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This paper aims to present and discuss the representation of the female body from three different perspectives - the historical, the biological and the cultural, with special focus on the unique female organ -the uterus.
The presented views have been mostly based on analysing the excerpts from works by Barbara Ehrenreich and Desidre English, Germain Greer, Emily Martin, Natalie Angier and Anne Sexton; the subtitles in the paper refer to the studied chapters.
The historical approach points to a perception of the body through the lens of its reproductive functions, disregarding the psyche of the woman and her needs. The body served as a machine and such attitude was reflected in its treatment, as well as in the scientific hypotheses concerning the biological processes (menstruation, ovulation, menopause, birth).
The section discussing the biological view has been divided into two parts; the first pertains to Emily Martin's observations about the female body, its perception by women themselves, and the cultural denotations that the scientific findings carry. The second part concerns a more strictly biological representation of the body, described by Natalie Angier, with special attention paid to the process of menstruation seen as a female phenomenon.
The cultural aspect is shown through the analysis of Anne Sexton's poem, ”In Celebration of my Uterus”. The poem integrates women's spirituality with sexuality and creativity with procreativity, praising the womb as a factor uniting women around the world.
What surfaces as important is the observation that the two discourses, scientific and cultural, are extremely difficult to separate. No scientific discoveries or claims can be perceived without the cultural context, which simply provides the social interpretation in relation to the situation of a certain time period.
THE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
American men ”have bred a race of women weak enough to be handed about like invalids; or mentally weak enough to pretend they are - and to like it” (Ehrenreich, 19). With this quotation Charlotte Perkins Gilman summarised the condition of women in the mid-19th century and in the beginnings of the 20th. 'Female invalidism' was a term coined to point to a cultural excuse for justifying the 'fashionable' headaches and 'nerves' women would experience or would be expected to experience in that time period.
In fact, they were exposed to many dangerous illnesses, especially tuberculosis (TB), to which hormonal changes during puberty and pregnancy would make them more vulnerable. Nevertheless, not only the ailments themselves were perceived as a threat to women's health but also, in the medical view, all female functions were presented as inherently sick. Puberty was seen as crisis - the female organism thrown into turmoil, menstruation seemed pathological throughout the whole life, pregnancy was an ”indisposition” and menopause - the final, incurable ill, the ”death of the woman in the woman” (Ehrenreich, 21). Such were the cultural projections of the incomplete scientific knowledge in those times.
The supposedly feminine features - ”bright eyes, translucent skin, red lips” (Ehrenreich, 23) - which were a result of TB, were believed to be an extreme of beauty. Therefore, sickness began to be perceived as feminine, which then led to the myth of female frailty. It helped to disqualify women as healers and in return made them highly qualified as patients - submissive and obedient with never-ending illnesses. And, as ”sickness was the very key to femininity” (Ehrenreich, 25), any counter-arguments by women doctors who argued menstruation did not interfere with women's activities, were dismissed accordingly.
The most basic physiological law - ”conservation of energy” - carried two postulates in science. Each human body was believed to be a set quantity of energy directed variously from one organ to another, which meant that one organ could only develop at the expense of another. And the second argument claimed that reproductivity was central to a woman's biological life. The socio-cultural implications of the theory for men meant that they did not jeopardise their reproductivity and intellectual functions. As they were to be 'doers, not breeders', they would have to be careful not to let sex drain away their energy which should be used in their mental activities. Women, on the other hand, ought to ”concentrate their physical energy internally, toward the womb” (Ehrenreich, 27). In practice it meant that women were socially 'denied' fulfilling any other functions in the society, apart from the reproductive and 'ornamental', that is, serving as ornaments to their husbands.
With such assumptions, it becomes evident that the uterus starts to define the woman and her grand purpose in life, which is reproduction. Scientific analysis and theories are used as evidence to support the notion. Therefore, it is only the body that is seen in the medical discourse, the 'woman-person' is not taken into account. The question of having the body and being (in) the body surfaces as important in the analysis of the historical perspective. It seemed the woman had the body but the man was in its possession by controlling it. As two aspects of women's roles in the society are clearly pointed out - the biological, i.e. reproduction and the cultural - serving as ornaments, the issue of being (in) the body has no substantial basis to be expanded. Women would not identify completely with their bodies because they were treated as objects in the scientific and social approach. With the focus on the womb, the woman herself would be muted and her experience - ignored.
