(This is part three of Morgane Billuart's Longforms series. Cycles: the Sacred and the Doomed, On Optimization, PMDD and its Metaphors as well as The Internet is The Recipe: Sexual and Psychological Education in Digital Spheres are published here.)
As when I try to refocus on my body as a tool.
As when I think of the best way to capitalize on it.
As when I feel empowered because used.
As when I know I am making the best out of the circumstances.
On Tik-Tok, I heard someone say:
“Do you really want love, or are you just trying to find someone to survive capitalism with?”
A quote somehow easily replaceable with many others.
“Do you really want to be perfect, or are you afraid to be replaced?”
“Do you really want to work so much, or are you too self-conscious to rest?”
“Do you really want to be THAT Girl, or do you feel like there is no other way?”
“Do you really want to be optimal, or are you simply trying to update?”
Evolving Not to Die: The Ultimate Body Optimization
“What if I told you that you had a tremendous power available to you? What if I told you that it would empower you to go beyond your everyday expectations, bring focus and logical reasoning, create better relationships, enhance your problem-solving ability, your creative insight, and blue-sky thinking, and finally, create deep insight and understanding?”
The Optimized Woman by Miranda Gray
In her book The Optimized Woman, Miranda Gray proposed strategies and tools to utilize the different moments of a menstruating body’s cycle to make the best out of each situation. What she proposes is an act of empowerment through pain and rage. If I read such a text on a good day, I interpret it as an exercise—to see the glass half full—and the only positive way to deal with physical challenges and institutional unrecognition. An optimistic attempt to make the best out of the worst when inhabiting a menstruating body. On the bad days, I get insane over the thought that our bodies have been so well trained that we came to a point where we think of turning sadness and pain into profitability and creativity, an idea that infuriates me.
Realistically, one should not get mad at Miranda Gray, who’s doing her best at making us feel stronger in our bodies, trying desperately to empower us through the exercise of clarity, precision, and planning while going through our monthly bleeding rituals. It is, perhaps, the least every menstruating body can do, simply to ease their life, ease their pain. Still, I cringe and cry a little while thinking of this title, The Optimal Woman—while thinking of myself, like many others, trying to get ahead in a world that wasn’t designed by any of us and for any of us. To be optimal, what for? For whom? In what way?
To plan your life based on your cycles is one of the many ways in which a menstruating body can become optimal. It’s about making sure that nothing important happens before and during hell week. Quite often, this implies limiting your activities and decisions for approximately 10 days per month. A rather big obstacle to our efficiency, to say the least. A practice that makes you wish you never had to stop, never had to pause, so you could endlessly thrive. Sitting there, hating yourself because you believe that your body is dysfunctioning while filling in the information on your Clue app, you start wondering how great it would be if you could cut out your lower organs. Could I then be optimal?
But some standards stipulate that a female-born body without hormones is similar to a dried flower without water. It is the exact reason why post-menopause bodies keep on ingesting hormones. Around that age, while society and nature already dictated an expiration date, artificial hormone intake can help you to become slightly more functioning, and remain optimal somehow. To either cut off the organs out of your body or digest artificial hormones to overcome its burden, this act of optimization often resonates as gestures of integration, ingestion, and digestion. It is a processing of the social construct that female bodies have to perform but, also, the integration of external elements which we need to survive.
As a result of these integrations, our bodies aren’t performing better, they aren’t fitting into society better either, they are simply efficiently integrated through different tricks and tools to make us feel like we belong. Even if these tools can make us feel better, loved, taken care of, consumable, and functioning, they do not suppress the pain and despair which accompanies the lives of our bodies in their quest for emancipation and understanding.
When Gray suggests an optimal woman, she suggests a warrior, a body that is aware, educated, and privileged enough so it can perform rituals of care in its everyday life. She refers to someone who perhaps has already understood the power beyond cycles, beyond patriarchy, and who could notice the impossibility to thrive consistently in society, therefore shifting obstacles into strength. This ideal of a person, or more precisely, of a God-like woman, is a concept that has shaped and haunted us since the beginning of mankind.
