About a month ago I decided to get a second tattoo on my upper left arm, something that I had considered for over a year and that meant a lot to me emotionally. I knew at the time that a lot of people were not going to be happy with my decision, but my reasoning was this: it’s my body, and as long as it doesn’t directly affect anyone there is no rational reason for anyone to be angry, right? I don’t know if that’s actually right, but I do know from experience that there’s always people who won’t be happy with your choices. Always. It doesn’t matter to what degree it affects them, because they will always have an opinion on what you should or shouldn’t do with your body.
My body has been a topic of discussion ever since I can remember.
While it’s my body, it has never really belonged to me. I knew it when grown men stared at me when I was 12, and I’m still reminded of it now that I am 21. I don’t own my body when it becomes the subject of male gaze as I am just trying to go about with my day, nor when it is sold for male consumption in the media. I don’t own my body when it’s used against me to sell weight-loss tea and appetite-suppressing lollipops, and much less when I actually fall for the trap and believe that I need to buy any of it. I, along with many other women, was conditioned to believe very early on that my body, the body that helps me walk and eat and hug the people I love, is not mine to make decisions on.
I started dieting when I was in the 5th grade; I was only 10 when I began to form an unhealthy relationship with food, all because other people felt the need to make comments on my weight. I didn’t know anything, but I knew I didn’t like people calling me “fat”. In the 7th grade, my history teacher interrupted the lecture to tell me, in front of all of my classmates, that my bra strap was distracting, and although I was wearing a cardigan, I was still sent to the nurse’s office. She was a woman, and I couldn’t understand why I was being punished for wearing what I was expected to wear. In the 9th grade, my butt became the conversation starter for men who wanted to talk to me. I should be happy that a man finds me attractive, because that means they like me, right?
I’m not sure whether things got worse as I grew older, or if I just became more aware, but I am sure that living in this body has brought me so much anger and resentment. What do you do when everybody claims ownership of your body, except you yourself are not allowed to? You can’t just ignore what people say when it holds so much power in society. What those people say and think are the same things that influence laws, create social norms, and dictate how others behave towards you. “She got what she deserved for spreading her legs open”, “we won’t treat her with respect because of what she is wearing”, and “she can’t do this job because she is a woman” all go deeper than just hurt feelings, so how dare you suggest I just ignore it?
Words are not just words, and when you can’t escape them you either hide from them or try to defy them. I used to find comfort in the thought of the former, but even when I tried to dress in a way that doesn’t attract attention, and when I crossed streets to avoid walking by the group of men who are waiting to whistle at me, or when I chose to just stay home and avoid the real world by watching movies or reading, I couldn’t escape the reminder that a woman’s body is seen as an object that belongs to the public. I’ve realized I can’t hide, so my only option now is to defy and claim ownership of my body, something that I continue to try with no success.
I think I reclaim ownership when I wear a crop top out in public, but as soon as I’m a block away from my apartment a catcall makes me instantly regret my decision and walk with my head down, and once again my body doesn’t belong to me. I think I reclaim ownership when I get a tattoo that is beautiful and significant to me, but when people show disdain over something I chose to do to my own skin, I lose it once again. I think I reclaim ownership when I embrace my sexuality, but then a wave of shame comes over me and, for the tenth time that day, it’s confirmed my body is just not meant to be mine. When there are moments of victory, the world rushes to humble me.
Looking back now, I wish I could’ve held that young girl who was quietly suffering, analyzing every little flaw in the mirror and then beating herself up over it throughout the day. I resent every comment, every jab, and every side-glance that convinced me to believe I was too fat, or too skinny, or just not physically good enough. Sadly, that young girl grew to become a woman, and those same insecurities and fears still lie somewhere deep in my mind, making appearances more frequently than I’d like to admit. I’m about to hit 22 years, and I still feel like my body doesn’t belong to me, but I haven’t given up. I am grateful to be healthy and able-bodied, but there is a lot to unpack emotionally, and I hope that if you feel the same way you will never stop trying to reclaim your body.
The journey is long, but we’re in this together.
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