The additional results of the ”sickness of the body” caused increased subordination to men. Women, having been invalidated in the light of science and medicine, were made dependent on their husbands. They were the only source of financial support and could provide the medical care. Even if a woman succeeded in subverting the cultural track of thinking and opted to behave according to her own values, she would then be perceived as abnormal or at least deviated from the 'standard' definition of a woman, present in the culture.
| ||Close-up: the uterus in focus || |
As the uterus was perceived as the controlling organ in the female body, the ovaries were seen as a source of all the disorders women would experience. The term ”psychology of the ovary” was coined to imply that ”all woman's 'natural' characteristics were directed from the ovaries, and any abnormalities - from irritability to insanity - could be attributed to some ovarian disease” (Ehrenreich, 30). This leads to a marked separation of reproductivity and sexuality, in reference to women. Reproductive powers and maternal instincts were denoted as unquestionable but sexual feelings were perceived as unwomanly or pathological. As a result, applying frequently brutal medical treatment of cases of ”personality disorders” was seen as the only cure. Surgical removal of the clitoris was exercised as a remedy for sexual arousal. This perception of the function of the clitoris appears to contradict the Freudian view 1of vagina as an organ responsible for 'a more mature' orgasm experienced by women.
Hysteria was described as ”the most confusing, mysterious and rebellious of diseases” (Ehrenreich, 40) with fits and fainting, hysterical laughing, screaming and crying being it symptoms. Associated obviously with the uterus ('hystera' - Greek for 'uterus') remained a mystery for a certain time. However, medical literature began to point to a ”taste for power” which was apparently experienced by women suffering from hysteria. The underlying notion was that of a possibility of women's revolt which could take that form. However, it seemed very unlikely. The more reasonable explanation of such behaviour would be that ”hysterical fits” were in fact the only socially acceptable outlet of emotions and energy. Nevertheless, it led to uphold the notion of women as inherently sick, with uterus being the source of diseases.
Germaine Greer expands the issue of the uterus and its functions, reflecting upon the knowledge about the ”immemorial womb” (Greer, 47), which seems to be purely academic. She ponders over the validity of the academic approach, drawing the attention to a lack of feedback from women themselves.
She emphasises the role of historical views in this field, which contributed to the contemporary2 perception. In the 17th century, the projection of the medical knowledge into culture resulted in the belief about ”the wandering womb”, previously called ”the Mother” by Hippocrates (Greer, 48). The apparent 'wandering', which supposedly was a cause for a girl having choked to death, was seen as due to hysteria. And, as hysteria was recognised as a disease of mainly unmarried women, or widows, ”a good husband” was thought to be the appropriate cure. What appears as a logical explanation of the ”womb-fear”, which was accompanied by the myth of its unknown powers, is in fact a reversal of the belief. Denying the nearly mythical status of the organ contributed to reviving the associations of the uterus with nearly all illnesses troubling women. With the womb being seen as insatiate, consequently women were thought to be utterly controlled by the reproductive mechanism. Any signs of it failing were thought responsible for increasing the female vulnerability to hysteria. And then women were again turned into weak patients at the mercy of their doctors and husbands.
When discussing menstruation, Greer argues that nature is a triumph of design and therefore menstruation, with all the taboos, cannot be seen as waste - nature would not waste anything in its precise plan of maintaining the system. Menstruating is also perceived as a process which does not involve any 'real pain'. Many doctors regard menstrual pains as ”discomfort” and this invokes a feeling of guilt in a girl who starts menstruating or in a woman who does feel pain. Greer further claims that no woman would menstruate voluntarily if she did not have to. Partly because of the discomfort and partly because of perceiving menstruation as ”divinely ordained” (Greer, 51). What is also interesting in her reasoning is the fact that she employs mechanical metaphors in reference to the female body (”system”, ”design”, ”plan”). Thus, the remaining question is whether women would still revolt against menstruation if culture did not see menstruation as unnecessary waste and their bodies as systems?
THE BIOLOGICAL VIEW
The historical perspective outlines an assumption that as women are ”equipped” with the reproductive function, they ought to accept it as an elevating and rewarding gift. The traditional approach with the icon of 'mother-earth' involves presenting the ”natural” as not profaned by technology, and therefore appropriate and culturally accepted. As pain is inevitably associated with giving birth, resisting or eliminating it (e.g. when screaming in labour) is meant to be incorrect. The social expectations of a role assigned to women throughout history concern even the most intimate and biological spheres by dictating women a prescribed behaviour in certain situations (e.g. giving birth).
