A few weeks ago I posted an article about menstrual magic. It centered gender inclusiveness, so I was expecting the transphobes to come out to play. What I did not expect was the volume of other people who mentioned that they were offended by or uncomfortable with my use of the terminology “uterus-owners” when referring to people who have uteruses. Not all of them were blatantly TERFs and gender essentialists, groups which are guaranteed to be offended by any terminology which is gender inclusive.
A great many of the complaints came from people who were supportive of inclusion (some were even transgender themselves). Yet they had internalized rhetoric against using inclusive terminology because it had been couched in other terms. Arguments against identifying someone as a uterus-owner are usually presented as feminist or spiritual. When divorced from overtly transphobic rhetoric, these arguments can seem very reasonable.
Those responses got me thinking about why those arguments can seem reasonable, and the deep-seated issues many people have in regards to claiming ownership of their own bodies, in part or in whole. I am going to go into some of those issues and arguments and how they apply to any body ownership issues, in the hopes of helping other people understand the importance and power of claiming ownership of your own bodies.
Claiming unconditional ownership of your own body has profound positive implications for mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and magical wellbeing.
What is Embodiment?
You have your body from birth until you die. It is the only thing that cannot be taken from you, and the only thing which you cannot get rid of while you are alive. This is because being alive involves being embodied, or having a body. You can at times be unaware of your body due to inebriation or trance or injury or illness, but it is still yours and you are always connected to it.
When you lose that connection and are no longer embodied, you die.
I do believe in reincarnation, but who I am in this life is very different from who I am in any other life. That is in large part because of the body I inhabit, with all of its traits, including both the parts I love and the parts that frustrate me. My brain chemistry and the balance of hormones in my body have a huge impact on how I feel and how I think, as they do for every single person. For example, if you are neurotypical, neurodivergent, or a victim of clinical depression, those physical traits have a profound impact on who you are and how you interact with the world.
Your physical abilities also impact what you can do easily, with effort, or not at all. I have a chronic illness and am disabled, and that greatly affects what I am capable of doing on any given day, including magically or spiritually. I only have so many spoons, and meditating, doing shadow work, making offerings, or working magic are all activities which use them. I cannot escape that fact any more than an average healthy person could safely run a marathon with no training.
Your body is a huge and inescapable part of your experience and identity in this life. If you work with it, you can overcome many difficulties, manage the difficulties that cannot be overcome, and safely develop your skills so you can accomplish more tomorrow than you did today. If you refuse to work with your body, you can never achieve your full potential and may harm yourself in the process.
Ownership is defined as being an owner, and owner is defined as being someone who owns something, so to understand ownership you have to drill down to what it means to own something. There are several definitions of own, and many of them apply to embodiment and claiming ownership of your own body.
Own, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
- (adj.) : belonging to oneself or itself —usually used following a possessive case or possessive adjective
// moved my own body
- (adj.) : used to express immediate or direct kinship
// my own family
- (verb) : to have or hold as property : POSSESS
// my own car
- (verb) : to have power or mastery over
// wanted to own their own life
- (verb) : to acknowledge to be true, valid, or as claimed : ADMIT
// own a mistake
- (pronoun) : one or ones belonging to oneself —used after a possessive and without a following noun
// a room of your own
- (pronoun) : for or by oneself : independently of assistance or control
// made the decision on their own
- (pronoun) : left to rely entirely on one’s own resources
// you are on your own to get it done
The very first definition clearly defines yourself, and by extension your body, as being owned by you. If you cannot be described as belonging to yourself, or if someone else has power or mastery over you without your explicit consent, then you are most likely in a state of slavery. I really hope I do not need to explain why slavery is a terrible and morally reprehensible thing to do to another person.
Take some time to contemplate those meanings, and how they apply to you and your relationship with your body. Do all of them ring true, or do some of them make you uncomfortable? Why do they make you uncomfortable? Do some of the definitions not apply to you? Most English words have multiple definitions, and not all of them will apply in any particular circumstance. Only one definition needs to suit the use for it to be possible to use the word.
If you need to dig into why different definitions make you uncomfortable, especially definitions that apply to you, that is a form of shadow work. In order to better understand and consciously decide how to interact with yourself and the world, it is important to understand your underlying baggage, traumas, beliefs, and motivations. Otherwise, you are doomed to stumble through life reacting instead of acting.
