During an interview on the Ladies Like Us podcast, rapper, actor and TV host, T.I. created a firestorm by sharing that he accompanies his 18-year-old daughter to her gynecologist appointments for virginity checks. He asks the doctor to check that her hymen is intact. He recalled a story of accompanying her after her 16th birthday. Many have decried this for the misogynistic behavior that it is, while others have noted that T.I. is a simply a father protecting his daughter yet recognizing that he may have went a step too far. Too far? The notion that this is too far, raises the question: what are appropriate ways to show ownership of another person’s body? Because that is what this is. The idea that this is a father protecting his daughter is another way of looking out for what is mine, but the problem is, her body is not his – it’s her’s. And while it might may not always get this specific, there are so many ways that people tell girls and women that their body does not belong to them.
The story is told so often that it is cliché: The teen girl or young adult woman has a date and, waiting on the porch, is the father (or uncle, older brother, or some other male authority figure) with a shotgun (literally or metaphorically). The male authority figure interrogates the male date until the latter can prove himself worthy of the date with the female. It is a negotiation between men, as if the young woman has no say at all in whom she chooses to date. This type of negotiation has even been done by the sons of single mothers, thereby giving a level of ownership to a male who is not only much younger than the adult woman, but over whom, in actuality, she has authority. This stems from a time when women were the legal property of their fathers or male elders before they were the property of their husbands—a tradition that still lives on in different cultures around the world. While this tradition doesn’t legally exist in mainstream American culture, many men (and some women) still act as if it does. Worse, they act as if this tradition still should exist because they perceive it as better than a girl or woman making her own choices. In faith traditions that celebrate Purity Balls and the like, the message is clear: Your body, and more specifically, your virginity belongs to your father or another male authority figure. He is responsible for it until you get married, and then it will belong to your husband. Either way, the decision of who a woman shares her body with, is up to the men in her life.
Not only do girls and women have to combat the notion that their body belongs to the men in their lives, but women’s and girls’ bodies are often treated as public property open for critique. People make their careers judging the style of some women (mostly celebrities) going about their day and deciding who wore a particular outfit best. Entire articles are written on the weight, body structure, or new hairstyle of a famous woman without seeking her permission because, after all, why would you need to obtain it since her body belongs to the public? This is seen as a normal part of being in a woman in the public eye, no matter her profession.
This happens often in Christian congregations as well. Women preachers often talk about the many comments they receive about their clothing as parishioners shake their hands on the way out of the door—comments that their male counterparts do not hear as a matter of course. I think that very few people would actually verbalize that one’s body belongs to the wider society, but their actions say otherwise. The female body as public property is not just about high-profile women. Recently, women have been talking more about cat-calling and street harassment, only to be told that they should take these events as compliments. When a woman’s body is seen as public property, then it is perfectly within any man’s right to respond to her body however he feels fit. She, in turn, is expected to be grateful that her body is appreciated by the public because it is, after all, theirs.
The Body as a Gift from God
Recognizing that all of the above is problematic, what would I propose as the proper? right? best? answer to my question? The desire of many Christians is to say that the body belongs to God. While I see this as a step in the right direction, it is missing the mark because it does not give personal ownership. Instead, I choose to say that my body is a gift from God, but it is very much mine. As an analogy, I use my engagement and wedding rings. Of all the material things I poses, they are my prized possessions. I love and care for them because they are gifts from my husband and represent our love. But they are also very much mine. I can choose to hold them dear and treat them as precious, or I can choose to hock them at the local pawn shop even though I am not in financial turmoil. One is a better decision for me than the other, but the decision is mine because the rings are mine. However, it would be heart-breaking for me to hock them because I value them, and the main reason I value them is because I value the person who gave them to me. I value the relationship they represent, and how I care for them is a symbol about how I care for the relationship.
We all have different items we consider our prized possessions. Whether it’s the piece of jewelry that was passed down through generations and that you will pass down to a following generation or a gift given by a loved one before they passed away, we recognize its importance and may take extra special care of it because of our relationship with the giver. Even so, we recognize this prized possession as ours, and so it is with our bodies. My body is important. It houses the image of God. It houses my hopes, dreams, intellect, and it allows me to show up in the world. I care for my body and treat it as special because of all those things and because of the relationship I have with the God who gave it to me. When people see this body, I want them to see a representative of Jesus in the world. I want people to see this body as one that is supportive, one that stands up for justice and against oppression. This may mean that sometimes I place my body in harm’s way to protect another—a decision that may really frighten those who love me, but a decision I get to make because this body is mine. So, I do with it what I believe I am called to do.
What does this look like? – Teaching Girls to Own Their Gift
We can empower girls to own their bodies from a very early age by not forcing children to hug people they do not want to. Whether at church or family functions, children should not be forced to hug people with whom they are not comfortable. And when we force a child to hug Aunt Becky, Minister Dave, or Santa Claus, we are teaching that child that they do not have control over their body, that they cannot stay within their comfort zone, and that what they do with their body is not completely up to them. This is a bad precedent to set. In more severe cases, children have been forced to embrace their abusers because they happen to be a member of their biological or church family. But even if the person we want our child to hug is completely safe, the child should still be able to make that decision on their own. At the very least, we should not teach a child not to trust her own instinct.
Opportunities for lessons on body ownership also come in elementary and middle school. When a girl complains about a boy hitting her or snapping her bra, the common societal reaction is to explain it away by telling the girl that the boy probably likes her and just can’t express it another way or by saying that “boys will be boys.” These responses send yet another lesson that a girl’s body is accessible for any boy to touch because he deems her worthy, and what’s more, she should feel flattered for being invaded in this way. In fact, she should not feel invaded, because her body is public property.
Instead of making decisions for a girl’s body, let’s make age-appropriate decisions with the girl. These decisions can be about dressing, activities, how she carries herself, her medical treatment, and so many other topics that range from benign to serious. Let’s teach girls to grill their own dates so they can be in discussion with the elder men and women in her life after they have met the person. Teaching girls through discussion and giving them information to make their own decisions are great ways to have girls know how to own their God-given gift and treat their body well. Remind her that God gifted the body to her, and walk with her as she prayerfully discerns how God is calling her to show up in the world.
Dr. Annie Lockhart-Gilroy is a womanist pedagogue and practical theologian who writes and teaches on emancipatory pedagogies and the spiritual formation of youth. She is Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Practical Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. In addition to numerous articles, and posts, she is the author of the forthcoming Nurturing the Sanctified Imagination of Urban Youth. To find out more, visit www.lockhartgilroy.com.