Nude women populate museums. As I do every year in September, I visit my old friend, the Nissim de Camondo museum and I am suddenly struck by the feminine nudity that is everywhere, almost always painted or sculpted by men.
I am almost relieved to find at Nissim de Camondo one of the rare nudes executed by a woman: the “Bacchante” by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun – “Bacchante”, circa 1785
Let’s face it, the list of known female artists is quite short, and whether we are talking of Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Angelica Kauffmann, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot, Marie Laurencin, Mary Cassatt, Rosa Bonheur, Niki de Saint Phalle or Tamara de Lempicka – women paint or sculpt women rather than women’s bodies as such. Unlike male artists.
If some of these women paint or sculpt the female body on rare occasions, not only does this cause a scandal, because female nudity proposed by a woman artist is not socially acceptable – it’s the prerogative of male artists (I’m thinking of the most obvious ones – Rodin and his erotic drawings, his “Kiss”, his “Danaïd”, Courbet and his “Origin of the World” which also caused a scandal, Clésinger and his “Bacchante Couchée” which depicts orgasm and which… also caused a scandal), but even so, there is a huge misunderstanding when women artists focus on nudity and the female body.
(For the record, Clésinger’s “Recumbent Bacchante”, which is not at Nissim de Camondo but at the Paris Petit Palais museum. Sublime in my humble opinion, and I like the folds of the waist and the spot of cellulite, pretty rare in sculpture)
Frida Khalo paints, beyond semi-nudity, her pain, just like Camille Claudel her disappointed love for Rodin when she does not try to depict the purity of mythology or love. Berthe Morisot paints the intimate rather than the skin, in the rare paintings that show female flesh.
In the history of the arts, the carnal dimension of women, coming with implied sensuality and sexuality, is generally transcribed by men – not by women.
I am probably only interested in the subject now because I have just finished proofreading and correcting the Master degree’s essay of my dear-teenager-who-is-now-a-young-woman (who is studying for a PhD at Cambridge university – I am proud), which deals with the emergence of endometriosis as a public health problem in France.
Reading her essay was both fascinating and depressing since it clearly shows the control that men have long exercised over women’s bodies.
It’s not my dear-teenager-who-is-now-a-young-woman who states it – well, she does when it comes to endometriosis, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and motherhood – but me.
Me, whose mind, soon to be 49, wanders and broadens the subject. The woman’s body has never ceased to be political.
I already mentioned here the political dimension of women’s clothing (Republican Attire), here again the pressure imposed on women to remain sexually desirable (The Tyranny of Sexy, Reflection) and there finally the problem of society’s opinion on the aging of the female body (Witches, Relativity Theory).
All these issues ultimately come down to one, namely the permanent sexualization of the woman’s body – and in certain cases, the sexualization of the little girl’s body through child abuse (mentioned here in Lolita). This sexualization has two intrinsically linked aspects: the pleasurable aspect of the always available female body (sexism, rape and feminicide) and the reproductive aspect of the woman-mother (mentioned here in Abortion).
All of these issues are historical, internalized and cultural. The cultural follows very directly the political. It is always a political line – in the much broader sense than that of political parties – I am talking about societal policy – which determines what the cultural referent will become on a given subject.
A particularly telling example is that which concerns the ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages to minors in France – and I deliberately chose a theme which is not correlated with women. It was only in 1956 that the French government banned the serving of alcohol to children in school canteens and it was not until 1981 that this ban was extended to high schools (this last sentence is crazy, I know). Today, the sale of alcohol to a minor, in any context whatsoever, is prohibited and this is because a public health policy, which goes well beyond party politics, has been implemented over several decades.
Women’s bodies are also political – and that’s an understatement.
In the history of the arts, the carnal dimension of women is perhaps transcribed by men – not by women – but it is obviously the same in the history of medicine: the female body is transcribed by men – not by women.
The medical history of the female body has been written since Antiquity with particular attention to the sexual organs, around which revolve issues linked to the performativity of menstrual cycles, fertility, the Nation, hysteria, dispossession of their bodies by women and the denial of female speech.
Act I – Performativity, fertility and the Nation
Medical science, from Antiquity until the 18th century, views the female body as fundamentally sick, unlike the male body (if I believe Elsa Dorlin in “The Matrix of Race”). The woman is intrinsically pathological while the male body is intrinsically healthy.
During Antiquity, Aristotle considered female semen (i.e. menstrual blood) as “raw semen”. The flow of this sperm/blood is caused by “the weakness of a metabolism which is not able to achieve sufficient cooking of food to transform the food residue into blood, and the blood, cooked again, into sperm”.
