Yesterday morning at my local coffee shop, I had the sudden urge to tell the woman sitting by the window that her body was beautiful. You see, her body looked like mine, and not many others do. I suspect many people feel the same way about their own bodies. And, since we can’t see ourselves except transposed, it’d been awhile since I’d seen a body like ours.
I instantly recoiled at the thought of a woman I had never met telling me that my body was beautiful at 8:30am while I was trying to work before working through my first cup of coffee. And so I didn’t.
I didn’t tell her that I was so happy to see her beautiful body. Our beautiful body.
Afterwards, I thought about writing this piece and how exactly I would describe our bodies.
The first word that came up was “womanly.”
I hate that word.
What bodies aren’t “womanly”? And what’s worse are all the things that a “womanly” body implies: Full hips and lips, grace (whatever that is, anyway), shaved, waxed, toned into submission. Soft yet powerful. Sound like a Dove ad yet?
Womanly bodies also mean womanly functions. Specifically, in a very non-intersectional heteronormative able-ist way, womanly bodies who are “built” to bear children.
My womanly body does not want children. As far as I’m concerned, my uterus is about as important to my daily life as an appendix or a gallbladder. Sure, it does stuff, but I don’t really need it.
In fact, I’m fairly sure that my womanly body was built to house me. And it’s my choice if I want to share that space with another lifeform, whether that be through penetration or impregnation. My womanly body has no responsibility to anyone but me, and I get to choose how and when to alter the perimeters of that relationship.
The second word that came up was “contoured.” No, I thought. Contouring is what you do with make-up and jet-engine designs.
But how to describe our bodies? I realized there was absolutely no way to describe our bodies without somehow drawing upon their (supposed) sexual or reproductive functions or some other sexualized or mechanized functions.
As a feminist, I’d known for a long time that it’s difficult to divorce sexualization from bodies—especially from women’s bodies. But it hadn’t occurred to me until recently how difficult it is to divorce reproduction from women’s bodies. Women’s bodies are seen as always already reproducing. In the public eye, we could be pregnant or potentially pregnant at any time. This follows the assumption of wanting to be pregnant at any time, especially those of us who are…so “womanly.”
And I don’t shame or look down on any woman who does want to use her body to have children. In fact, Western society does not do enough to support women who make this choice, and even more so the women who did not have a choice to make and found themselves in the same position.
Just as we have gone a long way in separating sex from reproduction, it’s important to begin to think of the ways we can rhetorically separate reproduction from the body.