To question the urge to optimize, or to be ideal, seems doomed to fail. Who does not want to perform better? In his book Mythologies of Transhumanism, philosopher Michael Hauskeller underlines quickly how “to choose to be better is to be human”. Whatever the meaning of “better” would be in his text, this thought underlines how deeply rooted our desire to become a greater, bigger, and more advanced version of ourselves is. This appetite for progress, profit, and efficiency is inevitable and therefore has to be accepted and studied rather than fully eliminated. Still, as the philosopher argues in his book: “the intention to create better futures for ourselves is pretty much the default position in Western societies today.” As Hauskeller underlines, when one thinks of the concept of body optimization, it is challenging not to consider the concept of transhumanism attached to it. It is also arduous not to imagine optimization as a simple and pure “sense for growth and amelioration” in society. But it is also difficult not to see it as a direct result of our drive for productivity in a capitalist and patriarchal system. Meanwhile, progress is becoming the norm; our society provides less and less room for nonoptimal and non-performative bodies, leading the optimization to become the ultimate Darwinian upgrade, rather than a purely personal choice. Whether it comes to selecting a partner or a future potential employee, what can stop us from always wanting to choose “the better option”, or the most “fitting”? Who do we leave aside, when these criteria become society’s norm?
Michael Hauskeller insists: “Life is not a race, and ethicists should not have to suppose that it is. We don’t necessarily compete with each other. [...] If the resources are limited, then we can only achieve equality by holding people back.” His statement helps us realize that even in our own very individual quest to become better, work faster, and produce more, it is the entire ecosystem of society that we pollute, often leaving aside bodies and individuals who could not even enter the competition in the first place.
When it comes to menstruating bodies and their will to adapt, it is needless to say that this quick and fast fix, plus the need to upgrade, leaves very little time for individuals to try to understand and cure their bodies, or at least to take care of themselves. Only a few privileged ones can afford the time to consider their pain, stress, or condition and are able to do something about it. The rest is only being able to hide it, curse it, or cover it with supplements and medication, to keep hustling and living. Often, books referring to the ideal of a better life, a better self, and optimal health focus on changing habits. They never question the design of their environment. If the individual’s self-care and self-realization are made the first steps to creating a foundation for a change, the structural pressure, and oppression around them will never be dismissed.
Optimization and its Genesis: An Ideal Shape by the Other
“Boundless, adjective: unlimited or immense
Synonyms: limitless, unbounded, untold, bottomless, immeasurable, measureless, incalculable, inestimable, abundant, abounding, great, inexhaustible.
What if we adults—you and I—could leap out of bed each morning and tackle the day with the extreme ferocity of an electrified tiger? What if our performance, fat loss, recovery, digestion, brain, sleep, hormones, and spirits were optimized and firing on all cylinders?”
Countless writings resemble Ben Greenfield’s text called Boundless: Upgrading the Brain, Optimizing Your Body & Defying Aging. Their exercises and rituals to become better and greater usually do not differ. No secret recipe will be disclosed, only a glimpse of extreme diets, supplements, and pieces of advice regarding your attitude towards life. Optimization isn’t a process that only targets women and menstruating bodies: it speaks to everyone who aims to live a better life, and, why not: to avoid dying.
Still, when thinking of how women are dictated to live, and how they are portrayed and designed, the male gaze is a recurrent, if not omniscient lens for optimization. When being asked: “what is optimal when it comes to the female body?”, it is challenging not to think of a girl-boss winning, of That Girl, of the perfect girlfriend, of the self-employed mom, of the never aging and always great performing character. This ideal lives in our heads, rent-free, and has been shaped by a culture of icons and designs which have been pushed upon us long before we even knew it. In the article, Body Perfect in a Capitalist World: An Analysis of Consumer Culture and The Perfect Body Image, Azza El Masri underlines that “in Killing Us Softly 4, Jean Kilbourne demonstrates that technological advancements have been used in advertising to further engineer the woman’s body to become an object of perfection.” In her lecture, while introducing images of never-ending beauty ideals and nuclear families printed on billboards, Kilbourne states that “failure to achieve and resemble those icons is inevitable”, emphasizing how being an optimal female body in such a standardized and endlessly updated society is a battle constantly lost.
