You Own You

Excerpt from my new book, out later this month:

In the first draft of this book, I wrote, “You own your body. Let me say that again: YOU own your body. Nobody else does. And pondering that might take you far out of your comfort zone, because I don’t believe most women really get that notion, thanks to our cultural conditioning.” I immediately felt a wave of self-doubt rise up, making me question if that wasn’t too strong a statement to make – so I promptly deleted it, then rushed off to work on my bicycle.

As I rode, I had plenty of time to ponder this, and I was surprised when my intuition kicked in and urged me to put those statements back into the book – urged me to refrain from watering down or tempering this issue in any way. I decided to listen and resolved to rewrite this section when I returned home.

Upon arriving at work, I commented to a co-worker how hot and sweaty I was after my bike ride. She replied by saying, “At your age, you are probably just starting menopause. You’re having a hot flash!”

I was stunned and mortified – especially since this is not the first time this has happened. Doctors, strangers, and other acquaintances have said things like this to me many times before.

Now let’s get something straight: I’m 39 years old and still hold on to the hope that I might have that family I once dreamed of. I feel like the shift to 40 is affecting my spirit far more than my body – in fact, I feel more physically healthy and vibrant than I did 20 years ago.

In that moment, facing comments about yet another person’s unwanted opinion about my fertility, I didn’t know what else to do except hastily leave the room.

As I pulled myself together in the staff room, I felt my intuition speaking again. “See? I told you to include this in the book. This woman who barely knows you feels that your fertility – your uterus – is a topic open to the public. But who owns this body? You do. Your personal physical issues are nobody’s business but your own.”

I tried to imagine male co-workers ribbing each other about prostate exams and the like, and couldn’t quite see it – because, for the most part, they don’t do that. Our culture recognizes that men own their bodies and as such, their bodies are not open for public discussion.

It does happen on a rare occasion – for instance, the media frenzy over Michael Fassbender’s full frontal scenes in Shame. His response to the attention on his private region was to insist that this would not be acceptable if he was a woman – that it would be considered sexual harassment to talk about a woman’s body in such a way.

That, to me, just goes to show how deep this rabbit hole is. I hate to say it, Mr. Fassbender, but the media has been talking about (and criticizing and photographing) women’s bodies (private parts or not) for decades and it’s rarely been categorized as sexual harassment. (Not that I don't think he makes a valid point that men shouldn't be objectified any more than women are.)

This is truly an issue that reaches way down deep. We are so conditioned to remaining subordinate to the structure that’s been passed down to us that if we even get close to the idea of recognizing that our culture doesn’t respect a woman’s ownership of her body, we immediately back off – just as I did when I first started writing this section.

But it’s real, and it’s there. We are judged for the way we dress. (The length of our skirts magically conveys our moral codes to the people around us.) We are judged for the way we act, whether or not we wear makeup, our relationship status, our parental status, our career, our education, etc. Ultimately, all of this comes down to the misplaced ownership of our bodies and souls.

This is a very old issue for me. As I mentioned before, somewhere along the line, I forgot that I owned my body. I’m not even sure I ever truly knew that I did own it. I remember growing up to believe that I was supposed to do what was asked of me. Period. I’m not sure where that belief came from – it certainly wasn’t something that was specifically conveyed to me through words. But perhaps it was something I witnessed in the adults in my life.

In any case, I knew, from a very young age, that I was living on a dangerous precipice. That all anyone had to do was ask me for something I wasn’t willing to do, give, or say – and that would be that. I wouldn't have a choice but to comply. So I developed dozens of coping mechanisms to help me avoid situations like that. Looking back, I feel extremely lucky that I was able to get through high school without any major issues.

Maybe I was stronger than I give myself credit for. Maybe the simple act of developing those coping mechanisms proves just how much fortitude my soul had. Either way, I wish I had known, deep down to the very core of my being, that this body was mine.

Instead, I spent decades judging myself because I didn’t think I fit our culture’s beauty standards. I worried that I wore too much make up, or not enough, I worried what people would think about the way I dressed (was I conservative enough – or too conservative?), I said yes to everything, and I let people discuss subjects with me that were private.

Thankfully, the older I get, the more I realized I own this body. I own this experience. No one is going to look out for this body, or its boundaries, but me.

When my new doctor tried to talk to me about impending infertility, I said, “No, thank you. I’m not interested in that discussion. I’m here for a check-up, and that’s it.” When my eye doctor insisted on giving me a glaucoma test when I’d just had one a few months ago, I declined. Even when he persisted, telling me I might be blind in 6 months if I didn’t take the test, I did not budge. (And yeah, there’s a perfect example of a man not respecting a female’s ownership of her body. Do you think he would’ve persisted, using scare tactics like that, if I had been a man? I don’t think so. And don’t worry – he’s not my eye doctor anymore.)

As for the rest, I’m working on sensitive issues, like this whole fertility thread. It’s time for me (and all of us) to stand up and say, “I’m sorry, my uterus is not up for discussion,” next time someone makes a crack about menopause. I’d like to see myself walk away without another thought from potential romantic partners who comment on my weight or appearance. Nope. That ain’t gonna fly here.

I own this body. Me. Nobody else.

To me, this is one of the greatest leaps we can make toward radiant beauty. There is nothing more killer gorgeous than a woman who knows she is the sovereign of her flesh, bone, and spirit. A woman who doesn’t give a fig about what anyone else thinks about this body that was given to her to inhabit and protect throughout this lifetime.

That is true beauty – and that’s the kind of beauty no one can take away.