Adolescence, Bodily Integrity And The Manifestations Of Agency

Bodily integrity, a current controversy, is said to be the inviolability of the physical body. Essentially, the physical body of one person should not be subject to the infringement by another person - it should not be touched or interfered with, without the consent of the person whose body it is.

Fundamentally, each person, even children, have the right to autonomy as well as self-determination over their own body.  Bodily integrity is a right that speaks to agency one exercises over their own body and is subject to each’s expression over their body.

Social scientists argue this to be the most important civil right, making its violation require justification to a greater extent than interference with autonomy. Bodily integrity is specifically about the self, whereas autonomy relates more to decisions about the self. It enhances any claims to bodily autonomy. Bodily integrity interacts with bodily autonomy, and are usually used interchangeably by the courts, but the two concepts differ. Body autonomy is the exercise of one’s choices and decisions over their own body. A person’s subjectivity and/or agency is experienced through the body, which can be enhanced and is fluid.

Our bodies are sites of our subjectivity. Our minds are primarily protected by freedoms of expression, religion, association and assembly, whereas our bodies – over which we exercise autonomy and agency – are protected by the assurance of the right to bodily integrity.

The above constructs are no different for the developmental stage of adolescence. One might argue that it is particularly critical that at this stage, these rights, their value as well as those of consent and informed consent, have to be concretised, ensuring that they are well understood, observed and encouraged.  Agency is an aspect of autonomy. It is the aspect that speaks to the ways one sees themselves. Liberal philosophy agency, also referred to as self-definition, is a process in which one has to differentiate or distinguish themselves, their values, and sense of self, from those imposed on them. Socio-politically, there is need to reflect on social norms imposed on adolescents. Some negative cultural, social and religious norms imposed on adolescents, and particularly about their bodies, their competence and power over their bodies, and judgement over them is a means by which adolescents are oppressed and stifled.

As explored in the last piece, it is at the stage of adolescence that the adolescent discovers their newly ‘sexed’ bodies, and in learning their new bodies, they often feel a need to ensure that the rest of the world fully understands the boundaries they are learning to enforce around said bodies. It is an exercise of agency over the body and the assertion of one’s decision-making powers over the same.

As outlined in the previous article, adolescence is a crucial stage of development and the second opportunity to organise/re-organise an individual’s mind, manner of establishing relationships, and a way of dealing with emotional and interpersonal conflicts. It requires an arduous work of symbolic representation of the changes introduced by puberty. The integration of the genital body in a renewed self-image, the shaping of identity, and the experience of subjectivity are all unavoidable tasks in the adolescent development. The adolescent body becomes the chief emissary of the psyche and, therefore, the central axis of this extraordinary complex process.

Adolescents need to feel that they are the owners of their genital bodies in order to gain access to a representation of themselves as sexed beings and the acknowledgement of their bodies as different, and separate from, the body of others. In other words, adolescents need to ‘busy themselves’ with their bodies in order to take possession of them and emotionally experience them.

Adolescents, whose bodies begin to transform independently from their will stand up for their right to freely dispose of them. They need to impose their marks upon their bodies through new ways of dressing, of tattoos, piercing, or even certain private or collective rituals.  These expressions may respond to a wish to break with all previous experiences, a way to symbolise change in the attempt to re-appropriate themselves on their new bodies, or the need to belong to a group of peers through shared signals. However, we should not ignore that some of these behaviours, in particular when they become radicalised and extreme, are pathological.

The above happens when adolescents are unable to work through the new impulses and changes, and resort to using their bodies as a screen where fantasies and emotional pain is projected and acted upon. Examples include adolescents who cut themselves and those with eating disorders.  An adolescent with an eating disorder would scream: ‘When they make me gain weight, they take something away from me, and I am no longer myself. If they admit me into a hospital and fatten me up, I will lose weight when I get out because that is how I want to be, I do not care if I die. I have the right to be like this!’.

This quote encapsulates a common experience of desperate adolescents who want to assert their bodily right, and go as far as expressing it through the right to destroy their bodies. In such scenarios, parents, teachers, family members and community members should contact health care professionals such as clinical psychologists who can help the adolescent address the underlying emotional distress and assert themselves and their bodies in a healthy manner.

Batetshi Matenge has a Masters in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) from the University of Cape Town. She runs a private practice and sees adolescents, adults and couples. Batetshi’s professional interests include working with severe psychopathology, trauma, group analytic therapy and parent-infant psychotherapy. In addition to clinical work, Batetshi is passionate about advocacy and activism work within Mental Health. Batetshi was a member of the professional team that participated in the Life Esidimeni tragedy in South Africa and contributed to the landmark legal award.

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