Figure 3: A woman posing for Bod Pod with glitters.
There are numerous examples of stories, tales, and mythologies about the masculine will to shape an ideal woman. Men built from words such as Pygmalion, or Aylmer in The BirthMark, are reminding us of the endless loops of our world and the ultimate desire to create and curate someone ideal; a perfect creature. But wishing for perfection isn’t only about physical features, as these stories remind us, but rather about the possibility of accessing and controlling these bodies. Wishing for perfection is a will to change, design, and claim what does not belong to us. It is aiming for control, fluidity, and profit. It is about shaping the ultimate tool that can be used, loved, and consumed. In these tales, these characters often end up being punished by Gods for shaping the “ideal woman” and they often lose what they love. In real life, however, they survive, thrive, and decide on ultimate designs.
In Greek mythology, the deity Ops is represented and illustrated as the key holder of opportunity, wealth, fertility, and growth. Nowadays, her name still resonates in opulent, optimal, and optimized. Little is to be found about Ops, but her Greek equivalent, Rhea, tells us more about her role and figure. In this myth, Rhea was the wife of the Kronos and Queen of Heaven. When her husband heard a prophecy that he would be deposed by one of his children, he decided to swallow each of them as soon as they were born. Rhea took her youngest kid, Zeus, and hid him away in a cave in Crete, to save him from being devoured. She presented Kronos with a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes which he promptly devoured. Scared by the survival of a possible fittest, Kronos decided to eat what was his own offspring, deciding on the life of a progeniture born himself from the deity of fertility.
On one hand, and out of the many insights one can read from this tale, this story reminds us that fertility and body accessibility remain one of the first forms and sources of opulence and optimality. Specifically, when thinking of the body with a womb, optimal standards transfer into its capacity to be accessed and deliver birth. Additionally, this tale reminds us that, although this body is the main key-holder of its power to produce profit and opulence, Kronos, the male figure, remains the one deciding who is worthy enough to live and potentially replace him. Kronos wants his wife to deliver opulence and be optimal, but he then refuses the optimization process, which is the replacement of another through the birth of a better and stronger god. Although this story has been written more than two thousand years ago, Rhea’s image and conceptualization still resonate nowadays when compared to what is expected of female bodies to produce, how their flesh is used, and how masculine attitudes still decide on their rights and questions of accessibility. Their choices, based on the fear of being replaced or dethroned continuously influence lives.
When I compare myself to others, it is sometimes challenging to recall with whom I aspire to compete, and whom I fear to replace me. I do not know anymore if it is only about a gender dichotomy, peer-to-peer mirroring, or simply societal pressure. Still, after reading Testo-Junkie by Paul Preciado, and while going through the pages of experience of heat, hunger, energy, horniness, and constant anger felt by the author, my brain could not help but whisper: “Yes. That’s optimal. That’s how you’d get anything you want.” Nevertheless, this contemporary pressure to perform and be optimal goes beyond gender nowadays. If indeed, its ideal often took the shape of an alpha/able/male, however, now it seems to merge and transmute into something even bigger than human flesh.
Optimization, Bodies versus Machines
“But, then again, nothing today ever de-escalates.”
Optimal-Self by Jia Tolentino in her book Trick Mirror
Before seeking to update and become the ultimate version of ourselves, one should ask how this notion has been impacted by the criteria of capitalism, colonialism, and the endless will for productivity.
There used to be a time when the word technology was used as a synonym for progress and for possible automation. At that moment, optimization appeared as a concept that could redeem us from forms of physical labor by letting machines do the work more efficiently, more smoothly, and with less danger. Out of these many promises, only one actually happened. Nowadays, workflows have never been faster. However, while productivity thrives, our bodies and labor have never been so undermined and pressured. If optimization is a concept that one wants to apply within the context of company-building and or profit-making, it is a dangerous one to use when it comes to body performances and ideals of human productivity. Therefore it is impossible not to locate the ideal performance and productivity schemes outside of a capitalist and pressuring system. When constraint does not come from a specific other, it often comes from the structures of our systems.
