Autonomy, by definition, is the right or condition of self-government. For people—specifically women—this means having the right to one’s own body, the right to take up space in the world, and the right to make decisions for one’s physical self.
Now as much as ever, women’s bodies—our shape, our function, what we are or are not allowed to do with our bodies—is a topic of conversation. The specifics vary for each country and religion, but one thing is consistent: even in 2019, whether or not women should have total autonomy over their bodies is up for debate. We are still living in a world that tells women to shrink in both size and sound.
The fight against this kind of suppression starts with us. It’s essential for us as women to believe in and fight for autonomy. We can do this through protests and votes, by supporting organizations and educating ourselves about the laws that harm women around the world. We can also practice autonomy on a small scale, with our own bodies and in our local communities. We can take ownership over our physical presence, and we can dissect old narratives, rewriting them to align with equality and agency. The power is ours for the taking.
In choosing to take back power, we are owning our presence and silencing the voices that say women are fragile spirits floating through the world, that our bodies are only relevant when they exist to serve and please others. And we are honoring our existence, the existence of our mothers, the lives of women to come. We are saying, “I see you” and “I see me” and “We are here with both feet on the ground.”
The Period Narrative
There are numerous shame narratives when it comes to women’s bodies. Menstrual shame, for example, is a serious problem for women and girls around the world. There is the overt shame, such as women not being allowed to sit with others, go to school, or even touch food while on their periods. And then there is the less obvious shame experienced by women in Western cultures, the kind of shame that manifests itself in practices like slipping tampons up shirt sleeves and using adopted euphemisms. You know the ones. We called it ‘Aunt Flo’ or ‘that time of the month’ in my corner of the map.
While the covert menstruation shame may seem less problematic, it’s actually as much a problem as ever. As women, we're taught that our periods are synonymous with womanhood. Getting your period is to become a member of an exclusive club—menstruation is essentially the gateway to becoming a woman, or so we are taught. (This thinking is problematic on its own, of course, because not all cis-women even have a period, and the menstruation conversation becomes more complex when talking with the agender and trans communities.)
But if we continue believing the narrative that menstruation equates womanhood, yet we still accept periods as problems, what does this imply about being a woman? Just look at the copious amounts of products we have to control, conceal, and even end our monthly cycle. If menstruation is seen and treated as an issue to be solved, what are we learning about the value of womanhood, about the value of our bodies?
The good news is, we can reclaim this period narrative. We can stop using it as a way to define womanhood and instead celebrate our bodies no matter if or how our period shows up. We can also demystify menstruation by calling it what it is. We can put nicknames and euphemisms to bed, gifting ourselves the ability to talk about bodies without fabricated words.
To learn more about reclaiming the period narrative, visit one of our favorite websites, Blood + Milk. Their library of articles about menstrual cycles is binge-worthy.
Tips for Reclaiming the Period Narrative
1. Remove period pet names from your vocabulary. Practice calling your period precisely what it is.
2. Use an app or notebook to log your period and learn your cycle. Take notice and celebrate how your body changes during menstruation.
3. Do your research when it comes to tampons, pads, and cups. Consider the environment and your health when choosing period products. Here are a few of our favorite organic tampon brands and cup options.
The Health & Beauty Narratives
In my teens and early twenties, there was only one reason I knew what I was feeding my body: I wanted to control my weight. All of my food could be summarized and counted in calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Eating and exercising were done not to nourish or heal my body, but to control it, to shape it. Society had shown me what a beautiful woman looked like—tiny and thin—and I desperately wanted to be her.
This is the narrative. It’s the one that tells girls what the ideal woman looks like. From a young age, we learn about her fragility and small size, her luscious hair, her flawless skin. This woman informs our decisions and the way we love or hate our bodies. She is the woman who tells us we need to buy more products and pills and diet plans.
We don’t have to believe her anymore. For starters, she’s not real. This woman is a construct, one created to shape and control our appearance. Most of us know this by now—thankfully, new trails are being blazed in the health, wellness, and beauty industries; brands are adopting inclusive sizing and body-positive messages; women are encouraging other women to eat intuitively, to feed their bodies nourishing, whole foods rather than low-fat, low-cal products. And women are learning to embrace their skin, to redefine what it means to be ‘flawless’ and ‘beautiful.’
As women, we must continue blazing this trail, choosing to rewrite old narratives and question taught truth about health, wellness, and beauty. Here are a few practical tips to help with this process:
Tips for Embracing Authentic Beauty & Wholeness
1. Educate yourself about how the body works. You don’t have to go back to school to learn the basics of how and why bodies function the way they do. Books, podcasts, and online classes are excellent resources for learning about your body. I’m currently reading Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography. I highly recommend it.
2. Learn about alternatives to Western medicine and the natural remedies at your disposal. You don’t have to go ‘off-grid’ or boycott pharmacies. It’s perfectly okay to believe in and find value in Western medicine, as well as the natural remedies of our ancestors.
3. Practice listening to your body and giving it the foods it needs for nourishment and overall wellness. If you enjoy recording your meals in a diary, consider writing down the nutrients and vitamins of each food you eat, rather than the calorie count.
4. Incorporate mindful routines throughout your week and practice logging your sleep. These are empowering practices that can help you to become more in-tune with how your body works, as well as benefit your overall wellness.
5. Get in the practice of asking yourself why you do the things you do. Why do you wax and shave? Dye grey hairs? Cover up blemishes? As women, we should know why we choose to do these things and only engage in the practices that bring us wholeness and joy.
The Speech & Body Language Narratives
According to studies, women apologize much more often than men. We hardly need evidence of this, though. Women say “sorry” when offering their opinions, when taking too long to respond to a text or email, and even when someone else is at fault. I know because I do this.
I still struggle asking for pay raises because I fear I’ll be replaced. I don’t raise my voice in public settings because I know I’ll be labeled as ‘crazy.’ And when someone bumps into me on the sidewalk, I apologize without thinking twice. These are patterns formed from years spent believing I—a woman—am an inconvenience to the world. For too many years I’ve believed my thoughts and opinions must be welcomed by others to be valid.
Women’s voices, women’s opinions—they matter. One way we can practice autonomy is by using our voices and refusing to pacify our speech and body language.
Tips for Asserting Your Speech & Body Language
1. Learn to recognize when you are using filler words and qualifiers in your speech, texts, and emails. Words like ‘just’ and ‘actually’ weaken our sentences.
2. Practice stating your opinion and speaking up for yourself. Remember, we do not need permission from the world to use our voices.
3. Practice assertive and confident body language. Start by reading this article by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.
Kayti Christian, a staff writer for The Good Trade, is a storyteller, creator, activist, and avid traveler hailing from Colorado, now living in London. With 30+ stamps in her passport, she is passionate about responsible tourism and is always looking for new ways to be a more conscious traveler. She is currently pursuing her MA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at City, University of London.