What Is Bodily Autonomy?
Defining Bodily Autonomy
Now, as much as ever, bodily autonomy is a topic of conversation. For many of us, we continue to live in a world that tells us to shrink in both size and sound. But what is bodily autonomy exactly? And how can we fight back against systems that continue to perpetuate harmful ideas about our bodies?
Let’s start with a simple definition: Bodily autonomy is the right to governance over one’s own body. Specifically for women, nonbinary, and trans people, this means making decisions about one’s physical self. It also means the freedom to take up space in the world.
Unfortunately, bodily autonomy is consistently challenged by people, governments, and entire systems (even in 2022). Laws informed by patriarchal ideologies continue to suppress and govern others. For women, but especially for women of color and LGBTQIA+ people, external forces continue to stake a claim to how our bodies exist in the world.
So what do we do then? Well, we can start with protests and votes and by educating ourselves about the laws that harm bodies around the world. (These organizations are a great starting point.)
But we can also fight against the ideologies ingrained within us. For too long, many of us have internalized messages about our bodies and felt subsequent shame. We can practice autonomy by caring for and loving our bodies, and by dismantling any oppressive narratives. We can silence the voices that say we are only relevant when we exist within a specific framework or when our physical selves exist to serve and please others. And, for those of us who have privilege, we can use our voices to affirm and empower bodies that are at greater risk of experiencing violence when advocating for themselves.
Together, we can create a world where equality, agency, and bodily autonomy exist for everyone. Here are a few ways to get started.
The Period Narrative
Menstrual shame is a problem that continues around the world. There is the overt shame—such as menstruating-people 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 in Western cultures, the kind of shame that manifests itself in practices like slipping tampons up shirt sleeves and using euphemisms, like “Aunt Flo.”
Menstruating people are taught that their periods are synonymous with womanhood—and as the old story goes, getting your period is to become a member of an exclusive club. This thinking is problematic because not all cis-women have periods. And the conversation becomes even more nuanced when talking with the agender and trans communities.
Moreover, we have to ask ourselves: If we continue believing the narrative that menstruation equates womanhood, yet we accept periods as problems, what does this imply about being a woman? And what about the menstruating people who don’t identify this way?
The copious amounts of products we have to control, conceal, and halt our monthly cycle treats menstruation as if it’s an issue to be solved. What then are we learning about the value of our bodies?
The good news is that we can reclaim this narrative. We can stop using menstruation to define womanhood or gender and instead celebrate our bodies no matter if or how our period shows up. We can also destigmatize menstruation by calling it what it is. We can put nicknames and euphemisms to bed, gifting ourselves and one another the ability to talk about our bodies without pet words.
How to Reclaim the Period Narrative
1. Remove period pet names from our vocabulary. Practice calling our period precisely what it is.
2. Use an app or notebook to log and learn about our cycles. May we take notice and celebrate how our bodies change during menstruation.
4. Remember that not all menstruating bodies experience a regular cycle. And people in menopause and trans women don’t have periods. Let us be sensitive to generalizations and stereotypes about periods. This will combat exclusion and help normalize conversations about irregular cycles.
The Health & Beauty Narratives
Western society and Eurocentric narratives falsely tell us that—generally speaking—beautiful people are tall and thin. From a young age, we learn that women are fragile and should be smaller in size. Beauty brands tell us that luscious hair and flawless skin reign supreme, and these contorted images inform our decisions about how we love or hate our bodies. To compensate, we give in to the brands telling us we need to buy more products or go on a diet.
But we don’t have to believe these narratives anymore. For starters, the beautiful and thin woman construct is something created by the patriarchy to shape and control appearance. It also excludes trans and nonconforming bodies, further calling attention to the binary. While the health, wellness, and beauty industries are adopting inclusive sizing and body-positive messages for all genders, we’ve still got a long way to go.
How to Rewrite the Health & Beauty Narratives
1. Educate ourselves about how the body works. We 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 bodies.
2. There are alternatives to Western medicine and natural remedies at our disposal. It’s perfectly okay to believe in and find value in Western medicine while also taking a more holistic approach to our health.
3. Listen to our bodies by giving them the foods they need for nourishment and overall wellness.
5. Practice asking ourselves why we do the things we do for beauty. Waxing, shaving body hair, dying greys, covering blemishes—these beauty practices aren’t inherently wrong, but they’re worth questioning. We should know why we choose to do these things and only embrace what brings us wholeness and joy.
The Accommodating Narrative
According to a study conducted by the University of Waterloo, Canada, women apologize more than men. We say “sorry” when offering our opinions, when taking too long to respond to a text or email, and even when someone else is at fault. Inc. Magazine claims this is because we “have a lower threshold for behavior that constitutes an apology.”
But these voices matter. One way we can practice body autonomy is by speaking up—literally. We can refuse to pacify our speech or soften our tone or curb our emotions. The power is ours for taking. The voices of women, nonbinary, and trans people are essential to society. Just remember, women of color and LGBTQ+ voices are more oppressed and at a greater risk of violence for speaking up and using assertive communication tactics. Learn more about how to become an ally and intersectional feminist here.
Tips for Asserting Your Speech & Body Language
1. We can learn to recognize when we’re using filler words and qualifiers in our speech, texts, and emails. Words like ‘just’ and ‘actually’ weaken our sentences.
2. We can practice stating our opinion and speaking up for ourselves. Remember, we do not need permission to use our voices or take up space.
3. We can also practice assertive and confident body language. Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., recommends holding your head high and straight, pulling your shoulders back, and “learning to interrupt” when we’re not given a chance to speak.
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for sensitive people.