In Mythologies of Transhumanism, Michael Hauskeller reflects on the pressure performed within and outside of our psyche, leading us to often think of ways to cope, rather than to find strategies to heal and to be critical towards our environment: “We are encouraged to enrich or replace our bodies with various bits of machinery, to use mood enhancers and other feel-good drugs, intelligence enhancers, drugs that increase alertness and our attention span, drugs that improve our memory, and others that help us forget, and even morality pills that will help us not to abuse any of those wonderful new abilities that modern technology has allowed us, or will soon allow us, to acquire”. In a similar pattern in birth control for menstruating bodies with rare conditions, or antidepressants for mentally ill persons, little time and care seemed to be given to the individual to reflect on their unease. On the contrary, the lack of time to reflect, and to even rest, leaves the individuals with no other possibility than to swallow the pill, enhance their existence, and think of the many different ways they can profit from their everyday experiences.
Figure 4: A woman posing for Dreem Neurotechnology Sleep Aid with glitters.
Once we realized that machines and technologies do not help us live better lives, but rather became the optimal reference for productivity, a new societal paradigm arrives; the one of a Promethean Shame. In his book Sex and the Posthuman Condition Michael Hauskeller explains that “promethean shame is what we feel when we compare ourselves to the wonderful machines that we have created and realize how inferior we are.” The co-existence with this ideal of productivity leaves us bitter. We feel pushed to an extreme, and still, we can’t rest, because machines haven’t yet fully replaced us. Still, what has arrived in our psyche and everyday life’s experience is the pressure to perform and optimize ourselves, given how much is possible nowadays thanks to technology. Sleeping less, eating more, endlessly doing, continuously thriving, watching the clocks. And while time passes others are always doing a greater job, and the fear of being replaced or not chosen is constant. So is the quest for profit which is always expanding, never close enough, remaining a distant oasis.
Although this pressure is imposed on both genders nowadays, it is relevant to notice that the female body as an optimal machine and productive engine has a long history of visual representation. The fertile stay-at-home wife, the girl-boss-mom, and later on, the digital assistant, the sex robot doll… These representations of females are there to exist and feed phantasmagoria while designed in ways to prevent them from complaining about their conditions. The representation of an ideal female as a digital asset and always-ready-to-be-used product has been extracted from science fiction to live in our current everyday life. She is Siri, Alexa, Samantha, Harmony, and Cortana.
“Cortana helps you achieve more with less effort while allowing you to focus on what matters.”
In 1984, Donna Haraway wrote in her Cyborg Manifesto: “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess”. While it is quite likely that many of us would also rather become Alexa’s than perform the role of a Rhea or Ops, our options aren’t so diverse, and to refuse such an offer would imply that we refuse the benefits of progress and deny the natural processes of optimization. In her Manifesto, Haraway presents a perspective where technologies have supported women in their emancipation from their gender and from society’s oppression. Written more than thirty years ago, this avant-gardist and optimistic perspective on technologies and their potential for humanity seems to have poorly aged. In the article A [White] Cyborg’s Manifesto: the overwhelmingly Western ideology driving technofeminist theory, Julia R DeCook dissects the way in which this vision is not only reductionist to the westernized vision of female embodiment and forms of liberation. She also describes how this ideology never came to fulfillment, leaving us with a nostalgic idea of what technology failed to realize. “Instead of shifting away essentialized notions of gender and sex away from the body, the technological revolution of the late 20th and early 21st century may have further reified and cemented these differences rather than usurping them.” Instead of changing our experiences for the better, many of these cyborgs came to life with a specific intentional design: to be a better, more usable, and more efficient female companion. Of course, it would be too alarmist to claim that these feminine tools and devices have become a real replacement for a daughter, a wife, or any form of companionship. Still, these examples help us to concretely see how the cyborg era has failed to emancipate us from a binary perspective, and instead, has re-enforced gender performativity, misogyny, and the notion of female consumability. In the meantime, the real voices of those, with human flesh, who, by default, were less optimal, less compliant, perhaps less healthy, less flexible, and not as “user-friendly”, have disappeared and have become a distant background echo.
