Understanding Bodies as Ecosystems
Article and illustration by Nancy Daykin
In the early stages of the UK’s Coronavirus lockdown I began thinking a lot about bodies. Human bodies. How in this time we were so acutely aware of our connectedness, the traces we leave behind, what we ‘catch’ from those around us, and at once our separateness. The limits of our own selves become startlingly harsh, always at a 2-meter distance with an aching need for a hug.
I also began reading more comments online of fear of a changing body. Of bodies overtaken by this illness unknown, but far more of fears borne out of fatphobia, ableism, and imperial and capitalist beauty standards. Many of us, confined to our homes, have been moving our bodies less than usual. We have been taught to fear the changes this might bring – namely fatness.
'...the relationships we manage to forge with these bodies of ours tend to be messy, full of guilt, manipulation, fleeting joy and neglect.'
We may spend our whole lives attempting to understand our bodies, these fleshy masses which we are, which we are within, both supporting and confining our every move - and it would not be ill spent. It is wildly existential to consider our physical selves, which we must spend so much time attempting to love - so much time unlearning what it is we feel we ought to be, to look like. We try to reconcile this against the forms we take, or perhaps our perception of these forms. We leak, bleed, dribble, and do our best to hide it all. From this, the relationships we manage to forge with these bodies of ours tend to be messy, full of guilt, manipulation, fleeting joy and neglect.
Our form, specifically the edges which work to quantify it, is integral to our understanding of what we are, the existence of a self. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Indian scholar, literary theorist, and feminist critic, in an interview for the Berliner Gazette’s 2016 annual conference, explains “when human beings become human, they do this through accessing all of the holes in the body”. Spivak continues, “these borders must both be permeated for pleasure and respected against violation”. These are sites of exchange, both physically and figuratively speaking. We inhale, exhale. Through experiencing our permeability, we recognise our beginnings and endings. In our homes, we feel out our edges at a new pace. I’ve been trying to live in my hands and feet more, expanding within my limits in lieu of moving across geographical space.
At this point I would like to outline my privileges and point of view. I am white, middle class, able-bodied, and thin. I am queer, mostly read as a woman, and in my early twenties. For me, the instruction to ‘stay at home’ can be comfortable, on furlough pay, with shops and services close by. There’s a whole lot for me to learn about having a stigmatised body and absolutely no one needs another thin white woman telling them to love themselves.
'When they asserted of their children that “They will belong only to themselves”, it was prefaced, “They will not belong to the Patriarchy”'
In capitalist cultures, it is easy to equate our self-worth with the labour we do (a pertinent association in times of furlough - who might we become without our jobs?). When understanding the body as economically productive, ideas of ownership become relevant. It is important to make the distinction between owning one’s body and the reclamation of ownership for black and indigenous communities in the context of slavery and white supremacy. The Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers began as a formalised version of the neighbourly relationships that existed within the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn in the early 1970s: caring for others’ bodies with one’s body. When they asserted of their children that “They will belong only to themselves”, it was prefaced, “They will not belong to the Patriarchy”. These are cries of empowerment, for collective survival, not of the individualisation of bodies engendered by late capitalist culture. Black feminist scholar Horsense Spillers, in her most prolific text Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe, makes clear distinction between body and flesh, that is “the central [distinction] between captive and liberated subject positions”. Spillers, in quoting William Goodall’s study of the North American slave codes, narrates the entirely literal theft of flesh, “The smack of the whip… to tear out small portions of the flesh at almost every stake”. She writes “We might well ask if this phenomenon of marking and branding actually “transfers” from one generation to another”. The experience of having/being a body is clearly indistinguishable from that of race, since our surfaces are the sites at which the intersections of our identity meet with all that is external to us.
Returning to the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, acknowledging that what we are experiencing is traumatic, and involves significant changes in our everyday lives, it stands to reason that during this time, our bodies will change. This is scary because our concepts of self often do not account for growth. The stories we tell to understand our own personhoods are static and when we do seek transformation it comes in product form. The consumerist advertising says we’ll become who we want to be, simultaneously generating wealth for others while we do it. It would be grossly unproductive for us to embrace the flux of our physicality.
'...in comradeliness – we are fluid, held, sculpted and sculptors.'
Yet that is what we are. A living, breathing ecosystem, teaming with life, and death. Cells, microbes, viruses, to name a few, cohabit. Sophie Lewis, in her essay Amniotechnics, speaks on water - that we are all from it and largely made up of it . Not in order to promote a naïve one-ness of humanity that always fails to recognise systemic oppression, but in comradeliness – we are fluid, held, sculpted and sculptors.
She quotes Astrida Neimanis’ book Bodies of Water, “we learn gestationality from water”; it is hydrofeminism that Neimanis’ and Lewis’ both describe, which “is about solidarity across watery selves, across bodies of water”. Elena Lundquist Ortíz, curator at the Copenhagen Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology, who worked alongside Neimanis, continues, “hydrofeminism shows us that we are all involved in this [ecological crisis] through watery interactions and circulations”. This points us to ideas of giving and receiving, of holding ourselves and those in power accountable and doing it together because we have to. These ideas pave the way to mutually interconnected and non-hierarchical relationships between human bodies and all bodies.
These ideas allow us to situate the human physical body within a great many others, inhaling and exhaling, with and within each other. Here we might find a gateway to coming to terms with our fleshy, leaky selves, and an invitation to look beyond those boundaries, to blur them. Perhaps this acknowledgement of a human body as an ecosystem can let us sit more actively within a wider morphing web with fewer borders and expanding connections.
 Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now, 154 (2019)
 Hortense Spillers, Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe, 67 (1987)
 Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now, Amniotecnics (2019)
Nancy is currently living and furloughed in Newcastle upon Tyne, spending some time filling the back yard with a collection of found items. Right now, they are most excited about queer feminist futures, steady bike rides and being submerged in water.