On fragility, or: What you see is not necessarily what you get


Dancer Beatrice Libonati in “Walzer” (Waltz), choreography by Pina Bausch (source)

As my body is – once again – making me aware that I am less than perfectly healthy, and as I remember (for a short frightened moment that I won’t be dwelling on today) that this won’t get any better in this lifetime, I am thinking about fragility again. More precisely, I am thinking about how my body has often been called “fragile” and “delicate” (usually meant as compliments) from people who looked at it from the outside and how that has never matched the way my body feels to me from the inside. So this is a selection of inside views.

(Note: I have experienced thin privilege my entire life. From the way I think about my body, this is probably obvious to anyone who hasn’t. I have also been able-bodied my entire life, although I have been diagnosed with a rare, progressive illness last year. So far, however, this is mostly a “theoretical” illness because it doesn’t impact me much in my everyday life and no one knows if it ever will, and if so, when and to what degree. Nevertheless, there have been enough noticeable indicators that I do in fact have that illness that I’ve had to start thinking about chronic illness and its potential impact on my life. At least for a bit. At least every now and then. So I’m a bit between categories here, not quite completely healthy and able-bodied but also not “really” chronically ill in the way I live my current life. This combination of facts means that I still have a lot of thinking and learning and un-/relearning to do when it comes to body size and disability/illness and the way they impact people’s lives, as social/political categories and as individual lived experiences. Which is probably also obvious to anyone who has already done more of that than me. And while this text is not intended as a text about size or (dis)ability/illness, the context of these topics and the discussions that exist around them is still there, so I won’t pretend that I can “just write about my personal concerns” here, as if I existed outside of that context. Which is a really long-winded way of trying to locate myself in this context so you have an idea where I’m at right now. It’s also an invitation to please point out any mistakes, harmful assumptions, or just plain ignorance on my part. I really am trying to learn here, and some of that learning is going to happen out loud.)


“You are so skinny” made no sense in bellydance class when I was busy learning how to make the soft flesh around my hips and thighs and belly quiver in strong, delicious shimmies and how to talk with my hips in assertive kicks and drops that stop exactly when and where I want them to. When I was feeling connected to the ground and the air at the same time, but mostly to the ground. When I was enjoying how nice my small round belly bump looked, perfectly perched on the edge of my dance skirt for everyone to see.

“Your body is so fragile” makes no sense when I am busy purring through a deep, thuddy flogging that crashes into me like massive waves of an ocean made of wind and leather. When I am submitting to the sharpness of a cane that sends me through searing hot pain into rippling giggles of masochistic delight in perfect loops. When I am being the canvas for someone to paint bruises into my ass and thighs that will only blossom fully after a day or two and last for many weeks until they fade away into soft shades of dusty rose and sand again.


“You are so slender” makes no sense when I am looking into a changing-room mirror while – against my better knowledge – once again trying on pants that haven’t been tailored to a body of my proportions (as off-the-rack pants never are). When the sight and sense of my body in a pair of ill-fitting pants makes me think “my ass is too fat” and forget that the problem lies with the fact that the clothes are ill-fitting, not with my body, that nobody – and no body – looks good in ill-fitting clothes, and that I am supposed to feel inadequate in this environment because that’s how they are trying to sell their shit to me.

“You look so sporty” made no sense when I hadn’t even owned a pair of sneakers for ten or fifteen years, let alone done anything even remotely athletic (except dance my ass off at parties, but that didn’t count because that kind dancing was most definitely not a sport by anyone’s definition). When, at the age of 35, I needed my then-eight-year-old nephew to teach me how to safely catch a ball that was coming right at my face because no one had ever explained that to me in thirteen years of mostly awful physical education at school. When I was still busy recovering from these thirteen years that had successfully hammered into me that I was Bat At Sports and would be so forever.

“Your body is so delicate” makes no sense when I feel clumsy and awkward, with too-big feet that get caught on furniture and make me stumble off-balance in the presence of attractive butches. When my head seems too high above someone else’s while I am trying to talk to them on the same level. When my femininity feels inadequate and my body seems to be taking up too much space in completely the wrong way and my femme gender becomes highly precarious all of a sudden, just because there’s a person around who invests a lot more time and work into their own femininity and its physical expression than I do (because, is it really okay that I don’t?). When I am thrown back into my early teenage years of failing at being a girl, because – as my slightly bigger mother failed to understand – being not-fat really wasn’t enough to make desirable boys (or anyone, really) desire me.