What Emily Martin marks and stresses in her work, ”The Woman in the Body”3 , is the importance of the role anthropology plays in 'translating' the discoveries of science into the language of culture. It also served, and should still do, as a critical means of the scientific recognition of the body. The new connotations developed from such an understanding inevitably lead to new perceptions of personhood and denote the ways in which male and female bodies are involved in the power struggle.
The social perspective Martin describes operates with the division of social categories into three levels - the social whole, the ”person”, and the ”body”. The question remains whether such fragmentation of one ”whole” helps explain the cultural reception of the issue through the analysis of the elements or whether it rather obscures it.
The division between the bodily functions of women, which confined them to the realm of home, and the male physiology, which destined men to occupy the area of intellectual challenges, is transposed onto the division between the private and the public spheres. Women, defined through the function of their uterus, were associated with the private world of home where ”abstinence from labour [...] and sexuality” were the ”leading characteristics of femininity” (Martin, 16).
The ”natural” and ”bodily” functions connecting the woman with the family and the man with the ”cultural” and ”mental” world appear to justify ”the social stratification based on gender” (Martin, 17). Detaching the 'woman-person' from her body resulted in a perception in which she starts to fulfil the role of a reproductive machine. Martin argues that science employs the mechanical metaphors in reference to bodies in general to encourage the separation (and ignorance) of the self from the body and disregards any possible emotions. Discussing any feelings in the scientific discourse could be, and frequently was, perceived as a violation of the principles of description, not to mention the idea that 'demonstrating' emotions was interpreted as 'typically feminine'. And this, in consequence, would lead to creating a biased model of behaviour.
By treating the body as an object, women further loosen any bonds tying their feelings to the body. The fragmentation into body parts causes a supposedly more detailed analytical approach in science but it leads to accepting ”the male-biased model of human nature”. Avoiding difficulties and discharging the cultural context is helpful in establishing such a model where the role of a reproductive organ has not been in question in the past. The common tendency to think of science as objective and independent from culture seems to be no longer easily justified. Dismissing the cultural stand, which concerns the search for the 'truth about human nature', does not appeal as convincing or valid anymore.
Another argument pointing to the importance of the cultural analysis of the scientific discourse concerns the language used by women themselves when describing e.g. menstrual periods. The socially embedded stigma and shame when ”having a period” point to the taboo areas which are not 'commonly' discussed. This contributes further to splitting the body into parts and detaching the self from them, as if to build a border between what is deeply inner, thus inaccessible to others, and between that which carries additional meaning of 'waste' and 'uncleanness' in culture.
| ||The Embodiment of Oppositions || |
Fragmentation means a lack of a sense of autonomy, which appears necessary for a social unit to function within the society, without feeling obliged to search for a completion of the fractional self. The mechanical metaphors employed in the scientific discourse mark the women as 'labourers' working with their 'machines' (the uterus) in the process of 'production' (reproduction) under the supervision of a 'manager' (a doctor).
Basil Bernstein4 distinguished two linguistic codes, one of which gives science a special status. The elaborated code describes events 'objectively' and independently of context while the restricted is context-dependent. With such a division, it is easy to notice that the above metaphorical descriptions fall into the category of the first. Therefore, this apparent argument for the ”objectification” of science seems to stress a point that science is context-free, being a part of the elaborated code. Its use, Bernstein argues, is necessary for achieving transformation of the social order. As a result, medical science giving 'facts' ignores women's perception and produces a record of events frequently very different from their experience. Women, therefore, embody the contradictions of the dominant ideology that juxtaposes their biological functions with their cultural representations and neglects their experience.
A pregnant or menstruating woman, who is working (having entered the traditionally male domain), is often seen as ”an embarrassment, an offence” (Martin, 197) through the lens of the collective cultural consciousness. And this contributes to further alienation between the self and the body. The latter with its processes is described in negative terms such as 'decay' or 'waste' in reference to e.g. menstruation. Therefore, the struggle to maintain a balance, achieve autonomy and reject deprecating models is present in the lives of the majority of women, even if many of them adapt alternative views of their body images.
