To Own or Not to Own…My Body

Today’s word to explore through ideas and quotes is “own” — as in “I own my body” which seems fitting since October is not only Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it is also Domestic Abuse Awareness Month and October 17th is National Love Your Body Day. I began to examine the definitions of ownership — the act, state or right of possessing something — in this case, over or around one’s body.

If we were talking land ownership, the following quote serves us well given the the free market economy’s encroachment on “third-world” lands.

“Liking is probably the best form of ownership, and ownership the worst form of liking.”
― José SaramagoThe Tale of the Unknown Island

But what of the bodies of the “third-world diva girls”  (cf. bell hooks) who owns and possesses their mediation when it comes to social networks and visual communication?

Owning the Looking Glass 

In this two thousand and thirteenth year of our defining our sovereignty, also the 150th anniversary of the start of the Emancipation thing in the U.S., too many individuals and groups — specifically for my purposes “black” girls/women — are still not free. Perhaps we will never be in the context of ownership when we look more closely.

In this highly public yet privatized age of ownership recognized by online social networks and platforms like FB and YouTube, we are not free despite the claims of the “make your own media,” “broadcast yourself” participatory culture. Too often, we overlook the social politics, authority and privilege at work in the circulation of female body images that in turn mirror who we think we (or who others think we should be). This complex process of mediating of self (the “I”, “me” and “we”) too often owns us in the fast-paced realities of 21st century convergence culture.

In the last two days, two images circulating around the Web hit my Facebook news feed as I have been preparing for meeting my team of undergraduate research assistants on The Black Girl YouTube Project.  It has me rethinking this notion of “ownership” of one’s body as a woman over 40 and for the future women I write about — black girls.

Miss Jackson, If You’re Nasty

I can’t understand human curiosity — controversy
Was it good for you? was I what you wanted me to be? — controversy

– Prince Rogers Nelson

Janet Jackson

The first was an image of megastar Janet Jackson owning her beautiful abs and skin, a pleasant smile, standing shirtless in front of a mirror at 47. Good black don’t crack, as they say.

With her sculpted abs and breasts exposed, the nudity of her nipples is shrouded only by the stripes of her black suspenders. Her left hand grips one side while her right hand is positioned along the “V” of  her parted zipper. It’s a subtle peek-a-boo view helping us imagine what lies below. It’s sensual not erotic (or maybe you can’t tell the difference anymore) but my concern lately is how public these images are as black girls, particularly those ages 8-15, are learning to mirror parts of these suggestive and too often explicit social realities online often as the primary means of learning their sociological imagination. But media still concerns itself way too often with unveiling female bodies.

Body Shaming and the “Face-Work” of Black Women’s Bodies?

The second image is related to my previous post in which I wrote about Erving Goffman’s “face-work” as applied to twerking.

“The image we portray of ourselves (our “face”) is constantly being negotiated, a process Goffman calls “face-work” (p. 12). And although the individual takes an active role in the presenting, preserving, and sometimes adjusting [of] her face [or ‘batty-wuk’ (body-work) in the case of many black girls], it is not an object of solo authorship….Face-work us a complex collaborative dance in which all participants and their every word, wink, gesture, posture, stance, glance and grunt take part” (Wesch, “YouTube and You,” 2010, p. 22).

body-shamingHere’s the image taken from PLUS Model Magazine’s October 2012 issue titled “Love My Body.” It mirrors my reality and yet perhaps I am conditioned, from the life-long body dysmorphic schisms of my own eye, not to dwell in liking this image too much. #icanownthat #icanownthatnow

The image started re-circulating via an October 1 post on the blog Simply Theresa. It’s a very empowering post that counters the body- or fat-shaming that is so easy to do in the “deep and loose” connections we call community engagement on Facebook or even YouTube (see the Wesch article above for more on this concept). Er’ybody knows how comments can send you into fight mode.

A Facebook friend I actually know who dates a good friend of mine IRL liked the blog post and image posted on Facebook, as did I. No fight here. She actually quoted from Simply Theresa’s post in her comment:

“Let’s be very clear my friends, I own my life, including my body.” Love it. Thanks.

I responded later:

While I love that quote and the idea, given the context of late capitalism’s patriarchal control over and in the bodies of girls and women from the media to governmental intrusion, structural inequities affecting our biology, it’s reception and uses even by our selves, (i.e. well being, cognitive development, gender identity expression, beauty, hair and nails, weight, dance, mobility, sex, sensuality and sexuality not to me too race, class and other intersectionalities concerning embodiment have never been an object or an act of solo authorship.

Yesterday, it was Janet Jackson “owning” her body in social media’s most public public of all times. While I do think this is beautiful and artistic, I also know the symbolic domination of media [surrounding] girls concerns me today. Black girls who suffer some of the highest rates of various forms if abuse and obesity. As I do [conduct] my Black Girl YouTube Project it’s been in my mind a lot.


Beyond Solo Authorship and IRL Issues

Many black and non-black women like Madonna performing into of a camera(or cameras with the invasion of mobile-casting at public events), behind a microphone, in a recording studio or on a major stage as well as those perceiving and receiving such communication, lay claim to be owning their own bodies in our highly public, ultra socially-mediate technoscape and economy. Perhaps the use of that word is not the best to convey controlling one’s image more or less to varying degrees given specific times and places.

Can we and should we– esp. women in post industrial societies — relate to the female body as something we own like an object or something that can be owned by image making machinery? Let me provide a real-world example. This is the kind of languaging one can find in online dating interactions today in, for instance, an exchange for sex from a hetero- man to a woman:

About sex. Yes I expect it. I want you to have a mildly submissive role in that I do not want you to make me earn it. I want clarity in that your pussy belongs to me.

The meaning of the text may change if the person voicing their needs is white and wealthy or black and lower-middle class, let’s say. The metaphors we transact in around our body, sex and the issues of power it raises make matters even more complicated for black girls coming of age with popular hip-hop videos and social media.

All this got me thinking about other linguistic uses of own and owning.


Language Shapes Thought

As a descendant of a slave “owning” empire and economy, and as a ethnographic scholar of immaterial and embodied culture and sociologies, I realize more and more that sole authorship over the self is an illusion of our ego. Paradoxically it’s the primary “thing,” the immediate means we have and use to do the biological, cognitive, intellectual, linguistic, and social transactions of being alive and living. It’s the tool we use to make our way, to organize our lives, being male and female, straight or transgendered, in being empowered and resisting not being that.

So, yes, we do possess the benefits of that work and action–the mental and physical labor, but we are not sole owners of that labor/process or nor even the sole author of the product. The best we can do these days is lay claim to the distribution these days. Or so it seems.

We simply refuse to consider that we–let me speak for myself–that I belong to no one and everyone. I think the same is true for you.  The paradox I am entertaining in this post (I am a lover of paradox), is that we own nothing about our “self” wholly and yet we must own everything as well as the voice that calls from within our body and learn to be true to that in an indifferent ecology not for us and not for any of us, per se.



To what do we owe the pleasure and/or the suffering of all this is the question today, and what responsibility or at least accountability do we owe young girls and their future in this socially-mediated world?

I’m just getting started in this inquiry but would love to hear your thoughts and counter-thoughts! If you like, please follow us.  I’ll be updating next week with our vlog introducing the team for the Black Girl YouTube Project.

Stay tuned!


“Ownership breeds slavery: with every single thing that you acquire, comes a new worry of not losing that thing.”
― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

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