Property Rights, or, For the Love of Rose
How old were you when your body became yours?
My last post was the result of trying to handle the overwhelming messages that society sends about my body (and the bodies of women everywhere), and the response was kind and encouraging, but also sad, as I read from so many other women who feel just like I do. Women may have the right to vote, own property, work outside the home, and do quite a few more things than previous generations experienced, but this week, I have been stymied by evidence that society hasn’t yet agreed that women have ownership of their own bodies and it is infuriating.
A few years ago, I had a fairly civil conversation with a friend about gender roles, with she championing the more traditional take on it. She married very young and had kids right away, fitting nicely into the traditional roles set out for her. I, as a single woman in her thirties, didn’t do either of those things. At one point, I asked her who was responsible for me: was it my father? As a college educated, professional adult, was my father still responsible for my actions? What about when he dies, does that responsibility transfer to my brother, who lived over a thousand miles away and to whom I rarely speak? She couldn’t tell me. We had known each other for over a decade, and she still did not seem to think that I am my own person, regardless of my marital status.
Less than two weeks ago, my heart broke as I listened to my teenaged cousin tell us that she feels obligated to return unwanted physical affection from guys because otherwise, she would be labeled as “unfriendly” in her peer group – a group that is entirely comprised of church friends and other students at her very conservative private school. Her “friends,” male and female, don’t seem to respect her boundaries, and for a few guys, it wasn’t until her older brother showed up and stepped in that they backed off. I find it mind boggling that in 2015, women have to have brothers step in because society doesn’t understand that her body belongs to her, and that she sets the boundaries for what she likes and dislikes.
In July, I got to see my best friend and her children, whom I adore. They are just fantastic, each in their own way, but I have to tell you: Rose, aged 2 1/2, is my patronis. Since birth, she has been a force to be reckoned with. She refused to let almost anyone hold her. She has had a huge personality since day one, loud and fast talking and a ball buster of a kid. I don’t get to see her often because they live in Baltimore, so that morning, she was skeptical of me. The older kids were happy to get tickles and hugs, but Rose wasn’t interested. “No! I don’t like it!” she said as she ran away. Now, it wouldn’t have been impossible for me to cross the living room, pick her up, and hug her despite her protests. I’ve seen that happen with a lot of kids, but that’s because as adults, we don’t let kids set boundaries. To tell an aunt or uncle to keep their hands off is “disrespectful” or “rude,” so kids get told to do it anyways. Eventually, by the time lunch rolled around, she was comfortable with me and I snuck in a hug or two, tickled her til her sides hurt, and played hide and seek with her.
At what point do we own our own bodies? Surely Rose needs people to care for her, but does that mean that she doesn’t own her body? My cousin can’t vote or get a tattoo or sign a contract, but does that mean she doesn’t own her body? I’m single and in my mid-30s, so does that mean that my father is responsible for my body?
I watched a few hours of news today and it was full of examples where the ownership of people’s bodies seemed to somehow be up for debate: talk about a high profile rape case (one of the worst violations of a person’s agency), a popular talk show host advocating immigrants becoming “property of the state” and forced into “compelled labor,” debate over the representation of women of color in magazines, twisted presidential hopefuls who seem to think they have a stake in my uterus. I flipped through Facebook and read comments about the former Subway guy who pleaded guilty to child sex abuse charges and about the Duggar opinion that wives should never say no to sex, even when they don’t want it. At what point do we own our bodies?
There are a lot of messages about out bodies that we need to filter out, but probably the biggest message to ignore is the message that one’s body belongs to anyone but one’s own self. My body belongs to me, yours belongs to you. Maybe remembering that will help us be kinder to one another. I desperately hope that my cousin understands this and is willing to hold tight to it. I pray that Rose keeps her stubborn and boisterous personality because it will serve her well, even if it gives her parents gray hair.
Friends, for the love of me, my cousin, Rose, and everyone else, can we just agree that a person’s body belongs to that person? And then, maybe we will have a tiny shred of credibility when we call ourselves a civilized people.