The philosophical and theoretical humanities’ perspectives on the questions and outcomes of optimization are scarce. Still, the few existing and publicly accessible documents do not fail to underline the urgency of such work. In Introduction: optimization and its discontents, researchers Fenwick McKelvey and Joshua Neves insist on the importance to reflect critically and globally on the social and political implications of such concepts in our everyday lives. “Optimization […] produces its share of discontents. In this context, it is tempting to think of various responses to, or ways of inhabiting, optimization projects as forms of counter-optimization. [...] But more than resistance, such everyday actions, habits of living, and forms of organization must be understood to be ordinary and constitutive.”
What would a counter-optimization entail for our bodies within endlessly optimizing systems? How does one deal with optimization when the flesh refuses to do so? How will we support bodies and individuals by giving them the time and affordances needed to live, rather than to survive, and to heal instead of endlessly update?
Memories of Inadequacy
I existed long before you met me. I lived long before you loved me, judged me, despised me. I’ve been called a stranger before you could even feel my presence. Being by your side was a script that I thought I could digest. You wanted everything. I desired less. When you left, I knew you’d find what you would be searching for, and I guess that I would simply stroll in my indifference, never really knowing what is there. I have come a long way, tried to learn what it meant not to be, not to find, not to use, not to change, but to accept, and in the meantime, perhaps not to die.
When thinking of cures and ways to heal from feelings of inadequacy, one must think about the weapons, the wounds, the attacks, and the oppressors beforehand. One must try to observe what shape the pain has taken and think of what it is that makes one feel weak, different, and improper.
Sometimes, the sources of this reflection are concrete: a feeling of inadequacy, criteria reminding you that you’re always wrong, figures that betray us, and a sense of safety and comfort suddenly being taken away. Within society, it is a miracle and a lie to pretend that one can feel and breathe out perfect alignment and adequacy.
Contrary to the machine, which is designed—and therefore closer to the gods—the body, in itself, at its core, is unperfect, changes, and is doomed to fail, becoming obsolete. Its experience oscillates between the flows of pain, pleasure, difference, expectation, and judgment. This experience cannot, in essence, be a fulfilling one.
I’ve often dreamed about being That Girl, the exact model or formula that the ones I loved had projected on me. I would have let them design me willingly, shape my core, clay my intentions and program my manners if I had the chance to. If I could re-write the story, I’d be fertile and optimal, consumable and malleable. I would have become exactly what they wished for because it is within the space of fulfilled desires that love lasts and surely never dies. If only one could perform the perfect daughter, friend, and girlfriend, if only one could remain an object of satisfaction and desire for eternity. A fresh and young body: the most haunting, still praised, the painful and pleasuring place to exist.
When one starts grieving the idea of optimality and performativity, due to physical or mental limitations, one starts seeing many illusions drifting away: the lies of consistency, the false effort of linearity, the impossibility of eternity, and the concrete limits of the body.
Whether it be within society’s everyday experiences or through interpersonal relationships, it is not that difficult to recall the first time that an external agent left us feeling inadequate, improper, not fitting, or unperfect.
Later on, obsessed by the situations and persons who have exercised judgment and injuries upon us, one remains eternally in pain in the realization of its incapacity to be adequate and to perform. This becomes the moral value, the standard criteria that one applies to themself. Often, these feelings of pain remain and penetrate deeper into the layers of our skin, becoming an excuse for our miserable attitudes, shapes, or lives.
I always ask:
Why do I miss the one that made me despise my own body so much?
It is the one that made me see the limits of my flesh.
It is the one that taught me I was imperfect.
It is the one that taught me about inadequacy.
It is the one that brought pain and hatred into my chest.
It is the path once walked that every deception’s paws walk again.
You can follow the ongoing research on https://becomingtheproduct.substack.com/
Morgane Billuart is a writer and a visual artist. She graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam and studied at the Cooper Union in New York. Currently, she is a researcher at the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam. In the era of digital practices, DIY-internet belief, and self-help seminars, her practice aims to display diverse forms of faith or beliefs, and how they are generated nowadays. Often, she confronts these themes and interests with her gender and existence as a woman in the spaces she investigates and questions how the forces and fluctuations of female bodies can help us rethink and criticize the technocratic and digital spheres surrounding us.