Women tied down to their bodies, associated usually with their biological functions - menstruation, birth, menopause - become a special category of ”women”. In the mentioned 'capitalist view' of the body, the body itself turns into a signalling system with the aim of reproduction and with mechanical reparation as a means of fixing any breakdowns. ”Women” remain merely the ”owners” of the systems; the full identification with their 'outer cover' is denied.
However, women can unavoidably devise more positive images of themselves and their bodies through reading literature and scientific discourse which does not convey such destructive images.
| ||2) Close-up: sociobiology || |
When discussing the relations between science and culture with the focus on the female body and its representation in both discourses, it is vital to emphasise the role of sociobiology.
”Sociobiology is the systematic study of the biological basis of social behaviour”5. The term was popularised by the American biologist Edward Wilson in his book ”Sociobiology: The New Synthesis” (1975). Sociobiology attempts to understand and explain animal (and human) social behaviour in the light of natural selection and other biological processes. One of its central tenets is that genes (and their transmission through successful reproduction) are the central motivators in animals' struggle for survival, and that animals will behave in ways that maximise their chances of transmitting copies of their genes to succeeding generations. Since behaviour patterns are to some extent inherited, the evolutionary process of natural selection can be said to foster those behavioural (as well as physical) traits that increase an individual's chances of reproducing.
”Sociobiology can in some cases explain the differences between male and female behaviour in certain animal species as resulting from the different strategies the sexes must resort to in order to transmit their genes to posterity. Sociobiology is more controversial, however, when it attempts to explain various human social behaviours in terms of their adaptive value for reproduction” (the Internet5).
Concerning the ongoing debate about sociobiology, which has also been named evolutionary psychology, Natalie Angier sheds a new light on the issues concerning female bodies in the biological discourse.
”The womb does not define a woman, philosophically, biologically or even etymologically. A woman does not need to be born with a uterus to be a woman, nor does she have to keep her uterus to remain a woman” (Angier, 90). This appears to be the motto of the analysed chapter, which Angier seems to prove as correct in her reasoning.
”The uterus was and is a magnificent invention, a revolution in physiology” (Angier, 91), therefore, it is important to consider the arguments making it a wonderful creation of Nature. Approaching it from the biological perspective, the organ's role as primal mother cannot be denied but the functions connected with it are of a special interest in this analysis. Its contradictory 'states' of having to be rich yet affordable, labile yet stable and co-operating with the net of all other 'agents and devices' present in the body, can already point to its uniqueness. Furthermore, it is the only organ that can grow in adulthood and one of the few which negotiates its 'position' in between the processes of menstruation and ovulation. It is also a ”privileged place, a dome apart, where the fetus will not be ejected by the body's xenophobic immune cells” (Angier, 92). Its status as an important organ (apart from the reproductive function) is raised by a suggestion that it in a way has a life of its own. It is a part of the body, yet being independent. The uterus is not ”an immobile stone” (Angier, 93) but neither is it ”wandering”6 when frantic. Instead, it adjusts itself to the position of the woman at a certain point in time. But its most astounding quality is that of changing shape and size during pregnancy. It increases its volume about a thousand percent - no other organ undergoes such distinct transformations ”unless it is diseased” (Angier, 94). This unusual quality was difficult to accept by science, which, with its attempts to achieve an 'objective stand' and to set standards, frequently associated abnormalities and illnesses with this organ. Hence, the rational justification in the light of the evolutionary adaptation has to pay tribute to the unequalled qualities of the organ and not to dismiss it by reviving its negative connotations.
Being an exceptional part of the female body, the uterus shares certain aspects related to the working of the heart. In each case, pulsating through deep rhythms and oscillations makes the organ the source of life and a ”perceptible natural pacemaker” (Angier, 95). Another characteristic is the association with blood. Menstruation is the way the uterus is first experienced by a woman. Apart from the mentioned features it has, no average woman is aware of them unless she is a professional biologist or a doctor. But in the case of menstruation - it is a process the majority of women share in their experience, and is accompanied by previous projections or suppositions as to what actually happens 'inside'. The most common association is of passivity or decay, with the anticipatory phase of the cycle being perceived as the only active process, which is obviously connected with preparing the endometrium for (possibly) receiving the fertilised egg.
