Under the patriarchy and misogynistic history of the world, women, their bodies and their lives have been policed and warped to suit the desires of others. According to the OED, policing is defined as “the activity of controlling an industry, an activity, etc., to make sure that people obey the rules.” Most of this policing is done in the name of keeping women safe, however, these restrictions make women more vulnerable and force them to conform to the standards that benefit the patriarchy.
Defining the Policing of Women’s Bodies
This policing applies to women in numerous ways. The pressures of social media being subtly pushed upon women as they scroll through Instagram or the more blatantly direct sociocultural pressures of comments on photos posted forces women into a mentality of never being enough. This fuels diet culture and the fitness industry as women strive to meet the ideals set for them. Profits gained from the weight loss and beauty industry are 40-100 billion dollars a year playing on women’s insecurities. Society controls the desirable image of women and then holds them to the impossible standards as a way of capitalism profiting on the insecurities it breeds.
And that is just one aspect of how women are policed by sociocultural pressures, this is placed on top of the restrictions and laws governing their bodies and reproduction rights. Since 2011, nearly 500 laws have been passed restricting access to abortions, these laws criminalize the actions women make for their own bodies.  Also, the stigma around access to birth control and the insufficient health classes in school lead to women being uneducated and ashamed of their own bodies. Without knowledge of how a woman’s body functions, and what to look out for puts them at greater risk of undiagnosed and untreated health issues.
One other way that women are policed is through their sexuality. Women are expected to be virgins yet perfect in bed, to dress revealingly and “flaunt what they got” but then are shamed and called sluts for dressing that way. No dating until they are adults, but as soon as they are adults they are mocked for their inexperience. Women in queer relationships are fetishized by the porn industry and then real queer relationships are dubbed to be sinful and wrong. The double standards women face in regard to their sexual liberation is a minefield made to kill.
Historical Context of the Policing of Women’s Bodies in the USA
Reproduction and Abortion
Historically in the USA, a woman's right to choose what they want to do with their body has been heavily restricted. Even though abortions during the first trimester were relatively unregulated at the beginning of the 19th century, abortions became more regulated over time. In the 1820s, some states punished abortion after quickening, when a woman could feel fetal movement. In the early 19th century, primarily unmarried women got abortions, but in the 1840s, married, Protestant or middle or high-class women also had abortions.
In the middle of the 19th century, abortions were more and more common. However, in the 1870s, horrifying stories about abortions were being circulated. By 1900, almost every state criminalized abortion at every stage of pregnancy except for saving a woman’s life. This shift in abortion policies is most likely because of the physicians who did not want Protestant women of the middle class to have abortions and other reasons that advanced the physicians’ goals. Thus, at the end of the 19th-century, physicians played a significant role in policing women’s bodies as they played a role in the decision of abortion.
Between World War I and World War II, there were fewer abortions due to the medical field’s advancement. There were fewer reasons for women to need an abortion due to diseases, such as tuberculosis, because medicine was more effective in saving a woman’s life. However, due to the Great Depression in the 1930s, there was a spike in abortions as women simply could not afford having children.
Harsher Impacts on Minority and Poor Women
Unfortunately, even though all women faced restrictions when making decisions about their bodies, minority and poor women faced more restrictions. Minority women were more likely to have unsafe abortions than non-minority women as they did not have the resources for safe practices. Another factor that negatively impacted minority women was the eugenics movement. Eugenics advocates encouraged white Protestant women to reproduce as their characteristics were deemed “fit” for American society; however, they discouraged the reproduction of immigrant and poor women’s babies because their characteristics were deemed “unfit.” Thus, from the 1960s to the 1970s, Native American, Hispanic, and black women were more likely to be sterilized to limit their reproduction and population.
When discussing the policing of women’s bodies, it is essential to mention the impact of government policies on abortion. One of the most important policies is the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. In the first trimester, the ruling states that a woman and doctor are the only ones who can decide if the woman is to have an abortion or not. After the first trimester, the state can step in to determine if abortion is in favour of the women’s health. After fetal viability, which approximately is from 22 to 26 weeks, the state can stop an abortion unless it is deemed not in favour of the woman’s health. The Roe v. Wade ruling also resulted in a stronger Catholic and Protestant fundamentalist movement which continued anti-abortion campaigns. Another critical government policy on abortion is the 1976 Hyde Amendment. This policy caused harmful impacts on poor women’s reproductive rights. It banned Medicaid funding for abortions except if the abortion was detrimental to the women’s health or were victims of rape or incest.
