Body policing is a huge collection of ideology, rooted in self-appointed authority over other people’s bodies as if they were property to govern and assert control over, and reprimand for any exhibit of defiance. In more specific terms, it is the assumption of being entitled to assert control over which bodies are acceptable, where they are acceptable, in what attire and/or shape, where they should be confined if they fail to meet expectations of beauty or ability, how they can be utilized and where, for whom they are to be utilized, and when entitlement over said bodies transfers from one person to another (ultimately with the goal of withholding that entitlement from the people who inhabit those bodies, as in slavery and other forms of exploitation). This assumption goes hand in hand with a feeling of entitlement to distribute punishment over people for failing to live up to any or all of these obligations, regardless of whether or not said individuals are conscious of societal expectations for their bodies. All of this is especially true for racialized individuals, who are often either pressured to assimilate with the white group identity, or face marginalization for being unable or unwilling to assimilate.
Body policing is the underlying principle in such behaviours as slut-shaming, rape, blaming the victim, so-called “honour killing”, ableism, pro-life rhetoric, and much more. But it is all painted differently in discourse. Body policing is almost always inherently white-supremacist, phallocentric, misogynist, and heterocentric (assuming that the default — or perhaps only — sexuality is heterosexual). And it always makes me furious, even when I have a hard time speaking up or identifying where the anger comes from.
Body Policing And Racism (In Canada)
In Canada, we’ve seen the intersection of body policing and racism time and time again (just to cite a couple of specific recent examples). It was already old over a hundred years ago. The more I learn about this country and its government, the more I start to go ape-shit about how racist it is. Take the First Nations reserve system, for example. I live on unceded First Nations territory (which means that First Nations people have the right to observe their traditional ways here… in theory, anyway), but there are only two places you can find First Nations people, and the government requires the opportunity to consent before anyone can even cross the threshold into one of them. Regardless, I have been there for a film screening (I might add, it was a lovely evening and a powerful film I have watched a few times since). I have my doubts about how seriously that requirement is treated. But because I don’t live there, for all I know, those who do actually wrote a letter to get pre-authorization for that public film screening. But I digress. The creation of reserves essentially says “This is where your bodies should be contained to, so that the rest of us don’t have to acknowledge your collective existence.” And the Indian Act tells every aboriginal person living on a reserve, what they can and cannot do with their own bodies.
The location of that film screening is also one of the only local places you’ll be able to witness or participate (when the audience is encouraged to do so) in a contemporary pow-wow (note: this is a colonial term — I am knowingly using this colonial term here to emphasize the relationship between colonialism and body-policing of aboriginal peoples). Which brings me to just one of thousands of stupid policies my government still maintains to this day against First Nations people: even on unceded territory, the Indian Act promises severe reprimand (such as a month in jail) for individuals who participate in a number of contemporary acts that are reflective of their ancestral traditions; including participation in a pow-wow (i.e., celebration — the preferred terminology) without prior consent of the government through a representative. However, police forces generally do not enforce this, and available information about the Indian Act changes so frequently, it’s difficult to determine if this was amended in 1950 or not. Participation of any magnitude in a sundance ritual is, from what I can determine, still strictly forbidden. That there is the very real possibility for going to jail doesn’t stop anyone of course, but the sundance can only be done in extreme privacy, about as far away from non-aboriginal peoples as it can be taken. Virtually anyone else can don lovingly hand-crafted clothing and break into song and dance without writing to the government for authorization first, but not an aboriginal person. In fact, many non-aboriginal people participate in hook pulls and hook suspensions, adapted in part from the sundance ritual, quite frequently. Outside on public and private properties. During the day and at night. In large groups and in small gatherings. Sometimes even with police watching, doing nothing to stop them. Within certain businesses and inside the privacy of a few homes. One guy even regularly incorporates hook suspension into public performances. And none of them are going to be arrested for it, because they aren’t aboriginal.
Update: Pow-wows were strictly forbidden (i.e., criminalized across the board) until 1950, and from 1869 to 1951, the Potlatch and all associated ceremonies were criminalized. Any individual who participated in, observed, or helped organize a Potlatch could face 2 to 6 months in jail — though the inability to properly enforce this law led to it being amended out of the Indian Act. Here’s another stupid example of random bullshit in the Indian Act, though: it’s illegal to remove soil from a reserve, even though it’s legal to tear up and pillage the Earth everywhere around it.