The Body is a Temporary Vessel
Your body is a temporary vessel, and yet it is an integral part of your experience of this entire life. All things that you own are technically temporary, and will someday cease to exist, be they a favorite trinket, your home, a cookie a friend gave you, or the country you live in. Even the languages we speak and the cultures we live in are fluid, and shift and change with each generation. Eventually they become something different, and what they used to be ceases to be a part of common lived experience.
Things do not need to be Permanent, or even permanent, to be owned. If you can say it is yours, like a friend giving you a cookie and you calling it “my cookie”, then you own it, whether that ownership lasts for one minute or one hundred years.
The Body is “Borrowed”
One of the comments I received specifically mentioned that the body is “borrowed” for this life, and it is given back at the end of life.
So, who is it “borrowed” from, and who is it “given back” to? Even if you believe a deity provided your body, They have no personal use for it. It is created solely for you to inhabit in this life, and I guarantee that it will not be divinely physically reanimated and used after your death. That kind of thing does not physically happen. Instead, you can expect rather mundane decomposition or, on rare occasions, mummification.
If you are “borrowing” your body from the Earth, well, that gets into philosophies about the base nature of ownership as an illusion, because all things come from the Earth, and someday return to it. In the most extreme forms of this kind of thinking, nothing can be owned by us because all things (including people) belong to the Earth. The problem here is that this philosophy is esoteric enough to be very impractical legally, socially, and culturally. If it gives you peace to view ownership in that way, that is great, but please realize that the overwhelming majority of people cannot and will not cast off the concept of ownership in its entirety.
The Body is a Gift, Not a Purchase
Some people suggested that referring to a part of the body as owned implies that it is purchased, when it is actually a gift.
I suppose you could deep dive into that one very specific definition of “own”, but it is incredibly reductive. Since when are gifts not owned by the recipient? If I give a book to someone, it is now theirs. If you find a pretty glass bottle discarded in a bush and take it home, it is now yours. If you make a carved wand out of a stick you find, it is yours unless you are making it for someone else to own. Things do not need to be purchased in order to be owned. They only need to be possessed, and hopefully valued.
Besides, so what if a uterus-owner does purchase their uterus? Medical research has made very promising progress with implanted uteruses, so someday it will probably be routine for people to be able to have such surgeries. Recipients of a liver or heart or other internal organ transplant own their new body parts as a now integral part of their whole bodies. Uteruses are not different just because society associates them with sex and gender.
Body Shaming and Bodily Shame
One of the easiest ways to erode ownership of a body is through objectification, and it is something that is inescapable in modern society. Two of the most pervasive forms of objectification are body shaming (too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, etc.), and preoccupation with appearances (shaving, clothing choices, makeup expectations, hair color, etc.). Men also experience these things, but women tend to get drowned in them from birth.
There are a great many very good reasons feminist philosophy gives a lot of credence to these problems, not just for women, but for all humans. When we are preoccupied with or otherwise ashamed of our bodies, it erodes self-confidence and makes us easier to manipulate or control. That is one reason why abusers and bullies tend to pick on people over physical features, to erode self-confidence and make it easier to dish out further abuse. Long-term, it can even create feelings that the abuse is deserved because of traits which have been criticized.
Distancing yourself from your body by denying ownership is a natural response to such influences. It allows you to distance yourself from those aspects of yourself which are being presented as the cause of bullying, to help ease the pain of the abuse. When individual bullies or societal pressures attack specific physical features, the natural tendency is to perceive that the existence of those features is the source of the shame and trauma. In reality, those features are simply targets, and often arbitrary ones at that. It is the individual or institution imposing shame which is to blame, not the recipient.
When we claim ownership of our bodies, both the good and the bad, it is an act of rebellion against such institutions and individuals. It is an act of empowerment. It is a declaration that you do not need to be ashamed of who you are in this life, and that you will not be blamed for being a victim. It is never the victim’s fault, and body shaming creates a lot of victims.
