Spinning in the Air Like I Just Don’t Care: How Circus Sports Reacquainted me with my Female Body

Artwork by Jolly Jodie

“My body felt authentically seen for the first time since before puberty - in fact, I felt a strong sense of regression in the childlike freedom of using my body performatively without sexualisation.”

Almost a year ago now, my mother surprised me with front-row seats to a circus show. Contemporary circus has broadly moved on from the days of chained animals and ringmasters, morphing into an exquisitely experimental performance art in its own right. One aspect of continuity between the old and new circus is undoubtedly its ability to create a space for the displaced: as a child of immigrants from different ends of the world, the circus atmosphere always felt like hot chocolate in winter - comforting in a luxurious way. Sitting in the audience as an adult with my mother, I found myself reflecting on the displacement I felt today. Having largely outgrown my identity issues surrounding my heritage, I mostly struggle with my female identity. Perhaps it was these thoughts lingering in my mind that made the show so drastically life-changing to my relationship with my body.

One act imprinted on me: a solo woman carrying out a series of rope acrobatics. I felt envious of her as the audience gasped at her terrifying drops from twenty feet in the air, applauded her quasi-superhuman strength and sighed at her moody, ballerina dance moves. I immediately interrogated myself on this envy, feeling somewhat guilty as it’s something I rarely truly feel with regards to a stranger. I noted it wasn’t her per se, but the reaction of the audience: they saw her strength, her skill, her emotion through her body. It was an eye opening moment with regards to my own displacement with my body. I felt that my female body evoked either judgment or sexualisation, never neutrality; I felt displaced from my own body, viewing it as an uncomfortable part of my female identity. Like many women, my feelings of inadequacy were further pressed upon me by the media and societal expectations. Yet, under the playful circus lights, these pressures seemed to melt away. The artist’s body was female, but it was also skilled, strong, interesting. I booked my first ever circus class just half an hour after the show ended.

Predictably, my first attempts at climbing aerial silks, or “tissue” as others refer to them, were far less than successful. Nor did I have the required strength to do so for long - who would have guessed pulling your own, considerable body weight up elasticated fabric for an hour would be so tiring? Thankfully, aerial arts are an art as much as they are a sport: from the first scramble I was encouraged to add my own artistic flairs. Everyone’s movement on the silks are then unique regardless of their fitness, some graceful, some moody or even comedic. Just a few sessions later, I was able to climb eight feet in the air and perform some tricks that made my mother shout out a fine selection of rude Italian words in fear. A couple of months later and I had branched out into trapeze, contortionism, hoop. My body felt authentically seen for the first time since before puberty - in fact, I felt a strong sense of regression in the childlike freedom of using my body performatively without sexualisation. Something like yelling watch me, watch meee! as you leap precariously from the top of a bunk bed after watching Spiderman 3. And then add all the sophisticated emotions of adulthood, released through carefully studied flicks of the wrist.

Another unexpected, but extremely welcome aspect of the circus was the freedom I found from my own judgments. Ten years of disordered eating significantly melted away when my body became a means of skill and fun, rather than an aesthetic exhibit. I found myself eating regular, nutritious meals to be sure I would have the energy to both train and grow my strength accordingly. I woke up excited to work out, feeling proud and secure in my body’s ability, rather than enslaved by the need to look a certain way. I’m not saying I magically achieved my dream body. I’m saying that I stopped caring, in fact I actively put work into achieving a strength that might look conventionally masculine to others. I semi-consciously shifted my points of validation, surrounding myself by people who appreciated my pursuits in all their facets. I carried this renaissance into lockdown: despite not being able to attend classes, I trained strength and agility enthusiastically with a transformed mentality towards exercise.

This isn’t the origin story of a great athlete; I didn’t discover an innate talent in those few months I practiced, and I suspect I never will. That acceptance is a story in its own right, my perfectionist tendencies rarely allowed me to invest energy into something I didn’t plan to excel at before. Nonetheless it is an origin story of sorts: it is the story of my fulfilment as a female body. The circus, with its magical suspension of reality, makes bodies a site of wonder and endless possibility: a largely unmined diamond for the fulfilment of multifaceted female identity.

Article by Kiran Armanasco