The concept of bodily autonomy is one that we rarely consciously engage with. It’s the ability to act with sole self-determination to make decisions that affect you as an individual – psychologically, physically, financially or spiritually. How do you exercise the power within? What actions do you take to positively affirm your autonomy? What would you do if someone was invading your personal space? Or rather, what would you want to be able do? The last two questions are probably easier to answer because we tend to engage with our personal agency more when it’s under threat. There needs to be a shift toward nurturing this agency throughout our lifetimes, not only in moments of self defence. It’s difficult, however, to exercise a form of power that is constantly being denied; it’s a numbing experience Black women know all too well. Furthermore, lack of ownership of Black women’s bodies by Black women, is an added tax for which history has plenty of receipts.
HeLa cells, for instance, are the oldest most commonly used cell line in the field of biomedical research. They’ve been at the forefront of monumental breakthroughs in oncology, vaccines for polio and cosmetic testing. The initial cells were procured for their replicative ability. Up until 1951, scientists had struggled to observe and create conditions for human cells to be replicated indefinitely. They found these conditions in a biopsy of a cancerous tumour growing in the cervix of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Virginia. The cells were taken from her without consent or remuneration but today, HeLa cells are easily obtainable and widely distributed (if you’ve studied a biomedical or biochemistry related degree you’ve probably used them yourself). Similarly the vaginal speculum used in routine sexual health consultations is modelled on the crude instruments used by J. Marion Sims on female African-American slaves in the 19th century. In his own words, “there was never a time that [he] could not, at any day, have had a subject [available for his research]”. It’s worth noting that while Sims is referred to as the ‘Father of Modern Gynaecology’ and is credited for providing much of the basis for present day knowledge on gynaecological fistulas only three names of all the women he experimented on are recorded in the history books; Lucy, Anarcha and Betsey.
Black women have not only been violated, they’ve been denied justice and recognition for the contributions they’ve painfully made. Harvey Weinstein choosing to deny Lupita Nyongo’s allegations amongst all the women who came forward leaves the bitter taste of misognyoir in one’s mouth. The whitewashing of #MeToo and failure to credit it as a movement created by a Black woman; a movement inclusive of all women, highlights a lack of support for our voices to be heard and recognised once again.
The #MeToo campaign started in the USA, but closer to home, data from NHS England shows that Black women are less likely to report acts of sexual violence. Of those who manage to file reports, only a small number pursue charges against perpetrators. We carry the double burden of race and gender and often exist in the cosy intersection of faith, sexual orientation or disability. Recognising our bodies of spaces of power like any political board or forum can help level the imbalances of power we experience in our various walks of life.
I intern at FORWARD – a diaspora, women-led organisation which is committed to ending violence against women and girls. For the United Nation’s 16 Days of Activism, I had the opportunity to ask 16 Black women aged 18-30 across London how they exert their bodily autonomy as part of FORWARD’s #MyBodyMyPower campaign and why, given the recent allegations of sexual abuse, ownership of their bodies and space is important to them. The aim was to simply have Black women at the forefront of a discussion in which we are rarely given the mic.
My Body My Power
As a makeup artist I try to encourage young girls that they don’t need to have layers of makeup. Society needs campaigns like this, especially for young Black women. You don’t need to be who society wants you to be, you need to be who you are.
My body & mind are my strength. I believe in solidarity, empathy & compassion. It’s how you show your power & empower others. Women of all backgrounds need to remember that bodily autonomy is not given to us & cannot be taken from us. It’s something we own.
It’s important for us to reclaim our bodies because we don’t owe them to anyone else, they are ours. We don’t have to make excuses for the actions of other people. When we feel uncomfortable we feel uncomfortable we don’t have to be ashamed of it and we don’t have to justify those types of feelings.
I’m starting to reclaim my space on the tube. People sit next to you and crush you, getting up in your face or close to your body. So I’ve made it a point to tell people when I think they are encroaching on my personal space. And I try to be understanding it’s the tube, but sometimes people feel like they can push their way through and because I’m kind of small, Black and a woman, they think I’m going to move out the way. Reclaiming my body and my space in this way is a small step I’m taking to exert my rights.
