my gender project in order to begin to build a sturdier foundation with them upon which to work out our issues with one another. I'm a Capricorn, and I value long, planned-out processes. I feel weird about tit drag, but excellent about the space that I felt it opened up that points toward a time when we'll be able to discuss more about my gender and surgery in a manner that won't alienate all of us from each other.