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  • Diana Thielen

How to tell our own stories -or- How to dance with a whale

Photo by Camille Käse

This month I was pleased to host a performance “I put a spell on you, Descartes” by Vera Piechulla at Altes Finanzamt. Altes Finanzamt is a collective of artists, a co-working and event space focused on community support and sharing. As a member of this collective, I’m using the space for my preparation, rehearsals, and research and I aim to invite on a (ir-)regular base artists to share their inquiry, their current work without going through the time-eating and emotionally exhausting processes of application. The place is exclusively financed through the rent we as members are paying, as we didn’t find any supporting funding yet.

Vera is a practicing doctor, dancer and performer based in Berlin. In her performance she is using a fictional Anatomical Theatre. Vera's work reflects on the female anatomy as it is taught in medical textbooks and dissects the means of knowledge production and reproduction. (In the time of early modern universities the institution of anatomical theatre was used to teach anatomy.)

After the performance Vera invited the audience to stay for a talk, a shared, quality time that was moderated by Mariana Nobre Vieira. The idea for a facilitated talk had been raised in the preparation meetings I’ve had with Vera. We were aware that there is a delicate line between reflecting on binary and misogynist descriptions of bodies and reproducing the violence of these descriptions.

How to talk about bodies, about body parts and body systems? What stories are heard and who is deciding what is worth hearing?

I am very grateful for this evening and Vera's personal, artistic process, as its also offered space for finding my own curiosities. This text aims to be a reflection on the thoughts that emerged and got inspired during the performance and the aftertalk.

In the aftertalk we talked about our own experience naming our genitals. How do you name your vagina? How is a child naming their vagina? One proposal I really enjoyed was “a slide”, eine Rutsche, as it’s indicates joy and excitement. How can we name body parts that we know as Vagina, Labia, Vulva, Clitoris, Ovaries, Tubes, Uterus, Prostata, Glands…without keeping the dichotomy? Without the binary thinking and the constant comparison, and thus historically accompanying degradation, with the "opposite" sex?

How to name and maybe also categorize body parts and body systems (isn’t that the process of anatomy?) without constantly getting back to binary thinking?[1] Anatomy is useful, isn’t it? It is useful to name physical appearances, giving orientation and also the point of departure for further investigations. It may lay the groundwork for therapies, for further understanding of the complex, fascinating organism that we call body.

But as the HIStory of anatomy is inherent misogynist, racist and embedded in colonial thinking, diverse feminist, social movements aim to deconstruct it.[2] Thanks to many women[3], activists, and feminist scholars, lust and female pleasure gets attention, and sex-and body positive movements are offering alternative educational material.[4] I feel a "recapturing" fun and ease when it comes to lust and sexuality. Following the motto: No textbook can tell me anything anymore! (Except "The whole Lesbian Sex Book" by Felice Newmann: Here, however, not only one story is told, but many are sharing their experiences)

Remaining lingering thoughts are: How to deconstruct the binary understanding of gender and sex, without forgetting important fights against societal discrimination towards those with the capacity to give birth? Struggles for self-determined sexuality and birth control are real, everywhere. Women, folks with a uterus, transmen, non-binary folks; many of us are facing the tension between wanting to deconstruct binaries and having a body with the (binary) potential for reproduction, and therefore also the potential for discrimination.

Why does it sound so mechanical?

Some of us shared experiences of violence while consulting professional help by a medicial doctor, and also the alienated feeling of being trapped in categories that doesn't represent our reality. Why do I have the feeling that my gynaecologist(s) keep tracking my body with a mechanical, technical lens? What stories are told by whom? Can I tell my own stories?

When I studied gender studies in university, I was intrigued by poststructuralist and constructivist perspectives, but I still felt like I lacked an embodied perspective. After all, breaking up the categories creates new categories, right? And what about our embodied experiences? What about the experiences, which are sometimes described as somatic? As a teacher, and as a dancer/performer I work with subjective felt experiences, with practices that cultivate both interoceptive and intercorporeal sensory awareness.[5] There is a subjective experience, an experience that focuses on our bodily selves from inside. How to navigate our own somatic body experience within the social-cultural context?

Lingering in movement-I am writing this essay lying on the floor. I feel my uterus. I assume my period will come soon. My uterus feels heavy, loaded. Uterus is german is called Gebärmutter. The mother of birth. I decide to queer the mother inside of me. I have the desire to detach the mother inside me from the picture of my mother. So my mother of birth is non-binary. She literally is. Even though my mother of birth is with me since more than 36 years I have difficulties to classify them. I am lying on my back, my hands on my belly, assuming the place of my non-binary uterus. I am trying to remember all the ultra-scan pics of my non-binary uterus that have been made in my lifetime. Words like “endometriosis” or “unusual shape” are floating in my memory. Some said my uterus, which looks like a whale for me, is inclined to one side. I am laughing: Inclining, isn’t that oblique, isn’t that queer? With the big, queer, heavy-loaded whale I am rolling on the floor.

It still sits with me: While talking about my body, I am talking about me, aren't I? I am confused and experimenting with softening categories[6]. I try to think relationally, rather than in terms of separation. But how not lose the orientation? Who will understand me? Don’t we need to agree on some definition to even start to communicate?

So far I can think of possible approaches:

I will collect for myself various namings and body-atlases, from different cultural and temporal contexts, as well as from diverse medical, therapeutic, and healing approaches.

I aim to write stories about my body. Will the story change after improvising with it in the studio? After consulting my gynaecologist? Before sleeping?

While teaching I’ll situate the atlas I am using, giving students space to debate and for finding their own approach.

I’ll attempt to think about the social within the biological within the cultural. Sometimes that creates a paradox situation for me as dance-and yoga-teacher, as a student, as a person utilizing their body for work. Can I sustain, exist, learn, create and move in a paradox situation?[7]


It is my attempt to blur boundaries. In the result I might be unspecific in using the term binary compared to the naming of categories and units. Currently, I assume that we or I are embedded in a dualistic view of bodies. (e.g. Body and Mind, Social and Biological, Animal and Non-Animal...)


Basically check the syllabus of your local Gender Studies course, there is ALOT to discover


I use “women" in an inclusive sense that acknowledges that gender is socially constructed. Trans women are women.


[5] Christine Caldwell/Lucia Bennett Leighton (Hg.), Rae Johnson “Queering/Querying the Body”, p.103; North Atlantic Books Berkeley, California 2018

[6] A few days ago I met a friend; Kevin O'Connor, who visited the International Fascia Congress Berlin.Kevin told me, that one of the main speakers mentioned in his lecture, that he misses the relational thinking.

[7] Together with Kevin O’Connor I was asking this question already last year at the AS Summit Berlin 2017.


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