Hippocrates considers in his “Women’s Diseases” that women’s bodies have difficulty consuming and evacuating humors, which are concentrated in the uterus. Women’s ailments are therefore caused by engorgement, retention, drying out or, conversely, the immoderate flow of liquids which fill the uterus – “menstruation, lochia, white discharge, blood and semen”. This dysfunction of the uterus, which is incapable of regulating women’s moods, is at the center of their fragility.
Some other ancient doctors attribute a kind of animal autonomy to the female reproductive organ, which is disordered by the lack of procreative activity, which explains why it begins to move in the body of the woman, who becomes ill as a result.
Galen, in the 2nd century AD, considers that uterine pain affects women who delay the moment of bearing a child and speaks of the “non-use of the uterus”. The wandering, enraged or irritated uterus is the “disease of women without men” and results in hysteria, a word which comes from the Greek “ὑστέρα”, “the womb”, that is to say the “ uterus”.
This ancient theory which fizzled out explains why pregnancy, or on the contrary the taking of contraceptives which artificially regulate menstrual cycles, have long been and are still often recommended to alleviate the pain of menstrual cycles or endometriosis.
The Middle Ages saw a hardening of the treatment of women who presented with uterine pain, due to a generalized hardening of the moral and religious judgment of pathologies. The theory of humoral imbalance formulated during Antiquity by Hippocrates is reinterpreted in the light of the Christian religion which sees in female pain a punishment linked to original sin and more simply, an inferiority of nature.
During the Renaissance, certain doctors like Liébault attempt to reinterpret this inferior nature of women as a divine will necessary for procreation. “If, for Galen, women’s bodies are imperfect but useful, for Liébault women’s bodies are perfect and very useful, because only sterility makes them imperfect” (Elsa Dorlin).
However, until the beginning of the 17th century, most doctors continue to adhere to the ancient humoral theories of Hippocrates. Menstruation is a sign of generalized female incontinence, an inability to control one’s body, and they also present the potential danger of spreading pathologies to other regions of the body.
From the 17th century, menstruation begins to be considered useful for pregnancy, to the extent that the blood that no longer flows is used to nourish and build the fetus.
The end of the 17th century marks a great change. Hippocrates’ humoral theory is gradually being replaced by the fiber theory, which considers that women’s illnesses are due to two opposite excesses, extreme relaxation or excessive tension – which makes it theoretically conceivable that a happy medium represents a healthy state for women, whose bodies were previously only seen as pathological.
In the 18th century, population becomes a subject of study and politics. The state of the population becomes one of the crucial vectors of the prosperity of the Nation and it is important that this population be in good health, which explains the development of public hygiene and demography (Michel Foucault, “Histoire of Sexuality”).
In this new understanding of the notion of population, the body of the woman-mother changes status and becomes a representation of the body of the Nation, which must be healthy in order to allow the transmission of national values to the younger generation (this sacralization of the body obviously only concerns the white maternal body, since the black mother in colonized territories is de facto pathological and denatured, therefore “unhealthy”, as Elsa Dorlin demonstrates in “The Matrix of Race”).
Also, motherhood remaining synonymous with the health of the female body, it is widely encouraged as is breastfeeding. This new definition of women’s health makes it possible to transform pregnancy into a natural state. And if pregnancy becomes complex or dangerous, it is, according to doctors of the time, due to the temperament of certain women or their poor lifestyle. This new understanding of the woman’s body as a vector of national health makes it a political issue. The Nation is embodied in the reproductive work of women’s healthy bodies. And any sexual or reproductive dysfunction clashes with this national narrative.
This history of medical science allows us to better understand how and why the woman’s body is culturally associated on the one hand with weakness and on the other hand with motherhood, and why gynecology places procreation at the heart of everything.
The deep association between femininity and motherhood also explains why infertility is still so difficult for a large number of women today, why tubal ligation, which has only been legal since 2001 in France, is still today refused in practice by many physicians, why maternity services excessively push young mothers to breastfeed, and why a woman who does not want children is often told “oh, but that will change”.
As any sexual or reproductive dysfunction is problematic, the Nation cannot erect this type of dysfunction as a public health problem. On the contrary, the responsibility for these sexual and reproductive dysfunctions will be fully shifted onto women who are now filled with shame and guilt.
Act II – Hysteria and endometriosis
Act I demonstrates how a “healthy” woman’s body is a reproductive body. This health is expressed during pregnancy (and before and after) through non-problematic and invisible menstrual cycles. The high point of pregnancy is celebrated with much noise and homage, but the menstrual cycle, taboo – we will long remember the advertisements for sanitary towels collecting a blue liquid – must be surrounded by deafening silence.
