Bodily Confusion

Bodily Confusion

In case you hadn’t noticed, our culture is very confused about bodies these days – what do they mean? Who do they belong to? What are they for? How should we treat them?

I came across two articles yesterday that raise interesting reflections on them, and particularly around the word ‘should’. On the one hand many people these days reject the idea of a moral absolute, and once you reject that, it is hard to find agreement on what is right and wrong. Personal choice is king, and the only ‘should’ is that we should be free to choose what we do with our own bodies (though usually with the caveat ‘as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else’).

Yet when it comes to certain issues, as these articles illustrate, there are still some areas where the consensus seems to be that a person’s choice shouldn’t be allowed free rein.

Sex work

The first article is about prostitution. It contains some bad and crude language, but the author’s point is essentially that radical feminists (her term) are inconsistent in their advocacy of a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body:

If the sisterhood can support my decision to swallow contraceptive pills or terminate an unwanted pregnancy, then there is a duty for them to support my choice to have as much or as little sex as I like and, if I so choose, put a price tag on that sex. For me, it’s a matter of consent, of bodily autonomy.

If feminists aren’t fighting for my right to use my body how I choose, then they’ve dramatically detoured from their mission.

She has some other fascinating arguments, many of which highlight the importance of arguing a case on its core issue, rather than trying to find more palatable excuses, which may then be shot down. However, she is right that it is inconsistent to argue for abortion on the grounds that it is ‘a woman’s right to choose’ what to do with her body, but to deny her that right when it comes to prostitution. (And just to be clear, I don’t think she has that right in either case, in case you were worried for a moment!)


The second post I read looks at the issue of ‘fat-shaming’. It reports on people who have been criticised in the past for being overweight and who believe that this is just who they are and this ‘abuse’ should stop:

Fatness is a bodily reality; therefore, it should be embraced. According to this line of thinking, the word “overweight” is problematic because it “implies that there is a correct weight for people.”

There are, of course, health reasons why people should (that word again) keep their weight within certain parameters, but

in a world in which no one agrees any longer on what the human body is for, why should those reasons matter? When it comes to gender, marriage, and sexuality, we have already abandoned any notion there being a telos or goal for human existence that is given to us by nature or by God. In light of that loss, who’s to say a certain weight is truly healthier or better for a person?

The post is well worth a read, but the thing I find most fascinating is the example of an overweight transwoman. She was born male, but believed that her physical form was not her true identity in that case, and she was ‘really’ female. People accepted that (eventually), because we’re more or less required to these days. But then she realised her weight was drawing negative comments:

As I grew much fatter, I started to notice the discrimination and stigma from my family, my doctors, and the ‘caring’ friends who expressed their worries. I became much more aware of the constant fat-shaming in the media, and the push by the medical establishment to forward the notion of the ‘obesity epidemic’ and the need for dangerous gastric bypass surgeries.

The difference was that here she said it was her body that was telling the truth about her. She was fat. Fatness was, to her, a “benign characteristic much like being blond, or left-handed, or tall, or flat-footed.”

The inconsistency is baffling – sometimes our body tells us who we are, sometimes it doesn’t. Some characteristics are natural and ‘benign’, others are unnatural and must be changed to fit the person’s understanding of who they really are. Sometimes it is right and good that body parts should be amputated and life-long drug therapies given to alter the body, other times surgery is ‘dangerous’ and a negative concept. And this is the same person holding completely opposite views about different aspects of her own body.

She is consistent in her belief that she should get to choose who she is and what she does with her body, of course. It is a piece of property to her – she owns it as one might own a house and choose to remodel or redecorate or not as the whim takes her.

So what do these stories tell us?

They tell us that despite the rhetoric of choice and the belief in self-determinism prevalent in so much Western culture at the moment, there are still some widely-held ‘shoulds’ about how we treat our bodies.

What is the moral vision, or understanding of what life is for that means most people think you should try to live a healthy life? What underpins the reason most would agree that it is wrong to have sex for money (or to pay for sex)?

Can you articulate a vision of the good that keeps bodies in their rightful place? What is their rightful place? This is an incredibly hard question, and I don’t have the answer, but thinking through inconsistencies such as these is helping me to begin to get my head around it. I hope it is helpful to you, too.


Image credit: Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

3 Comments On This Topic
  1. Ann
    on Aug 11th at 9:24 am

    I think one of the reasons people give for being concerned about obesity is that with an NHS those who are obese are putting a cost on to others to repair the damage they do to their heart, lungs, joints etc. so in one way they are being selfish. Just as there is a call for smokers or heavy drinkers not to be given certain surgeries. The sex workers is harder. I had this conversation with someone I worked with. All I could say was that her body was precious and not a bit rubbish to be thrown away. I think she had problems with thinking she was worthless anyway so didn’t think it would be a problem if she needed money to sell her body. But neither of these are really answers. Good post, shall cogitate further!

    • Jennie Pollock
      on Aug 11th at 3:10 pm

      Yes, so that’s partly an argument that being overweight does harm others, but I think too we believe it isn’t a good use of your own life to spend it in front of the telly eating chips. Somehow that doesn’t seem right. We look down on people who live like that even if they’ve never been to the doctor in their life.

      And that is similar to the sex work thing – even if we can’t articulate why, it does seem like selling sex is somehow a thing we shouldn’t do, because it does degrade the body in some way.

      • Ann
        on Aug 11th at 6:02 pm

        I agree. There was a lady on pointless who was very obese but she and her friend cycled and were doing the Brighton Run! It just seemed so incongruous. she wasn’t doing it to lose weight, just as a hobby and no doubt she would say she was fit enough and allowed to do as she liked with her body. But you’re right we do need to formulate our thinking.


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