Abortion and Victimization
During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was an issue with victimization when arguing for abortions. Feminists tended to legitimize abortions based on the argument that women can be victims of sexual exploitation. However, in the early twentieth century, more feminists began to accept that women wanted the option of an abortion or birth control due to the desire for sexual pleasure and independence.
In all of the states in the US, abortion is legal. However, many states severely restrict the practice of abortions through 24 hour waiting periods, insurance restrictions, parental approval, lack of abortion funding, and a 20-week abortion ban.
Women’s bodies are not only policed through the topic of abortion but also beauty standards. Women face harsher pressures in regards to beauty standards compared to men because “women are defined by beauty.” A preference for lighter skin amongst women dates back to slavery in the USA, as mulatto slaves were treated better than non-mulatto slaves.
Unlike most Asian countries where skin-lightening products are popular, 30 million Americans visit tanning salons yearly. This is significant because tanning beds are harmful, as exposure to UV rays can increase skin cancer risk. Interestingly, the white women's “bronze skin remains in the white skin category” as the women are just seen as getting a “summer glow”.
In addition to skin colour, women also face expectations when it comes to hair. Hair that is wavy, blond, and curly is most often seen as beautiful. During slavery in the US, black women often straightened their hair to be “white-passing.” In terms of the workplace, it is often seen that short and straight hair is professional. For example, Latin American women that are college-educated are more likely to straighten their hair and cut it short to seem “professional” even though their communities value long and curly hair. However, movements such as the Black is Beautiful movement in the 1960s and 1970s have gone against these beauty standards as more women began embracing their natural hair and features.
Overall, women in the US have been policed through government policy, the power of physicians, and unrealistic expectations about their bodies.
Different forms of women's representation perpetuate the policing of women's bodies both in works of fiction and in the media.
Representation in Works of Fiction
Films are also effectively used to deliver acute political commentary, even if that was not what they are outwardly portrayed as. The film Juno is a topical movie around the stigma of teen pregnancy as it follows the protagonist Juno as she navigates life as a teen with an unwanted pregnancy. There are many conversations around the pressures for teens to get an abortion in order to not waste the best years of their life, this is then juxtaposed with the mentality that abortion is murder. Add in the injustices in the foster services on top of the complexity of adoption and you’ve got yourself a dilemma that has seemingly no end. The added social pressures of attending high school while pregnant, where every student has their own opinion on Juno. One of her fellow classmates was protesting outside the planned parenthood Juno went to for pregnancy checkups, she called Juno a murderer and went through the stereotypical pro life spiel demonizing abortions. The film Juno explains the many hurdles teenage girls must go through both medically, financially, emotionally and physically through the complications of pregnancy in such turbulent years.
Modern media is often a good reflection of what society values, especially when it comes to films and literature. One culturally significant example of the policing of women’s bodies in literature is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a piece of speculative fiction which takes place in a Gilead, a dystopia where pregnancy rates have dropped drastically. Based on the warped words of Christianity and a strict patriarchal government system, women who can bear children are forced into becoming Handmaids so that they can reproduce for the sake of humanity. Women’s bodies are politicized, policed and completely subjugated. Stripped of their right to vote or have any say in their lives, the Handmaids are completely dehumanized and in turn objectified into things used for their fertility.
Speculative fiction is a genre that shows what our future could be given certain circumstances and values being taken all the way. This novel demonstrates the gradual process that was stripping women of their rights and how dehumanization slowly creeps in. By slowly removing their rights to their finances, loss of employment and then constantly needing male companion. Burning books, erasing history and names, the government managed to subjugate an entire section of its population for the sake of breeding. Regulating women’s bodily autonomy is something that can be seen happening nowadays, especially with the tightening restrictions on women’s reproductive rights in the US. Forcing women into a submissive role by patronizing them and insinuating that they are incompetent or unfit for government is something we still see, and the prejudice against women in politics is ever prominent. Atwood’s political commentary on the systemic sexism and patriarchal hierarchy in the states warns us of the dangers that can arise if rights are stripped and autonomy is lost.