Additionally, everyone in Canada who holds status as an aboriginal person is required to carry a special form of identification with them at all times, that features a bright red strip across the top. And it’s amazing that, despite the status card being government-required, government-issued photo identification, it’s not adequate for such mundane tasks as opening a goddamned bank account. Really, it’s like being required to wear a red warning label. That’s all it’s really for, isn’t it? To confirm that the bearer of this identification is an aboriginal person walking around somewhere not on a reserve? And guess what? Canada also had a requirement for special identification for Black people. They weren’t allowed to do so much as walk down the fucking street without carrying that required piece of ID with them. And to what end? To confirm that they were, in fact, Walking While Black? Yeah, I guess as a country we’re even less proud of that than how we feel about how we treated the people of our Asian communities, right up until our government was robbing the Japanese blind and throwing them in internment camps (to say nothing of the continued exploitation of migrant Filipinas, through wage-slavery in exchange for their citizenship). I can’t locate information about when the requirement for Blacks to carry special Black person ID finally stopped.
But don’t just take my word for it. Ask people about it (respectfully — if they don’t want to talk about it, don’t keep pushing for it). Look for blogs from First Nations, Black, and Asian Canadians, and read them. Watch documentaries such as 8th Fire (about reconciliation with the First Nations communities of Canada). Participate in Black History Month. Et cetera.
Body Policing, Sexism, And Misogyny
Most recently, I witnessed an absolutely infuriating example of body policing intersecting with misogyny, both inciting a demonstration against pro-lifers for perpetuating slut-shaming, and during that demonstration, when one of those pro-lifers demanded to know how I was comfortable walking around in underwear and a cape in public. There is literally no reason why I should feel afraid for my safety if I were to walk down the street wearing nothing but a g-string (the bare minimum of being legally bare-skinned). That is, except for body policing in enormous magnitudes, that dictates that if I do, I deserve to be sexually harassed, badgered, have my right to personal space violated by strangers, be accused of being promiscuous despite doing nothing sexual at all, and have my mental faculties brought into question despite the fact that I am not perpetuating any form of harm against myself or anyone else. And if something were to happen to me while I was walking down the street wearing nothing but a g-string, minding my Ps and Qs? Well I’d be blamed for it, because of course it was going to happen if I walked down the street wearing nothing but a g-string. What did I expect would happen to me?
Except that I expected that I had inalienable rights. I can walk in nothing but a g-string in the LGBTQ+ pride parade and not experience a violation of my rights. It’s considered a form of free speech there. The same goes for if I participate in SLUTwalk in the same attire. Or in a pro-choice, anti-misogyny demonstration at a busy intersection on a Saturday afternoon. The rest of the year, however, my body is subject to all sorts of policing by self-appointed authorities, on what shape and how much space I should occupy with my body; whether or not I should be able to access medical treatment for fulfillment of my reproductive rights and needs, and my rights and needs as a trans* person; who I should love and how I should love them; how I should and should not dress; how many people I can love at any time in my life; and when I should take it out in public and where it’s allowed to be seen. All of this is with a special emphasis added because I am a trans-identifying person, because as soon as that information comes out (note that it is otherwise assumed I am cisgendered), boatloads of cissexist bullshit abound about my body and my transition process. But all of these things are true for all women, all the goddamned time.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. For the sake of peat and all that is fossil fuel, it hasn’t even been a hundred fucking years since women gained the right to be legally acknowledged as persons in this country. Trans* people have yet to be acknowledged in the same manner, and as a result, we must all subscribe to being understood either as men or women, in order to seek fulfillment of our inalienable rights. Trans* people are all especially effected by body policing because (for those of us still among the living) we are living, breathing, (often) walking violations of societal norms and expectations around gender. Because we all subvert these memes (within North American culture especially) to a greater or lesser extent, by virtue of our embodiment and transition processes, the self-appointed Body Police feel especially exaggerated obligation to reprimand us for our perceived transgressions. And when you throw race/ethnicity into the mix? Well, it’s a lot like firing a gun at an imaginary friend who happens to be standing in front of a van containing 400 gallons of nitroglycerin.
