We attach meanings to bodies. We pass around stories about what certain body shapes mean. Some bodies we sexualise, and some we desexualise with no reference to the nature of the person whose body it is. The racists amongst us have stories about the meaning of skin tones that has nothing to do with the people those stories are imposed on. Those stories are used to cause harm and to reduce opportunities.
We tell stories about disabled bodies that are profoundly unhelpful to the people they are about. The stories of liars, scroungers, and fakes beget violence. The stories about what a disabled body means regarding the capability of the person, keep people out of jobs, social spaces and opportunities. The stories about being brave and inspirational are perhaps less toxic, but just as much about imposing a narrative on someone else.
If you have big breasts there is no way of dressing short of using a binder, that makes your body look modest in some people’s eyes. It is, by all accounts worse if you are a black woman, much worse if you are a younger black woman with curves – that your body will be read in a sexual way no matter what you do, or who you are. The power to impose a story on someone else’s body is the power to say they were asking for it, they were dressed provocatively, their consent can be inferred.
When we read poverty on a person, we judge them for being lazy, dirty and feckless. When we don’t see those things, we judge a person claiming poverty as lying.
It doesn’t get much more personal than the story about what your body means. When people are able to read your body and impose their meanings upon you, there is a massive power imbalance. When you are told what you can and cannot do because your body is read as old, or female, or black, then you are at a huge disadvantage. If you don’t get to act based on your own body story, you are compromised in so many ways.
People who consider themselves normal measure other people’s bodies in relation to their own. All too often, no one asks what a person can do, or how they feel. We put superficial readings of bodies ahead of finding out what a person actually does.
Who gets to tell the story about what your body means? Who gets to impose limitations on you based on how they read your body? Who do you judge on appearances? What assumptions do you make when you look at someone who is different from you? None of us are entirely free from this.