Representation in the Media
Portrayal of Abortion Protests
To understand how women’s bodies are policed, it is vital to study women’s representation through the media. A study looked at the keywords and sources of widespread media coverage sites such as the New York Times and the Washington Post between 1960 to 2006. The study specifically studied news coverage from these sources on abortion protests. The study found that pro-choice or pro-life protesters’ portrayal depended on a protest paradigm, which is when a group protesting against the status quo is shown as more negative. This was significant as news coverage before Roe v. Wade versus after it changed the coverage’s tone. When abortion became legal, pro-choice protestors were no longer going against the status quo. Thus, pro-choice views were shown positively after the Roe v. Wade ruling. However, even though abortion is considered a female issue, male sources were included more in the news coverage on abortion protests. The lack of consultation with female sources for topics like abortion allows for the perpetuation of the policing of women’s bodies by men.
Portrayal of Beauty Standards
Social media plays a significant role in the representation of women’s bodies. Social media can harm female’s perceptions about ideal body standards, especially adolescent girls, as it perpetuates unrealistic body standards. These unrealistic standards often cause and perpetuate unhealthy eating disorders and body image distortions. For example, slim women are shown as more beautiful and successful compared to overweight women. The push for a slimmer figure and unrealistic features leads young girls to have negative feelings about their bodies and low self-esteem.
Additionally, Snapchat and Instagram applications have filters that perpetuate ideals of beauty, such as a slimmer face, no eye bags, longer eyelashes, and fuller lips. Online influencers such as Kim Kardashian often perpetuate these unrealistic beauty standards as they post edited and filtered pictures of themselves. Overall, social media takes part in policing women’s bodies by enforcing unrealistic beauty standards.
Portrayal of Abortion
Social media can be argued as an essential tool against the policing of women’s bodies. This is because social media has provided a platform for pro-choice activists to share their stories and destigmatize ideas around abortion. For example, the rise of “hashtag activism” has brought awareness to many people about different social issues. The hashtag #StandwithPP, with PP short for Planned Parenthood, has furthered pro-choice activism. The hashtag even brought in support from celebrities and politicians to stop the defunding of abortion resources. Thus, social media could lead a path towards more female bodily autonomy as well.
Harmful Impacts of Policing Women
Impact of Anti-Abortion Laws
In light of the “unprecedented wave of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws” it is important to look at the effects banning abortions has. Banning abortions doesn’t mean that there are no more abortions happening, just that the safe methods have stopped. Unsafe abortions are one of the top five leading causes of maternal mortality despite it being the most preventable. In the US, one out of four women will have an abortion in her lifetime despite 90% of counties not having abortion providers due to conservative policies. The southern parts of the US have large numbers of clinics shutting down because of the social pressure and of laws being passed which add hurdles to their practice. Bans on abortions also disproportionately affect the BIPOC community, as these communities have the lowest levels of access to healthcare and therefore are at high risk for seeking unsafe abortions. In the past 10 years, the nearly 500 laws passed restricting access to abortions govern women’s rights and limit their bodily autonomy. These laws implemented to “protect” lives realistically just put more lives at risk, the restrictions on abortions do not prevent them from happening, and the cost of providing care from unsafe abortions costs more than the cost on an abortion in the first place.
Impact of Unrealistic Beauty Standards
Women are held to impossible standards that are falsely created and represented in the media. 80% of women do not like how they look. Between professional models paired with filters and further editing, the beauty standards set for women are physically unattainable. This leads to women having complicated relationships with their body, ranging from neutral to loathing their reflection – and those women who are content or happy with themselves are shamed by being called narcissistic and full of themselves. The body image issues manifest in many ways. Many women develop eating disorders and adopt unhealthy diets, which cause physical harm as well as further mental health issues. The perception of self is completely destroyed as it is unattainable to meet the standards set by the media, and confidence levels amongst women drop as body dissatisfaction is on the rise. Physical and emotional health are put at risk when body discontent leads to depression, adoption of unhealthy weight loss practices, restrained eating and poor self-esteem. This in turn affects a woman’s entire life and can socially limit her because of the shame felt for not conforming to the conventional beauty standards set by the media. This is especially prominent amongst teenage girls who are more susceptible and vulnerable to the pressures of the media. Self-esteem and body issues are some of the most prominent forms of anxiety amongst teens, and the associated mental health issues as well as the physical damage caused by diet culture and media leaves a lasting impact.