If you have ever looked at Lizzo, admired her confidence, and wished you had that kind of strength and resilience, I guarantee you that you can have that kind of strength and resilience. The ability to unapologetically be you regardless of social standards or criticism, without shame or denial, starts with claiming ownership of your body. And no, you do not have to want to shake it on a stage in very little clothing to have full ownership of your body. Claiming ownership means it is entirely up to you to decide what you want to do with your body, for whatever reasons you have.
Racism as a Form of Body Shaming
Racism is a form of body shaming, because it is malicious behavior which is “justified” by inherent physical traits, such as skin color, hair texture, eye shape, etc. Racism asserts that victims “deserve” to have less and be treated poorly or horrifically, just because of physical traits that usually cannot be changed, and do not need to be changed.
The entire basis of race-based slavery in the United States was the idea that black people could not own their own bodies, and instead those bodies were owned by the human traffickers who bought and sold them against their will. That bias of believing black people cannot own themselves carried over into racist laws and structural violence which continue to this day.
One small aspect of overcoming racism is in recognizing that not only do you own your own body, but so too does every other person in existence, past, present, and future.
Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Body Shaming
People who are transgender and do not “pass” for cis-gender, or who are gender nonconforming, usually experience incessant body shaming. Even people who are nonbinary and present femme or masculine experience body shaming for not conforming to the expected ideal of androgyny. Placing such standards and shaming people for not meeting them enforces societal norms regarding gender presentation, and allows for the erasure of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.
This plays into body ownership by implying that societal gender standards have more say regarding how a person can look and live their life, than the person living that life does. It says that you do not have ownership of your body, and cannot be trusted to make decisions about it. On the extreme end, it denies people the ability to exist as their true gender, because society or individuals with power in their life tell them that they are not allowed to be anything other than their assigned gender, presenting in an expected way.
Claiming ownership of your body facilitates taking control of your own life, presentation, and gender. It facilitates denying those who would prevent you from living as your truest possible self. It does this by helping you to understand that all such decisions are ultimately yours, and you have every right to make them, even if the world around you says no.
Objectification via Uterus
Using the example of “uterus-owner”, TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) distort very real objectification concerns in an attempt to invalidate any and all inclusive terminology. As the reasoning goes, “uterus-owner” implies that uteruses are a commodity to be bought and sold (like a car owner), and using that term is reductive of “real women” by defining them as a body part. Hypocritically, it is often accompanied by the declaration that “all women have uteruses, and anyone who has a uterus is a woman, so just call them women,” which does define women by a body part, creating the objectification they claim to be avoiding.
Historically, women in Western culture were valued almost entirely for their ability to bear children for a husband, so the valuing of womanhood by sex organs is exactly the kind of objectification that feminism has been fighting as long as feminism has been a movement. Women should not be defined by the sex organs they do or do not possess (plenty of cis women do not have uteruses). Women have value as individuals, whether or not they ever have children.
In my article, I was referring to uterus-owners because I was specifically talking about the uterus, no matter who happened to have one. It was the most accurate and descriptive term to use, given the subject matter. I was specifically avoiding objectification or hurtful assumptions about the gender, fertility, or other sex organs of people who have uteruses.
That study I linked to above? The ten women in the study who received transplanted uteruses were assigned female at birth. They are women, none of whom had a uterus before the procedure. Women who do not have uteruses are still women, and since I was talking about menstruation, which requires a uterus that bleeds, it would be insensitive to assume they had a period just because they were women. Just saying “women” in that context is also insensitive to women who use forms of birth control which prevent menstruation, pre-pubescent girls, those with health issues that prevent regular menstruation, trans women who do not have uteruses, and post-menopausal women who no longer have menses. “Menstrual Magic for Uterus-owners of all Genders” is simultaneously considerate of women who do not have menses, and inclusive of men and nonbinary people with menses, because it is the menses which is important.
In this case, TERFs use objectification disguised as avoidance of objectification to push a gender essentialist agenda (that the sex a person is assigned at birth is the one and only true gender they can have). They deny ownership of the body and body parts in an attempt to remove power from other people. The TERFs seek to give themselves the authority to define how other people see themselves and are seen by society. Denial of bodily ownership is one of the ways they enforce binary gender norms, and deny the existence of transgender people.
Modern human society tends to assign ownership of everything. Every plant, every bit of land, every object, animals, and more, are usually assigned an owner. If something does not have an explicit owner (like wildlife), then laws protecting them need to be explicit, because the perception that they cannot own themselves means they are open to exploitation.
