I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ve done at least one of the following things in your life:
- Looked at someone else’s body and judged them
- Adjusted choices about your own body based on someone else’s wants
- Apologized about the way you look
In fact, I’d say that it’s pretty likely you’ve done all three. I don’t say this because I’m some kind of mind-reading genius; I’m saying this because I’ve done them myself and there’s something that ties all of them together that’s totally pervasive in our society.
Our bodies have been claimed by others, and for the most part, we’ve surrendered.
It’s almost like walking down the street has become a spectator sport. Everyone you pass seems to feel like it’s their place to look at you and judge you. It’s their god-given right to decide who you are, what you’re doing right and wrong, and how valuable you are just by assessing your body. They get to decide if you’re healthy, beautiful and worthy. They get to speculate how much sex you’re having and decide whether or not you’re a good person based on that. They get to speculate about your situation, why you’re there, and what all the reasons are that you’re to blame for it.
I’m not totally sure where this came from, but I’ve got some ideas. Largely, I think it comes from objectification. We see objectified bodies all the time. We especially see objectified female bodies all the time. And when you objectify a body, it kind of seems like it’s not part of a person anymore; it’s its own thing that sort of enters the public domain and becomes public property. It’s like the only part of ourselves that are actually our own are our minds (except even those are inundated with messages day and night, so even that’s up for debate). Our bodies are most definitely not private. Those are on display, for the whole world to comment on, and that’s seen as totally acceptable and normal.
Except it’s not. It’s messed up, and it’s not OK.
Our bodies are our own. We need to have a sense of autonomy over our bodies. That need is where the horror of things like physical and sexual violence comes from–we have no say in what’s happening to our bodies in those moments. And that is a problem. It is a problem when we don’t have control over what happens to our bodies. It’s a form of terrorism to deny people that right.
And yet we’re living in a time where that right is perhaps as threatened as ever, especially in the case of women. Women are constantly told how to dress, how much makeup is acceptable (the answer is no amount is actually safe), how much sex they’re allowed to have, and which of their bodily choices are ethical and which are not.
So, for instance, women who are open about their sexuality are bad people. Men who are open about their sexuality are studs. Women who spend a lot of money are careless. Men who spend a lot of money have good taste. Women who drink a lot are reckless. Men who drink a lot are kicking back and enjoying themselves. Women who cover up their whole bodies are either prudes or oppressed by some terrible (read: unfamiliar) moral or religious code. Men who cover up are on their way to work.
Policing women’s bodies is just another thing that gets in the way of women loving their bodies. How easy is it to love something that isn’t yours? The kind of dissociation that happens when we take ownership of other people’s bodies is a huge obstacle to overcome. If our bodies also belonged to everyone else around us and everyone had unkind things to say about our bodies, we would need to try to reconcile all of those things as well before we could arrive at self-love.
Aggressively reclaiming my body was something I did about a year ago. It was a shock to my system, but an even bigger one to the people around me. “Maybe you should lose weight,” was met with, “It’s my body, not yours. I’ll be the one to decide whether or not I should lose weight.” “I’m worried about your health,” was met with, “If you want to worry about someone’s health, worry about yours. I’ll worry about mine.” And “Don’t you think Sandra should be more careful about who she sleeps with?” was met with, “What Sandra does with her body is none of your business or mine.” Has it always been easy? No. Did some people hear these things and get defensive? Absolutely. Did I lose friends? A lot. But the reality is that (thankfully) now I hear people talk about my body like it’s their property and it sounds to me like they’re speculating on the geopolitical choices of Mars. It’s so outrageous that it can’t upset me; it’s totally absurd.
The change that’s happened in my life is not universal, and I’m very aware of that. That I learned to take control of my body doesn’t impact anyone but me. And that’s why I’m writing about this. That’s why I’m throwing the idea out there that maybe–just maybe–we need to practice what we preach as well. Maybe we need to stop policing other people’s bodies. Maybe we need to stop judging each other. Maybe we need to stop reading those ridiculous magazines that obsess over the 2 pounds that Lady Gaga gained or lost. Maybe we need to stop buying things from companies that think it’s OK to disempower women in their advertisements.
Maybe it’s time for us to stop letting other people claim something that is our own.