Needed Action Against the Policing of Women's Bodies
As shown through the information on the history, representation, and harmful impacts of the policing of women’s bodies, there still needs to be a lot of work before women can gain complete independence. Government policies in the US need to change so that abortions are more easily accessible, or else women will continue to seek unsafe abortions. In movies as well as books, there needs to be a better example of female representation which does not police women. In news coverage, more women need to be included as sources in the discussion of a woman’s body instead of men. With social media heavily influencing young girls, there needs to be a change in the unrealistic beauty standards set on women. However, continuing the use of social media as a platform to push for pro-choice activism could lead the way towards full female bodily autonomy in the future.
- Battered Women's Support Services. (2015, April 08). Beauty and body image in the media. Retrieved April 08, 2021, from https://www.bwss.org/beauty-and-body-image-in-the-media/
- Paquette, M., & Raine, K. (2004, February 03). Sociocultural context of women's body image. Retrieved April 08, 2021, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953603007020?casa_token=1zR3
- Center for Reproductive Rights. (2021, April 06). United States. Retrieved April 08, 2021, from https://reproductiverights.org/our-regions/united-states/
- Friedman, J. (2017, November 08). Stop policing women's sexuality. Retrieved April 08, 2021, from https://time.com/5015027/stop-policing-womens-sexuality/
- Flavin, J. (2009). Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America. New York: NYU Press.
- Parenthood, P. (n.d.). Where is Abortion Illegal?: Abortion Limits by State. Retrieved April 7, 2021, from https://www.plannedparenthoodaction.org/abortion-access-tool/US
- Chaurasia, P. (2013). Beauty Standards. In P. L. Mason (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Race and Racism (2nd ed., Vol. 1, pp. 216-220). Macmillan Reference USA. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/CX4190600065/GVRL?u=ubcolumbia&sid=GVRL&xid=27593b9c
- Reitman, Jason. (2007). Juno. Fox Searchlight Pictures.
- Atwood, M. (1985). The Handmaid's Tale. Virago.
- Armstrong, C. L., & Boyle, M. P. (2011). Views from the margins: News coverage of women in abortion protests, 1960-2006. Mass Communication & Society, 14(2), 153-177. https://doi.org/10.1080/15205431003615901
- Henriques, M., & Patnaik, D. (2020, September 21). Social Media and Its Effects on Beauty. Retrieved from https://www.intechopen.com/online-first/social-media-and-its-effects-on-beauty
- Whaley, N., & Brandt, J. (2017). Claiming the Abortion Narrative: A Qualitative Exploration of Mainstream and Social Media Reflections on Abortion. (pp. 159-171). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-60417-6_10 0tBnhDQAAAAA%3ARcM6cOikryw7exJvGOn8R-qoSjyi1NRjxfrzHvN_EqqHIrjRwb4GQ8KZXgwkvHzoFQrNFdgaLQ
- Glenza, J. (2020, January 21). Will 2020 be the year abortion is banned in the US? Retrieved April 08, 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/20/us-abortion-rights-ban-2020
- Doctors Without Borders. (2015). Unsafe abortion: A forgotten emergency. Retrieved April 08, 2021, from https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/what-we-do/news-stories/story/unsafe-abortion-forgotten-emergency
- Guttenmacher Institute. (2018, November 27). Abortion before and after legalization. Retrieved April 08, 2021, from https://www.guttmacher.org/perspectives50/abortion-and-after-legalization#
- Global Fund For Women. (2019, December 03). U.S.'s extreme Anti-Abortion policies Put women's lives at RISK – in the U.S. and around the globe. Retrieved April 08, 2021, from https://www.globalfundforwomen.org/alabama-abortion-ban/
- Gallivan, H. R. (2016). Teens, Social Media And Body Image. Retrieved from https://www.macmh.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/18_Gallivan_Teens-social-media-body-image-presentation-H-Gallivan-Spring-2014.pdf