When you do not claim ownership of yourself, the societal question then becomes, “Who does own your body?” The answer to that question defines who can legally make decisions about your body. If you do not own your body, that means you cannot legitimately make decisions regarding that body, and those questions are up to someone else.
By denying bodily ownership, legal and religious institutions can and do make explicit demands of what people can and cannot do with their own bodies. This manifests as criminalizing abortion, vilifying tattoos, criminalizing homosexual relationships, slavery, criminalizing consensual sex work, and more. If Western society unflinchingly accepted self-ownership and bodily autonomy, these things would not be debatable, because it would be commonly understood and accepted that what you choose to do with your own body is no one else’s business.
Even if your religious path advocates for or against doing certain things with your body, it is still your decision whether or not to abide by those rules (and perhaps whether or not to remain in the religion if such rules are integral). This is because it is your body, and ultimately you who must live with both the benefits and consequences of those rules. If it brings you peace, structure, purpose, etc. to follow those rules, great for you! By the same token, do not deny other people the choice, because what works for you will not work for everyone else, and they deserve the same level of respect regarding their own choices about their own bodies.
Body Ownership is Power and Self-Love
Ownership of your body is a source of power, and there are seemingly endless numbers of people out there who want to control other people’s bodies as a means to control them. There are lots of reasons for this, but they tend to boil down to wanting to force other people to conform to specific ideals or actions, or to enforce inequities.
When you claim ownership of your body, wholly and completely, without reservation, including all of your body’s flaws (no body is without flaws), you deny others power over you. When you claim ownership of your body, it removes all doubt about your right to do with your body what makes you happy and fulfilled.
Claiming full ownership of your body is an act of revolutionary self-love in a society which expects all of us to allow other people to dictate what we do with our own bodies.
Metaphysical Benefits of Body Ownership
On a metaphysical level, when you deny ownership of your body, you are creating a division. You are saying that the body is not truly you. Yet, it is the filter through which you experience everything and act on anything in this life, including metaphysics. Even our perceptions of energy are usually filtered through our physical senses, most often manifesting as seeing or feeling the energies in question, although any of our senses can be involved. Even the more esoteric and difficult to describe aspects of magic and metaphysics filter through our brains, which are a part of our physical bodies.
When you create that division, it prevents you from fully engaging with your body on a metaphysical and spiritual level. It creates a blockage to fully embracing spiritual experiences, and fully accessing metaphysical power.
When you fully embrace ownership of your body, it is possible to cultivate a relationship with yourself which allows you to take fullest advantage of your body’s good points, and to manage the problematic or disliked points. This includes metaphysical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of yourself. It facilitates self-confidence and empowerment. It allows you to fully connect to your physical body, and conduct your practice as a fully whole being.
Body Ownership and Shadow Work
Many of the things which cause us to deny body ownership stem from societal pressures and personal traumas which can require shadow work to fully address and overcome. I may say, “take ownership of your body,” but how to do that is different for every person, and can be a difficult or painful process. If your visceral response is denial of body ownership, you cannot just flip a switch and expect that visceral response to change. It takes time and work.
The more strongly you are opposed to the idea of owning your own body, even if intellectually you want to claim ownership, the more important it is to do shadow work. This is the best way I know of to address those ingrained expectations and traumas which have caused you to deny your ownership of your own body. It is also often necessary in order to make peace with those aspects of your body that you genuinely do find problematic.
Addressing the Problematic Aspects of Your Body
Just because you claim ownership of your body and love it as a whole, does not mean you must love every individual aspect of it. It is incredibly rare in life to own something that is absolutely perfect in every regard, with no drawbacks, and yet that does not prevent us from loving things that we have. I would wager that your favorite book or movie or television show is rife with problems, but you can still love it anyway.
When you take ownership of your body, you have the ability to address those problematic aspects in a healthy way. Instead of repeatedly running to a plastic surgeon to “fix” every perceived blemish until you look like a caricature of a human, you can decide what specific features genuinely bother you and bring those more into line with your ideal. Instead of hurting yourself seeking externalized fitness goals, you can cultivate a fitness routine which is practical and healthy for your body and your lifestyle. If you dislike your scars or the look of plain skin, instead of hiding yourself, you can get tattoos and other body modifications that empower you to love those features, with a much lower chance of ending up with modifications you regret down the road. If you have a problematic relationship with food or yo-yo dieting, it can help you sort out what kind of diet or weight is healthy for you, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well, because the driving force will be your needs, not the pressures of society.