When I actually felt “fragile,” back when I didn’t have working migraine meds yet, I could never quite convince the people around me that having a migraine wasn’t drama-queen-speak for “I have a bad headache.” That about once or twice a month, really , seriously, all I could do was lie in bed for an entire day or two, hide from all light, sound, and smell as best as I could when my apartment was facing a busy street, and try to keep down at least half a mouthful of water (since food was out of the question anyway). That it took me another day or two to just get back to normal from the sheer physical exhaustion of that.

When I actually felt “delicate,” in hospital last year, I couldn’t quite convince the night nurse that I wasn’t just lazy when I asked her if she could please refill my pitcher of water. That I really could barely walk down the entire long hallway by myself, let alone carry both the drainage machine that was attached to my insides and the liter of liquid on my way back. I didn’t even try to explain that my apparent psychological resilience (because, really, what other choice did I have?) led her to burden me with her expectations of strength that had little relation to my actual physical condition (then again, maybe that’s just business as usual as a Woman In Pain).

When I actually felt (too) “thin,” in the emotionally abusive relationship I was in for too long, I couldn’t even convince myself that I wasn’t fine. Not even when I looked at that photo of my then-partner and me where everything about me looks stark and fake and unstable, especially the pose that was meant to be romantic and picture-book perfect. Only much later was I able to realize that large parts of me had literally disappeared in this relationship – while he still kept framing me as the strong one, who, by definition, would always need less emotional support than he did (unless I was being framed as the psychologically unstable one, of course, because that’s how the gaslighting worked). But everyone else just thought I was having bad politics and a weird phase of too-much normality.


When I actually felt “fragile,” because I had ongoing health issues (the same kind I’m having right now) during a BDSM weekend event earlier this year, there were two people who, independent of each other, finally got it right.

They listened to me. They acknowledged my own sense of being more fragile than usual. And then each of them, in their own way, went on to play hard with me. No one before these two has ever beaten me as deeply, flogged me as hard, or even hit me at all in those very vulnerable places. No one before has dared to take me right into the middle of so many scary places in my mind so deeply so soon, with my full consent and cooperation, and gone there with me as willingly. No one before has put so much trust into my ability to not just endure the heavy impact and the pain (and they both knew exactly how heavy and how painful it was) but to transform it into strength and pleasure, mine and theirs – a lot of strength and a lot of pleasure. And while none of that was actually planned (at least not by me), and major parts of it were only negotiated on the fly (and thank goodness for all of us being skillful, self-aware communicators), both of these encounters were absolutely perfectly therapeutic and absolutely perfectly fucking hot.

And this is why I’m so deeply in love with BDSM play.

Because when I play like this, my body feels solid and strong and I feel at home in it. I know what it can do and I like stretching it to its limits (preferably slowly so I have time to pay attention to the process and to where the limit actually is and to staying right there on the edge for a while). I like transforming what could be pain into pleasure by the simple act of accepting it willingly. I also like enduring actual pain because it’s part of the process, part of the deal. I like offering just the right amount of resistance to let my partner know I’m right there with them, ready to follow their lead. I like bending and yielding and twisting and draping myself into shapes that are exactly the right kind of challenging. I like it when my partners treat my body as if it’s strong and capable, even and especially when they know that it’s also fragile. I like it when my partners don’t equate femininity with fragility but measure their force to my actual ability. (All of which is also true about ballroom dancing, by the way.)

BDSM (and ballroom dancing) make space for all of this (and so much more). They make space for me to change the stories about my body. They make space for me to heal. And I’m going to fucking use these spaces as long as I can, in whatever way I can. Especially since I’m not actually going to heal physically, at least not long-term.

But today is not the day where I focus on my fear of losing this way of using my body at some point in the future (and I most likely will, due to old age or progressive illness or both). Because today is the day where I celebrate what is possible now. As fragile as that “now” might be.


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