I think for a long time I was part of the problem because I was scared to speak out. I didn’t recognise things for what they were- harassment, abuse- I thought that was just the way things were and I accepted it. Now I feel like it’s important for everyone to take a stand against the small and the big stuff- from physical sexual abuse to catcalling. It’s important to reclaim your body by saying; ‘this is mine, you will not manipulate it, abuse it, or use it for your own pleasures’.
It’s important that we don’t divide ourselves in terms of who wears what, or who looks like what, because the ideas we have amongst ourselves, the ones that segregate us, are a result of the common male influences and misogyny women experience. There is a lack of empathy in communities – in terms of religion, in how we look, in terms of our preferences. Empathy is something we need to lean on; without empathy we can’t succeed.
Love yourself unconditionally and live fearlessly with all your mind, body and soul. No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
I use performance art to explore and celebrate my Black heritage. It’s important to spread knowledge on what it’s like to be a Black woman now and historically. It’s an effective way to show the oppression of Black beauty and negativity in the media.
I’ve dealt with sexual harassment and you struggle to deal with it- but being surrounded by sisterhood helps. Overcoming cultural silence is good for healing by breaking through silence and speaking out in our communities. Not being silenced by patriarchal structures is important. Embody sisterhood and empathy.
I think it’s really important for women to reclaim the power that comes with being a woman. Every day we live in a society where we are faced with people telling us what to wear and what is beautiful, according to the eye of the media. It’s important for a woman to find her internal strength and do what she feels like doing. I’m a walking example. I’m 5 foot 11, I’m ‘thick’, I’m not a ‘stereotypical’ female that fits into a box and that’s how I’m reclaiming my power- by owning that.
As Black women there’s a responsibility to look after other people; families, communities, friends. Even though that can be beautiful, we should make ourselves a priority too! We have a choice and it’s exercising that choice in everything that we do that’s important. We are not beholden to anybody or anything. Take space, practice self-care!
‘My body my power’ means not being the world’s standard of beauty, and being my own. I myself am enough. I am the way that God intended and no one can take that away from me.
I think it’s about time that young girls stand up together and break the western stereotype of beauty. Beauty is not defined by our status, size or complexion, it is defined by who we are, how we decide to look and how we make that come across. Our size does not define us, and we are beautiful and powerful whatever shape, size or colour that we are.
I think it’s important for young girls to know their bodies are powerful because our bodies are the first space of power that we ever encounter, and I think it’s about security and knowing that you have ownership over your space. No one has the right to touch you, or to impact you in ways you don’t want. As young women in the world that we live in, there are so many spaces where we are dis-empowered, and so to be strong and secure in your body is very important.
Taking ownership of your body is important. I take ownership of every curve, every shape, and define the beauty of my body within myself. There is no set definition for beauty when it comes to a woman’s body.
The whole idea of reclaiming your body and owning your body and sexuality is especially important for women, in particular young black girls. Our bodies have been brutalised so much throughout history by white supremacy so I think it’s important that we talk a lot about that with our daughters and sons. Not only is a Black body not up for consumption, it’s to be celebrated and to be praised.
As I reflect on 2017’s most prominent events, the storm of sexual-abuse accusations as well as the courage shown by a multitude of women and girls in sharing their stories continues to strike a chord with me. I am proud to be a woman in an age where we have some of the liberties that many have struggled for. Nonetheless I am reminded that as a Black woman, I am marginalised in certain spaces. I can raise my hand, politely, to make a contribution and be ignored. I can vocalise my thoughts and be deemed as confrontational. I can fight alongside my White and Asian comrades in the struggle against sexism but find myself alone when fighting against the actors that seek my personal oppression. I can push the agenda for all women tirelessly, but I won’t see the breakthrough until my White colleague puts it on her agenda. For all the originality that Time magazine put into 2017’s Person of the Year issue, ‘The Silence Breakers’, Tamara Burke the creator of #MeToo, is still not included on the front cover. So, I’ll continue nurturing my inner power, joining it to that of my fellow Black women through campaigns such as #MyBodyMyPower and using that to exist in a world where I can say I have do have power over my body and my choices.
Words by Angela