Most of the convictions women have about menstruation can be attributed to the influence culture had upon them in the past. The historical opinions7 , having been presented as 'scientific', concern one of the greatest mysteries - the reason for blood-shedding. The explanations given varied distinctly but none were really supported with any evidence. Aristotle believed that the blood was the excess which had not been incorporated into the fetus. Galen claimed that the menstrual blood was the surplus of blood in food, which women were not able to digest because of their bodies being smaller than men's were. And, last but not least, Hippocrates believed that the blood contained all impurities which had to be expelled; men would dissipate them through sweat.
Other opinions pertain to a belief that the menstrual blood was toxic, which in consequence led to assuming that ”the noxious fumes they [women] exude [can] make meat go bad, wine turn sour, bread dough fall, mirrors darken and knives become blunt” (Angier, 96). The ”toxicity myth” is still present in many cultures, especially those with strong or fundamental religions - an Orthodox Jew can, for example, refuse being examined by a female doctor, if he has the suspicion she might be menstruating and could thus possibly 'pollute' or 'infect' him. The positive side of menstrual blood-shedding usually denoted using the blood for therapeutic purposes - to treat e.g. gout or, naturally, menstrual disorders.
With all the myths and taboos about menstruation, it is unavoidable to attempt and deconstruct the elevated pyramid, built by passing down the traditional beliefs from generation to generation. And Angier undertakes this task, submitting notions which show that menstruation is in fact very dynamic, just as in biology ”dying is as active as living” (Angier, 99). The first view in this matter is held by an evolutionary biologist, Margie Profet, whose line of argument Angier presents in her discussion.
Profet describes menstruation as an adaptation in the evolution by natural selection. This ”product of design” is highly economic, precise and efficient, and, if it were purely a by-product of the hormonal cycle, then there would be no mechanisms specially devised to cause it. And the two she talks about are the 'corkscrew' arteries and the quality of blood. The first mechanism regulates and 'supervises' the process while the second prevents the blood from clotting. But, operating within the cost-benefit analysis, Profet decided that menstruation is an exceptionally expensive process. Shedding blood involves an increased loss of calories and important nutrients, which could make women less efficient in reproduction, or could even lead to tearing of the uterine lining, narrowing down the possibilities of future conception. Consequently, the reasonable justification she gives for such a costly process is that menstruation is a defence mechanism of the body's immune system. Bleeding is the ”uterus's solution to the perils of internal fertilisation” and a remedy for eliminating any dangerous pathogens that could have entered the system together with sperm (Angier, 102). The exterior shedding of blood is also a preventative means of not recycling the old and unnecessary tissue.
Profet's hypotheses were refuted by other gynaecologists, whose main argument was that menstruation is a time of month during which women are most susceptible to bacterial infections, such as chlamydia. Although they offered no research evidence to support the claim, neither, unfortunately, did Profet. But the challenge of rediscovering and re-examining the process was taken up by Beverly Strassman from the University of Michigan, who proposed alternative explanations. Her dominant (and different from Profet's) observation was that ”the perpetual death and rebirth of the uterine lining is cheaper than maintaining the uterus in fertile form” (Angier, 105). She claimed that the uterine lining, when being in the 'peak form' uses seven times more oxygen than when being at its thinnest, after menstruation. The need for oxygen translates into the need for calories and if there is no embryo to appear, then all of it becomes very expensive to sustain, in terms of energy. Strassman's estimations point to a fact that ”in four months of cycling, a woman saves an amount of energy equal to six days' worth of food over what she would have needed to stoke a perpetually active endometrium” (Angier, 105). All her claims are supported with calculations, and the evidence she collected showed that there were no significant differences in the bacterial load present in various phases of the menstrual cycle, which therefore denies Profet's assumption about the defence mechanism function.
Having presented two lines of argument, both aiming to explain the mystery of menstruation, it is important to highlight two layers distinguishable in the reasoning - the ”how” and the ”why”. The ”how” of the process seems to have been an object of scientific research for a long time but it is only recently (1990s) that the ”why” side of the study has been taken into focus. And this certainly is connected with the fact that medicine and science seem to become less the domain of men only but has also begun to include women. In the past, scientists were almost exclusively male and this did not contribute to a further and deeper analysis of the reasons of this ”strictly female phenomenon” (Angier, 101).
