Individuality and embracing self-expression are important parts of being fulfilled, but when we are governed by society’s expectations and scrutiny, do we really have autonomy over our own bodies?
American Idol debuted its 16th season this year, dosing up a large side of controversy. Katy Perry, a judge this season, forced a kiss on a visibly uncomfortable 19-year-old contestant, Benjamin Glaze from Enid, Okla. Glaze told The New York Times he “wanted to save [his first kiss] for [his] first relationship.”
The backlash Perry faced is a consequence of thoughtlessness and an overly inflated ego, but the event also shines light on a bigger picture: the immense power that social pressures and expectations can have on an individual and their actions. Did Glaze really have a choice when it came to kissing a major female celebrity who was going to judge this potentially career-altering performance? After all, as a male, he should be thrilled that a female celebrity offered him his first kiss, nevermind if he may be gay or asexual and didn’t want to out himself on national television.
In response to American Idol’s tweet about the kiss, one viewer posted, “It was a forced sexual act. Imagine if this was from a male judge. Has Katy Perry not taken anything from the #metoo movement?”
In Glaze’s case, he got more screen time because of the controversial kiss, which he said helps his music career. The consentless kiss connects to a multitude of societal problems that have recently surfaced such as the #metoo movement and consent culture, or the lack thereof. This event also brings up something that is not discussed as often as it should be: body autonomy.
What is body autonomy?
Body autonomy can be defined as the freedom to choose what to do with your own body. Often seen as backing for the pro-choice movement, body autonomy is left out of conversations of gender identity and self and body expressions and alterations.
Although there are few written rules for what we can and can’t do to our bodies, there are unspoken social faux pas that can box someone out of situations, which can have social, economic and political consequences. Therefore, following social norms can result in increased social, economic and/or political status and mobility within a community.
The invisible narrative here is the lack of actual control we have on presenting ourselves in casual and social settings, as well as professional ones.
There is a huge amount of pressure for those who identify as women to dress, act and present themselves in feminine ways. The same can be seen for men who are pressured to embody masculinity. For example, if a woman came to work wearing no makeup, she could be seen as lazy. While if a man wore makeup into work, in many cases it would be seen as inappropriate.
Atypical body alterations and expressions are also under society’s scrutiny. For example, transgender individuals who decide to alter or not alter their bodies often face social and professional consequences such as unemployment and economic disadvantage.
What is ironic about disapproving certain kinds of body alterations and expressions is that people are constantly pressured to change how they look to fit a certain mold. Weight loss is put on a pedestal in our society, no matter how it’s achieved. A study in the Journal of Media Psychology found a link between adolescent media exposure and dangerous methods of achieving this perfect image.
How did we get here? Why have we allowed an invisible force to judge and condemn how we use, treat and show off our own bodies? Teaching kids to respect body autonomy is absent from lesson plans. Implementing physical punishments for kids and telling children they have to hug grandma only teaches them those who are older and stronger have more power.
We live in a time plagued by double standards. Regardless of goals or outcomes, certain actions are seen as appropriate while others are not. The secret narrative behind body autonomy is that we get to choose what is understood as normal and expected. As Glaze learned, if you choose to not kiss the celebrity that offers you a kiss, you are emasculated.
The bottom line is that we risk judgement and exclusion when we exercise body autonomy. Our mission needs to encompass exercising freedom of our own bodies and learning not to discriminate and judge one another for it.