TSA full-body scans

In October, my little family flew to visit my dad, his wife, my brother, and his wife. While we waited in line to go through security, we saw this image on a sign, which aimed to make travelers feel more comfortable about the full-body scan they might be asked to undergo:

male and female scans, front and back

This image didn’t comfort me. It icked me out. First of all, I am particularly concerned with controlling my own body (who sees it, who touches it), so the idea of the scan made me personally uncomfortable.

But my larger reaction was: hello? TSA? You don’t get it.

The people in that image? The skinny, able-bodied, apparently cisgendered woman and man? The ones you imagine as ‘normal’? Those are not the people with the most to fear here; they’re not the people who need the most comforting. Trangendered people have something to worry about. Disabled people have something to worry about. Fat people have something to worry about–if only in the unbelievably hateful rhetoric you’ll find in people’s comments if you are so rash as to google “full body scan tsa fat” (I’ll summarize: what about the poor TSA agents who have to look at scans of disgusting fat people? oh no yucky!). Menstruating women may have something to worry about. Survivors of sexual assault and molestation have something to worry about, in the loss of control over who looks at and creates images of their bodies. (Now, of course either or both people in the image may have experienced sexual violence–we can’t tell–but the point is that that’s not represented as possibly at issue in the context of the sign, or in the larger context of [what I've seen of] the TSA’s communications with the traveling public.) And so forth. None of these issues of power and norms and marginalization was addressed or even acknowledged in this image or in the text that accompanied it.

Barbie and Ken there in the sample scan image don’t look like average travelers, let alone like many of the individuals most likely to feel marginalized and/or vulnerable with regard to this application of technology. And the representation of these two bodies as the norm (don’t you look just like that?!?) cannot possibly help. Setting aside the issue of whether the scans are effective and/or appropriate tools for security, I’m troubled by the total lack of understanding and compassion this little sign suggested.

(See also: “Just bleed all over the airport–it’s safer” (& comments) at Feminist Philosophers and “One Take on TSA” at Women’s Health News.)

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  1. Posted 7 December 2010 at 9:43 PM | Permalink

    These scans are scary on so many levels.
    I also can’t help but wonder, what the hell would the TSA agent think if I was scanned while using my menstrual cup?

    • Molly
      Posted 7 December 2010 at 10:14 PM | Permalink

      My understanding is that the current scans don’t show objects inside body cavities–so, disposable or cloth pads would be visible to the ‘reader’, while tampons and (awesometastic) menstrual cups would not show up. I’m not so sure about the tampon’s string or the menstrual cup’s (what would you call it? um …) stem, which is at least partly external. I would think that the cup’s stem would look pretty weird and unexpected to most TSA agents if it were visible at all.

    • Lina
      Posted 15 February 2012 at 5:33 PM | Permalink

      I’m having the same concern right now! I’ll be flying this week and am trying to figure out if my cup will show up in the scan. I doubt a TSA agent would know what a cup is, and I hope it doesn’t end in an embarrassing search.

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