Nevertheless, whichever hypothesis seems most convincing, Angier does not give an answer that would undeniably and undisputedly resolve the ongoing debate. What she does instead is expose the sociobiological dimension of the discussion. ”Nature's economy lies above all in making maximum use of what is [...] the adaptation of an organ or system to multiple uses (pleoaptation)” (Angier, 107). Menstruation may be a pleoaptation because it is protective and efficient but as ”we can make of these qualities what we will, let us celebrate them” (Angier, 108). And, as the inability to menstruate is frequently perceived as missing something extraordinary of the female odyssey 8, as the first period is often perceived as a 'sweet secret' and a transition from childhood to adulthood, then ”let us celebrate” the female body's proof of power. This is the new cultural projection of one of the most prominent female biological processes which through a more careful selection of language conveys a much more positive image than the one reflected in the historical approach.
THE CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE
| ||In celebration of the Uterus || |
Anne Sexton's poem ”In Celebration of My Uterus”9 contributes to constructing the positive representation reverberated in culture. Sexton was one of the first poets who entered the tabooed area of praising the female body and its processes, equating its sexuality with spirituality and creativity with procreativity.
The first part of the poem is an address to the womb, personified and denoted as a living being. A mixture in the use of the term 'uterus' and 'womb'10 exposes the additional connotations of the latter in culture. It is not an object whose future lies in the hands of the 'professionals'. The speaker marks distancing herself from the representatives of medicine and science by referring to them as 'they' and thus alienating them from the context.
They wanted to cut you out
but they will not.
She is the one who will decide about the fate of the womb, present inside herself and thus being an integral part of her existence. The woman asserts the right for herself to speak out and say ”no” which could be interpreted as a form of resistance to the oppressive medical approach. ”You are not torn” implies that she recognises the unity and will neither deny it nor descend into a possible alienation of her psyche and her body.
in celebration of the woman I am
and of the soul of the woman I am
and of the central creature and its delight
This points to an incredibly positive attitude to her womb which does constitute her, her being a woman, not only from the purely biological perspective but also adds the spiritual level and the resulting whole is a departing point for her acclamation of identity. The vocabulary used in reference to the uterus - 'soul', 'central creature', 'spirit' - clearly hints that the speaker does not deny the associations with nature and even further exposes the reproductive function by mentioning the fertility of the 'soil of the fields'.
Each cell has a life.
There is enough here to please a nation.
This certainly implies activity and indicates that an egg cell does not necessarily need sperm to form an embryo and then 'a life' but is 'life' in itself. The common associations of passivity of the female egg in the process of fertilisation are plainly contradicted here, without eliminating the metaphors of the 'harvest' and 'planting'. The quantitative aspect can be decoded to indicate that it is not exactly the amount that is important in the reproductive process - but the mythical level; that is, it is not the quantity of the sperm a man can produce that is fascinating. Instead, it is the monthly ritual of women's ovulating, its celebration and then the acceptance of menstruation as the inevitable continuation of the cycle, if the egg is not fertilised.
The speaker then presents a cross-section of a variety of women, occupied by fulfilling different tasks across the world, and having seemingly nothing in common. It is though evident that they are connected by the womb present in all of them. As their activities vary from ”tending a seal” through ”tying the cord of a calf” to ”straddling a cello”, which are not the 'typical' female activities, it shows that the uterus should not define the woman's role, placing it within the frame of reproduction only. ”Straddling” is also ambiguous here because it refers to a position when riding a horse or a position with legs spread, often perceived as a typically male position.
all seem to be singing, although some can not
sing a note.
Singing is another factor uniting them. Singing means manifesting the cheerfulness, freedom to do so and marking the presence of their voice in the world they live in. It also prompts preserving their inner voice, unique for all of them, which can become a propeller of their actions.
In the last part of the poem, the phrase ”if that is my part” suggests playing a role in a performance staged by nature and its decision to predestine the woman's fate through the uterus. Instead of rebelling again this preordained fact, she celebrates being ”the woman I am”, and sees it as a factor uniting her with other women, a sign of the female solidarity. It also emphasises the unity of the self and the body, not their alienation and fragmentation, with respect to mutual independence of existence.
Let me study the cardiovascular tissue
By operating with the language of science, she usurps a right for herself to access the territory of academic knowledge and gain it for her personal benefit.
Let me make certain tribal figures
She combines the academic aspect with the mythical status of the womb. By doing that, she manifests celebrating the womb in a way so that it is seen as a ”magnificent invention”11 not only in biology but also in culture, provided the conveyed image is used in favour, not against the woman. If her body and its unique part - the uterus, are perceived not as limiting but as integral parts of the womanhood, then it is much easier to become the body, and not to remain in the mode of merely having it.
