You'd think this would be common sense, but apparently not. In fact, based on anecdotal evidence, I'd say that a larger percentage of people understand the Boltzmann Distribution* than understand that someone else's body is private mental property.
I went to a lot of camps over the course of my childhood and young adulthood. Ballet camp, gymnastics camp, theatre camp, another sort of theatre camp, sixteen-year-olds running a camp for four-year-olds out of their parents' house camp (we made Play-Doh from scratch), puppetry camp (ya, rly), shitty Catholic elementary school excuse for summer daycare where I was thoroughly traumatized at the tender age of 5 camp, Shakespeare camp (not to be confused with generic theatre camp), all-girls sleep away camp, nerd camp (Georgia Governor's Honors Program), and of course, eating disorder camp.
That last "camp" is most relevant to this blog, obviously, but so are some of the others, particularly ballet and gymnastics camps, as you might have guessed. When I was eight, my verbally abusive (called second graders fat, in public) ballet instructor wanted to put me on pointe. (That's WAY too young.) Between that and being called fat, and being screamed at all the damn time, I told my mom, not in so many words, "Fuck this." She told me, in so many words, "You quit everything," and not in so many words, "I don't believe you about Miss Jan." In my mom's defense, I was a drama princess from the word Go, so I don't blame her at all for thinking that I was fabricating the things Miss Jan said. What do you know, but fourteen years later my mom and I run into the owner of the ballet studio, Miss Lee, at Lincoln Center. (If I'd had Miss Lee instead of Miss Jan, I'd probably be a dancer, FTR. No kidding. She was such a wonderful woman and teacher, when I had her, the kind who couldn't help but imbue her pupils with the love and respect she felt for dance.) What does Miss Lee say when we mention Miss Jan but, "Oh dear. She was a mistake. I'm so sorry you had her. I remember that you should have been with me." After some pleasantries, my mom and I sauntered along to see The Light in the Piazza and Miss Lee and the two dancers with her went to the NYC Ballet performance that evening. My mom turned to me and acknowledged, "Well, you were right about Miss Jan, huh?" I couldn't really reply without sounding slightly bitter, so I commented on the play bill.
Miss Jan in particular (and ballet and dance in general) is a personally compelling example of people taking the false premise of the Public Property Body to the extreme. She's also an instance of the passing on of the Public Property Body idea into the subconsciousness of her students. Tell me how an eight-year-old is supposed to set up mental defenses against an authority figure - one whose authority is based around movements of the body - who tells her that her body is open to comment, criticism, and correction? "Straighten your leg" or "point those toes" are in one category, of course, and that category is called "Ballet." "You're getting a pot belly" and "suck in your gut" are in a totally different category, and that is called "Child Abuse." Especially when the eight-year-old in question does not have a pot belly, or a gut, or saddlebags, or what have you. But you tell me how eight-year-olds are supposed to retain the idea that their bodies are not open for comment and criticism when they hear this week after week?
Move out from the specific instance of a specific ballet instructor, and widen your scope to see all the strangers who comment on pregnant women's bodies. (A non-stranger example: My FIL to my SIL recently: "Boy, I just have to say, you look so much better with this pregnancy than you did with [my nephew]. You looked so big an uncomfortable last time!" My SIL: "Oh, FIL." Me: "FIL, are you kidding?") Think of the last friend or family member you saw for the first time in a while. Did one or both of you immediately launch into, "You look great!" or "You've lost weight!"? And, naturally, look at any of the magazines in the grocery store's checkout line. Don't even get me started.
We've got to fight this, in others and in ourselves. We've got to war against the socialized impulse to claim subconscious ownership or control of others' bodies, and to allow it of our own, because ownership is what it comes down to. Think about it: what on earth would possess you to comment on someone's body (whether to their face or behind their back) if you weren't on some level sure that it was yours to comment upon? Why would you be socially trained to tell someone, "You look great!" instead of, "You seem so happy!" unless you'd been taught to believe something insidious about their body, your opinions, and their life? You don't have to agree with me here, and you're more than welcome to decide I'm hyperbolizing and on about nothing here, but just think about it next time you catch yourself looking at an overweight person and thinking about their body, or the next time you see a pregnant woman sampling bleu cheese at Whole Foods. Just take a step back and think about it, and see where your reactions are really coming from, whatever they are. You might be surprised.
*If I think about this one too hard, I become convinced that I can feel my skin molecules colliding with each other and constantly changing velocity. And no, I do not smoke pot.