Full Body Scanners: Exploring issues of privacy and body image

December 25th, 2010

In a special to the Washington Post December 22, 2010 Libby Copeland exposes how changes in technology and security are affecting our sense of self. An excerpt:

“We are more naked, as a nation, than we’ve ever been. We are forever baring our souls, revealing the mundane and the sacred. We are naked in our curiosity about the semi-famous and the strange, we are naked in our aspirations (to be semi-famous, even for something strange), we are naked online – or, at least, considerably more exposed than we tend to realize.

All of which may help explain why most Americans seem unconcerned about those full-body airport scanners, the ones that see under your clothes. In an existential sense, we are used to this sort of thing. Go on, take a gander, we seem to be saying. We have nothing to hide….

To understand why so many of us opt in when confronted by full-body scanners – 99 percent, according to Sterling Payne, a TSA spokeswoman – first consider why a vocal minority opts out.

“I simply do not trust the TSA to keep those images private,” says Boston area columnist and TV commentator Michele McPhee, who in November chose one of those enhanced pat-downs over a full-body scanner at Logan International Airport. “The last thing I want is my naked image all over the place in Boston.”

The fear of being exposed is a theme that comes up constantly in interviews with those suspicious of full-body scanners.

That’s not the only thing they talk about, of course; they talk about government intrusion and constitutional rights, about health concerns over scanner radiation, about the ways in which they see airport security as reactive, ineffective. They talk about the building indignities of airplane travel.

They talk about control and the sense of having to choose between two unhappy options, the scanner or the pat-down. (Regarding the latter: “You probably could’ve sold this on the Internet as soft porn,” says McPhee, who, to be fair, is known for her bombast. “It could’ve definitely been on Skinemax.”)

But most of all they talk about a sense of privacy squandered, a sense of being vulnerable in deeply personal terms. They use the word “humiliating” a lot, and the word “dignity”…..

…There is the fear of not being attractive or of being too attractive, of being ridiculed or ogled. There is the fear that all the things we do to smooth and minimize ourselves, all of the adornments that contribute to the formation of our public selves, are undone by a full-body scanner, that we will be seen in all our secret ugliness…

…So, yes, the vast majority of us will continue to go through the full-body scanners. We will do it most of all because we hope the new technology makes us safer, but also because we’re in a rush, because we don’t want to make a fuss, because we don’t want to find out just how “enhanced” a pat-down can be, because we don’t even know what a full-body scanner is. We will do it because we’ve been inured to giving up things when we go to the airport, and it stinks, sure, but this is the price of flying in a scary age. We will do it because thinkingly or unthinkingly we have concluded this is a good bargain…”

Click here to read the rest of the article.
Image by Jason Reed/Reuters of protester at National Airport.

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