The final word is a positive re-affirmation of all that has been said in celebration of the Uterus.
The cultural scope is much wider than just literature and various representations of the female body are also visible in the analysis of pornography, motherhood and art. In order to convey positive meanings, the body does not need to be described in strictly impersonal terms of biology, stripping it of the mythical status present in literature and art. It certainly can remain an inspiration and a metaphor for expressing philosophical or existential doubts.
Jacek Malinowski reveals this status in his video installation titled ”HalfAWoman”, recently exhibited in Zachęta. It is a story of a woman, suffering from a PDS disease, which causes a gradual disintegration and loss of the lower part of the body. She (or rather the upper part of her) is filmed when fulfilling daily activities and interviewed by the camera operator. The field of interpretation is open to discussion, nevertheless her final response to his last question is most important. When asked why she decided to make this controversial 'documentary' and reveal her disease, she replies, ”because I'm beautiful”. The whole story is fictional of course, but this does not come across immediately. Despite other issues expanded in the installation, the one about the perception of the female body and the woman's identity being inevitably connected with it, surface as most significant.
The representation of the female body has been approached in this paper from three angles - the historical, the biological and the cultural. All three appear to be overlapping and it is impossible to extract merely one of the three perspectives without taking into consideration the remaining two.
Although it is the female body that is the subject of the study, the analysis proves that decoding the perception of it in a certain time period results in the ramification of various meanings connected with it. It is inevitably associated with the role of women in the society and defining them by their reproductive function. It points to a cultural view of female bodily processes (menstruation, ovulation) seen as usually negative or as being non-existent. The taboos imposed on talking openly about those processes seem to have been evident in the past and remained deeply ingrained in culture.
The operations of language used in the descriptions expose prevailing negative connotations of 'waste' and 'decay', applied in reference to menstruation. The metaphors employing mechanical terminology (production, management) are constructed to evoke invalidating implications. The vocabulary and the manner of presenting the information raise the question of objectivity of science, which is frequently claimed to be context-independent.
An important outcome of this analysis clearly suggests that it is the way the language is applied that carries the negative undertones, not explicitly the words themselves. As portrayed in the interpretation of Anne Sexton's poem, depicting the image of the female body can result in an overall positive picture, with the selection of words and phrases approving and praising the body.
The images of the body discussed in the analysis invite a redefinition of the depiction of the female body in the culture by re-examining the scientific approach (as attempted by Natalie Angier). A significant result of the new 'modernised' approach indicates the recent shift of the aim of scientific analysis - it is not only 'how' the processes operate, but also 'why' they occur.
The revised approach can lead to creating new images in culture through scientific analysis, which will more definitely contradict the prevailing depictions, often unjust and negative, and substitute them with retailored alternatives.
1Sigmund Freud (in "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality") postulated that women have two types of orgasms - a vaginal and a clitorial. The first was perceived as more mature and as approved by science. He offered no substantial evidence to support his theory, later questioned by Anne Koedt in 1968. She claimed, supporting her argument with scientific research, that vaginal orgasm is a myth and it is only the clitorial which can be experienced. [source: Anne Koedt, "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm"]
2 Contemporary for Greer in reference to the situation in the 1970s. ("The Female Eunuch" was first published in 1971).
3 Two chapters analysed: "Fragmentation and Gender", "The Emobodiment of Oppositions" (pp. 71-91, 194-203).
4 As quoted by Emily Martin in the chapter ”The Embodiment of Oppositions”, in ”The Woman in the Body” (pp. 196-197).
5 The definition comes from the Internet - www.britannica.co.uk
6 Hippocrates claimed the womb 'wandered' when it was not 'fed' with semen frequently enough. This historical hypothesis is mentioned in the earlier part of the paper (Angier, p. 93).
7 As quoted by Natalie Angier in the chapter "Suckers and Horns", in "Woman, An Intimate Geography" (pp. 96-97).
8 A viewpoint contradictory to Greer's attitude - she claimed no woman would menstruate voluntarily if she did not have to (p. 3 of this paper).
9 From a collection titled "Love Poems" (1969).
10 It is even more evident in the translation from English to Polish: uterus - macica (anatom.) womb -
macica (anatom.), łono (fig.), żywot (fig.)
11 A term used by Natalie Angier (Angier, 91) - p. 6 of this paper.
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