What is Body Sovereignty?
When I refreshed Lakeshore Liberation's brand earlier this year, I finally landed on a tagline that encompassed everything I am working for: "Supporting Your Body Sovereignty." It's concise, and it reflects my intention in everything I offer, whether it's related to pregnancy, education, abortion support, medical accompaniment, or any of the other realms in which I serve my community. But you may be wondering, what exactly is body sovereignty? And why is it so important?
On its own, "sovereignty" refers to having freedom from outside control and is typically used to describe nations & states. Synonymous with "autonomy," it describes something's complete authority over itself, such as a state's ability to govern itself without outside interference. When applied to the body, it refers to our right to have complete control over our bodies and what we do with them. We make the rules, we have absolute authority, and our bodies belong to us. It isn't tied to how we feel about our bodies nor how much we may or may not love them at any given time but rather the inherent right we all have to decide what happens to our bodies no matter what. But of course, this right isn't guaranteed and is often systemically denied to marginalized communities. We continue to see that happen in a variety of ways.
When poor communities don't have access to a variety of fresh and culturally appropriate foods, they do not have the freedom to nourish their bodies in whatever way actually works best for them. When laws are enacted to limit abortion access, pregnant people do not have full control over what happens to their bodies. When trans people won't be safe if they alter their gender expression (their appearance and presentation) to match their gender identity (who they are), they do not have freedom to truly represent themselves externally through their bodies. When birthing people are limited to whatever OBGYN or midwife is in their area that is both affordable and accessible to them, they may not have the freedom to birth the way they want to. Our intrinsic right to be fully in charge of our bodies is limited by the systems around us, which can be especially hostile towards anyone considered an "other." The concept of body sovereignty seeks to address both our personal right to our bodies and the ways that we need to collectively break down systems that threaten that right for ourselves and for others.
While the concept of body sovereignty isn't new, this specific verbiage was popularized by Shilo George, an Indigenous superfat activist, who is currently working on a book by the same name with Caleb Luna and Elaine Lee. She credits poet Qwo-Li Driskill for this particular phrasing, who uses it in their poem, "Map of the Americas." In both this poem and George's usage, the phrase connects to both the body and to land sovereignty, which are intimately connected within the Indigenous struggle for freedom from colonial violence. You can hear more about how she ties this concept to the colonization of land and of Indigenous bodies in the episode of the "Woman of Size" podcast she was a guest on (linked to at the end of this post). In Body Sovereignty: Fat Politics and the Fight for Human Rights, she and the other authors will expand on this concept by "highlight[ing] fat injustice from various perspectives, such as health and law, and uplift[ing] the often-overlooked voices of people of color, disabled people, superfat people, and LGBTQ+ individuals." Through these narratives, we can grow our understanding of body sovereignty through various lenses while also addressing how the unique challenges each of these overlapping communities face often tie back to the same harmful systems of colonialism and white supremacy.
Since George's popularizing of this phrase, others have expanded upon it as well, giving new language to a concept that has never been fully addressed in the more popular (and unfortunately co-opted) "body positive" movement, which often focuses solely on individual body image, choices, and healing. As University of Auckland doctoral candidate Ashlea Gillon concludes in the 2019 research article Fat Indigenous Bodies and Body Sovereignty: An Exploration of Re-presentations:
"Body positivity, as a movement, seeks to re-visualise fat bodies and re-declare our fatness; however, often it can be limited. The need for a body sovereignty approach emphasises who has power and who actively restricts fat Indigenous women from being re-presented accurately within societies. Body sovereignty seeks to re-focus on how systems of oppression and inherent bias restrict access for fat Indigenous women. This re-focusing aligns with Kaupapa Māori and Mana Wāhine approaches to understanding our experiences and how to transform them. Fat Māori women are subject to multiple forms of oppression, while ‘coming out’ as fat and body positivity movements encourage disrupting the space and re-visualising bodies, a body sovereignty focus is required to challenge the racist, sexist, fatist discourses that emphasise inaccessibility."
In this article, we once again see how the concept of body sovereignty is rooted in Indigenous rights and has been expanded to cover the many interconnected & overlapping communities of people that are impacted by similar power imbalances and lack of access. This is similar to Kimberlé Crenshaw's work on intersectionality, which was born out of a specific case of intersecting racism and sexism against a Black woman experiencing oppression at the intersection of her race and gender but grew into a framework that can help explain the unique experiences (and challenges posed to) other intersecting identities as well.
Body sovereignty isn't about what we can achieve on our own. It's about how we recognize the barriers in access (physical or otherwise) that prevent everyone from having full ownership over their bodies. Through the work I do, I aim to support the body sovereignty of the people I work with, both through supporting them in their specific situation and through collective, community work in subverting and breaking the systems that prevent that sovereignty in the first place. What does this look like in action? Here are some examples to help illustrate:
When I arm pregnant people with information so that they can make informed decisions about their bodies, their pregnancy, and their birthing experience, I am helping them maintain informed ownership over their bodies. When I advocate against abuse and racism against pregnant people in hospitals and help fund efforts for more midwives (especially queer and trans midwives and midwives of color) to be available, I am helping to prevent future harm against pregnant people.
When I help someone through the abortion process by providing information, resources, and physical accompaniment, I am supporting their right to have ownership over their body. When I support abortion funds and clinics, help to widen abortion methods and options that are available at home, and fight against anti-abortion laws, I am supporting the rights of future pregnant people to have easier, safer, and less stigmatized access to abortion.
When I provide herbal products to people, I am supporting their right to nourish their bodies, minds, and spirits in the way they prefer. When I support organizations working to preserve Indigenous medicines, ones that are looking to expand access to herbal medicines to make healthcare more accessible, and ones fighting for Medicare for All or similar expanded healthcare access, I am helping to create a future in which Indigenous communities can care for themselves in the ways they know work best and ensuring that everyone has access to healthcare.
Without addressing the systems that limit our bodily autonomy, we will never experience true body sovereignty for all. Body sovereignty is a framework for addressing the whole picture rather than putting the onus on individuals to solve issues that extend far beyond them, and it demands that we work as a community towards a future that truly works for everyone. I'm so thankful to be able to be a part of this space, and I hope you'll join me here as we continue to work for our collective liberation, starting of course with those most affected by systems of oppression and exploitation. Together, we can support and defend each other's bodily autonomy today and, in time, build a new world that grants body sovereignty to all.
Further learning on this topic and references: