I think as a culture we have a problem with autonomy; we cherish the charisma and machismo of the lone ranger, the white cishet man to save us all, or provide the standalone archetype for each of us to ascend to. However, in terms of letting people make decisions for themselves, decisions that often have little to no impact on other people, we are often hard pressed to “let people live” or “let them be great”. While most of the conversation about personal choice has be surrounding women’s reproductive rights, my reference to the phrase “my body, my choice” extends beyond the basic rights women should have when making decisions about their bodies. Quite obviously, people’s bodies are their own; the choices they make with them should be their own as well.
I am a black, fat, queer, genderqueer person, and I am constantly policed by the circumstances surrounding me, whether that comes from a caring individual or someone who seeks up uphold the status quo. This hyperawareness of my body came at an early age: policed for being too fat, too queer, too femme and sometimes too black. We don’t often think about the personality formation that happens between the ages of 5-12, every critique is internalized and replayed so that we receive more positive reinforcement and avoid the negative reaction we may have gotten from wearing makeup or swishing when we should have stomped. As a young black kid raised by two generations of strong, radical women, I have no choice but to revere the feminine. However, when I enact the feminine (or what we deem as feminine behavior), I am often met with ridicule and chastisement. The beauty, mannerisms and strength I saw in the women in my family, and eventually in magazines, television and film, empowered and shaped me. However, as many black male-bodied people can attest, black masculinity often acts as protector and prison.
I can recall a photo of myself from middle school where I was joking with my friends by wearing sunglasses and posing like one of the supermodels I admired growing up. Queer kids often end up finding solace in jokes that serve as tests to explore parts of their identity. These jokes/explorations of self also help to build our chosen family; I was completely comfortable putting on a feminine persona and allowing my friends to capture it digitally. However, I knew I wouldn’t want my (biological) family to see that image, and for good reason. When my mother saw the photo she critiqued how feminine I was acting and that stands out as one of the important lessons I learned: being carefree can be dangerous. To clarify, I did internalize the lesson that femininity wasn’t safe for boys (read male-bodied people), however more so, I realized that there were parts of myself I had to compartmentalize to be safe (safe to explore, safe to grow and safe from emotional trauma).
Middle school also laid the groundwork for the shame I would have to overcome in terms of my body. For most of my life I have been bigger than other kids my age, and I have spent a significant amount of my life obese (these are facts, not critique or value statements). I can remember an incident in middle school where my mother had been called because of the choices I made during lunch. Lunch was served buffet style and kids were responsible for deciding what they would eat and how much of it they would eat. Like my classmates, I decided to eat plates of fries covered in cheese (because when you let kids decide what they eat, most of them aren’t choosing salads). When my mom asked me about the situation, I honestly said that I was doing what I saw other people doing because we had that choice. While this was a nonissue, mostly because my mother was an excellent advocate in that moment, I realized early on that my choices would be policed because of how my body looked not necessarily because it was the best decision overall. I’m not sure if that teacher was genuinely concerned or not, but, to be clear, no other student’s parents were called about their eating choices, and that teacher suggested I had some sort of depression or issue because I was fat and eating the way my peers were eating.
The argument I am trying to make here is that people can have the best intentions when it comes to policing our bodies, especially as kids, but the ways we go about protecting people can often do more harm than if we hadn’t asserted ourselves. When we care for people, we should be caring for them in a way that allows them to make informed choices, information that isn’t based on a reaction to the world which will police us anyway, but based on wanting to see us grow into ourselves. In recent years I’ve made a resolution, and a prayer, to become even more of myself than I was the year before. If I decide I want to dress a certain way, eat a certain food or pursue a certain career, as a human being with autonomy I have the right to do that, and I should be ready for those consequences. Hopefully, most of us lean toward making decisions that don’t present huge negative consequences for ourselves, or those around us, but again in making those decisions we either accept the consequences of our actions or we don’t.