But don’t just take my word for it. Ask people about it (respectfully — if they don’t want to talk about it, don’t keep pushing for it). Look for blogs from women of colour, feminists, and trans* or queer writers, and read them. Watch documentaries such as Miss Representation (about the representation of women in positions of power, and how they are addressed with disparaging comments about their attire or their bodies when they are in positions of power), or Killing Us Softly 3 (about representations of women’s bodies in mass media, and what messages can be derived about women — and especially racialized women — from how they are presented in pop culture). Participate in anti-misogynist and feminist activism, which can be as leisurely as a walk for relief of male violence against women (such as Vancouver Rape Relief Society’s annual Walk for Rape Relief on May 27th). Et cetera.
Body Policing and Ableism
Body policing of disabled persons is apparent to me every time I see or enter a public space that isn’t wheelchair accessible. It’s apparent to me every time I see a television program in which there is a marked absence of persons who live with any degree of physical disability; and the only time a mental disability is introduced, it is exhibited by a character whose disability is exploited to further the plot of that particular episode — nothing further is ever spoken about it, and no dialogue is ever started, concerning disabled life within a society that blatantly privileges ability. It’s apparent to me whenever I watch films and the subject of disability is raised exclusively under the pretence of “I’d rather die than be (or become) disabled.” I hear it every time disability is spoken of as a negative attribute, as a personal quality that negates all positive qualities of life, as a burden to family and society, or as something that should be answered with a death sentence. And I receive the same messages in every line of defence that is offered by individuals who insist upon using ableist language or arguments; placing a higher value on their freedom to be bigoted against anyone who is perceived as having a disability, than the value of taking that single small step towards eliminating systemic oppression against all human beings who live with one or more disabilities.
The pervasive cultural lesson that can be taken from all of these messages in mass media and interactions between individuals, is that disabled life is simply worth less than life unmarked by disability. And that’s what was intended when disabled adults were forcibly sterilized throughout the world throughout the last hundred years (and possibly ongoing to this day), is it not? Oh, let me guess. You didn’t know about that, because you think of eugenics as all about promoting a particular race/ethnicity as superior, or systematically eliminating a particular race/ethnicity. Don’t get me wrong — that is certainly part of the dialogue of eugenics, and it is a standpoint that promotes horrendous crimes against humanity. Well, the history of forced sterilization of disabled persons not only sends the message that “You don’t deserve to be a parent because you’re either not able-bodied or not able-minded,” it also sends the message that if you have a disability, you don’t deserve family, support, the right to make your own decisions, the right to participate in a normative fashion within the culture embraced by the rest of society, or the right to a normal life. It can even be argued that eugenics and forced sterilization represents a significant step in the direction of policing if and to what extent disabled persons can or should engage in sexual intimacy with other human beings. With the right to make their own decisions already in question, it becomes possible to argue that certain violations of inalienable rights cannot be perpetrated against someone who lives with one or more disabilities.
This is really just one aspect of a much larger conversation about what it means to be disabled in this society, and how ability and sound mind are constructed. That conversation starts with interrogating what choices are made in the construction of society itself in the literal meaning of the word construction — businesses local to me are neither legally required nor motivated to be accessible to disabled bodies, which amounts to the same as putting up a banner that reads “You’re not welcome here if you’re disabled.” This means that not only are disabled bodies prohibited from entering these spaces to participate in the exchange of goods and services, but they are prohibited from working there and thus offering gainful contributions to society, too. With the sheer number of businesses that are inaccessible to disabled bodies, it is really no surprise at all that disabled bodies are largely hidden from public view, confined to the privacy of the home for a majority of day-to-day life. Combining the inability to live independently with the inability to enter a majority of buildings, results in a dependence on the disability benefits system, which provides a total living allowance of just $900 a month (including the cost of housing) after a rather arduous and unforgiving application process that presupposes the capacity to efficiently transport oneself and access advocacy to secure entitlement to benefits.
But don’t just take my word for it. Ask people about it (respectfully — if they don’t want to talk about it, don’t keep pushing for it). Look for blogs from disabled writers (such as the ableist word profile series on disabledfeminists.com), and read them. Watch documentaries in which the central focus is disability, such as this list of ten, which features one I make a point of watching every few months: Bowling for Columbine. Participate in an effort to undermine ableism whenever an opportunity presents itself. I’ve even given you a head start by posting these images on Flickr, to help promote even just a moment’s thought about how I see ableism every day in my day-to-day life. Et cetera.
The onus is on you to take part in social change. The same goes for me, and I am asking you to think about how you can change your own life, to be a better ally against body policing.