If the aspects of your body you find problematic are things that cannot be changed, like height, body type, disability, etc., claiming ownership plus shadow work is an avenue towards making peace with those things. It is profoundly helpful in finding acceptance, and in finding ways to mitigate those aspects so they cause as few problems as possible.
If you do enough shadow work, you may even find that some of those aspects which you saw as “problematic” are actually beautiful and desirable traits that are worth celebrating, especially if they were only “problematic” because of societal pressures, racism, bigotry, abuse, or bullying. It can become an avenue to fully embracing your personal power and identity.
Body Claiming Exercise
I recommend doing this in front of a mirror, ideally a full-length mirror, so that you must genuinely look at your body and acknowledge all of its features, positive and negative. An ideal time is immediately before or after bathing, so you can also incorporate spiritual bathing to help the process of detailed self-examination. If that is too intimidating, start by sitting with a notebook and write everything down, so that it will still have solidity and full acknowledgement.
Do not try to create a comprehensive list in one go. Set aside just ten minutes or so, and contemplate just a few features. The next day, or next week, do it again and contemplate a few more of your physical features. The goal is to get to know your body better, and to become friends with it. Like any relationship, it takes time and conscious positive interaction to develop a healthy foundation.
If you are using a mirror, look over your body, front and back, top to bottom, at all the hairs, curves, lumps, scars, any tattoos or piercings, all of it. Try not to judge those features as good or bad, but simply note that they exist, and are a part of your experience of being alive today. Ideally, you will be wearing little or no clothing, so you can see all those features. If you have features that you cannot bear to look upon, take note of those as well. If you are using a notebook only, instead contemplate and note your perception and experience of your physical features, top to bottom.
Take some time to sit with your overall feelings of examining yourself. What emotions are you feeling? Do they seem to contradict each other? Do you feel overwhelmed or embarrassed? Do those emotions change depending upon what you are looking at? What are you specifically thinking as you look at yourself? Me mindful of your thoughts and emotions.
Are there any aspects of your body that you find problematic? If so, pick out just one or two of them. Contemplate what about them bothers you, and why. Each time you answer the question of why, ask yourself why that was your answer, continuing until you reach the deepest answer you can find at this time. Contemplate that answer, all the answers which led up to it, and what it means for that aspect of yourself. Is it genuinely problematic, or were you conditioned to be ashamed of it? If it is genuinely problematic, what can you do to better manage or change it? What will need to be addressed through further shadow work in order to make peace with it, or to heal from past trauma around that aspect? In what ways does/has this aspect of your body benefited you?
Pick out just one or two aspects of your body that you love. This will be difficult for some people, but it is vitally important. If you cannot think of anything off the top of your head, keep looking until you find something, no matter how trivial, tiny, or superficial it seems. It is your body, and if the first thing you can think of to love is your eyebrows, or your earlobes, or the shape of your toes, or the way you giggle when you see a cute meme, that’s perfect. Contemplate what about that aspect you love, and why. Each time you answer the question of why, ask yourself why that was your answer, until you find the deepest answer you know at this time. Contemplate that answer, all the answers that led up to it, and what it means for that aspect of yourself. How does it relate to your overall experience of being in your body?
Take another look at your whole body, and contemplate how those features all play into your overall feeling of yourself. If you can, claim ownership of them as aspects of yourself and your experience of this life.
And Since, Sadly, it Must Be Explicitly Stated….
I am explicitly NOT providing justification for assholes who are claiming bodily autonomy as justification to walk around without a mask being plague rats and spreading literal death and disability. Body ownership and bodily autonomy end where what you want to do would impinge on another person’s ability to have their own bodily autonomy and body ownership. Spreading plague is directly harmful to other people, just like second-hand smoke, drunk driving, murder, assault, theft, rape, and a whole host of other behaviors which are legally regulated in order to (ideally) ensure a society which is safe and pleasant for everyone, not just you, and not just me.