By: Sophie Bartsich
In medical school, we learned anatomy by studying cadavers, the bodies of people who had donated themselves to science. At the end of the semester, we held a ceremony to thank the people who had helped us to learn. One of my colleagues gave a short speech in which she accurately stated, “Your body is the only thing that you truly and completely own. Thank you for sharing.” I had never thought about it that way before, but it impressed me to consider what life would look like if you had no ownership over yourself, specifically over what happened with your own physical form.
As an American woman who has had every advantage, I can vote, marry, divorce, drive a car, write a letter, have male friends, be a surgeon, wear what I want, and speak out when necessary. I’ve been able to educate myself, travel the world, and choose a profession that empowers me and is driven by a personal passion. There is no question of the privilege I have known, and no end to my appreciation of it. What I really wonder, though, is what would I do if these freedoms were threatened in a meaningful way? Would I have the courage to change a world that seems unchangeable? Have we really come as far as we think we have?
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I have had the opportunity to live abroad in several different countries, and I remember the fantasies that led me to travel there in the first place. Each country I went to seemed initially idyllic, provoking me to pick up the local language, adopt the customs, and daydream of one day moving to this new town for good. But a few months into each of these adventures, I remember that moment when I switched from vacationer to inhabitant, and the realities of that new world became evident. I was not supposed to be out after dark without a male relative or fiancé. I was teased for wanting to bartend, since what I really should have been doing was cooking at home. I was followed in the street for a stranger’s entertainment, and sometimes threatened. After enough of these adventures, I always returned home a little disillusioned and very grateful, wondering why I had never noticed any of it before.
As a plastic surgeon, I spend a lot of time measuring people against aesthetic standards. But I also spend a lot of time helping people take ownership of their bodies, whether transformative, restorative, or therapeutic. The relationships that people have with their own bodies are layered and complicated, riddled with emotion and identity. The process of physical self-realization is so liberating, so underestimated, that it often gets minimized into vanity. Feeling right “in your own skin,” as they say in French, transcends work life and personal life; and it sets a stage of confidence and ownership that is self-validating. But this too is not possible without the freedom of truly owning your own form.
The sobering reality is that body image and body ownership remain huge problems in our world. Whether the struggle is political or personal, religious or cultural, there is still a huge barrier to true self-ownership here and abroad. If you consider the added issues of childhood and gender, it is hard to say how many people truly have control of their own destinies, or even the option of making their own decisions. It is with that in mind that I became an ambassador for Beauty for Freedom, an organization determined to end human trafficking worldwide. Through powerful campaigns and strong partnerships, they lend a voice to the voiceless and sharpen our own glasses on the world, where freedom largely remains elusive; and through my involvement in their efforts I keep myself grounded and grateful in this media-bound environment.
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One could argue that plastic surgery belies the freedom to just be as you are. I argue that you can’t always control who or how you are, and there should be no judgment on your choices of what that means to you. The wonderful thing about owning your body is being able to decide what you want it to look and feel like, as the vehicle that you use to move through the world. There should be no ownership of your being other than your own, and no challenge to that ownership from elsewhere. Claiming one’s physical identity is a necessary step toward personal freedom, and personal freedom is beauty.