As a matter of fact, as women who experience painful menstrual cycles or endometriosis do not perfectly respond to the national narrative of the woman-mother mentioned above, the expression of their pain becomes intolerable in the eyes of society, which is quick to oppose them with a magic word: hysteria.
Hysteria (which, I remind you, comes from the ancient Greek “ὑστέρα”, “the womb”, that is to say the “uterus”) constitutes for many centuries the ancient heritage of the so-called disease of women without men and the subsequent weakness of the female body with a wandering, enraged or irritated uterus.
The concept of hysteria is far from being precise because it brings together a thousand symptoms.
From the 17th century, doctors wonder about the physical or mental origin of uterine pain and hysteria. Is it hysteria that causes uterine pain or is it uterine pain that causes hysteria?
During the 19th century, practitioners of the Paris School, who theorize the link between diseases and localized lesions, make great progress by describing swellings and hemorrhagic cysts in women presenting pelvic pain following the course of their menstrual cycles. At the same time, the visualization of the lesions will – finally – allow to better understand pelvic pain and endometriosis. We could therefore believe that the concept of hysteria is disappearing, giving way to more rational diagnoses. Well it’s not the case since Jean-Martin Charcot, who opens the way to Freud who makes hysteria the basis of his discoveries in psychoanalysis, notices that the women interned at La Salpêtrière hospital often complain of ovarian pain and deduces from his observation that this pain characterizes the psychological disorder that is hysteria.
Uterine pain is reaffirmed by the emerging science of psychiatry as the symptom of a psychological disorder, which explains why the deplorable confusion between hysteria and endometriosis still permeates both medical and popular culture today.
Hysteria may well be a word designating a multitude of ideas, but it is still often associated with psychoanalysis, which remains an omnipresent intellectual reference in French society, a “resource that has become fundamental and familiar for thinking about oneself” (Samuel Lézé, “The Authority of Psychoanalysts”).
This explains why, even at the end of the 20th century, patients’s words are completely dismissed. Because endometriosis, for example, is not necessarily visible: its lesions are difficult to see, even with medical imaging techniques which are also expensive, and the medical standards want to see the disease to believe it.
In 2015, Cara Jones attempted to demonstrate how endometriosis occupies the political space that hysteria once occupied (Cara Jones, “Wandering Wombs and “Female Troubles”: The Hysterical Origins, Symptoms, and Treatments of Endometriosis”). Hysteria, initially used to describe disorders related to the uterus due to a lack of reproductive activity, gradually becomes a word that denotes an immense diversity of symptoms in women, designating women’s deviations from their gender roles, whether this deviance is in excess of femininity or in excess of masculinity. Just like the hysterical woman of the past, the woman suffering from endometriosis is pathologized both because of her deviance from the norms of femininity, that is to say her so-called dominant, careerist and perfectionist personality, but also because of her hyperfemininity, because she would have too much estrogen, the flagship hormone of hyperfemininity in medical discourse.
The pain and symptoms are explained by loop reasoning linked to the failure of motherhood-femininity and if the illness really exists, it is only the inscription in the flesh of a psychological problem.
This discourse contributes to the devaluation of the words and feelings of people with endometriosis and, more generally, reinforces the practice of delegitimating the feelings and words of women about their bodies.
Act III – The dispossession of their bodies by women and the denial of female speech
The stigmatization of “witches” and midwives, suspected of infanticide and witchcraft, is decisive if one wants to understand the process of professionalization of gynecology and obstetrics, and, more fundamentally, the modalities of establishing a real system enabling men to control female bodies.
In the 16th century, those called “witches” were hunted down and one of the reasons – and one of the consequences – of this holocaust resided in a desire to rationalize care and in a forced transmission of women’s medical knowledge to men. Witches, let’s remember, are women living away from villages who provide natural care, taken from plants, to villagers who come to seek their help. They have the good fortune of often being elderly and single – which can hardly fit in with a patriarchal and religious society in which the Church regulates every thought and every act (Mona Chollet, Witches).
In the same way, the struggle between midwives and doctors of the 16th and 17th centuries for control of the medical space around women’s bodies is fierce (Elsa Dorlin, “The Matrix of Race”). The professionalization of midwives limits their functions, makes them subservient to male doctors to whom they must report, and prevents them from teaching other women contraceptive or abortive techniques (which have always existed).
The holistic, natural and personal care provided by women becomes following witch hunts and the professionalization of midwives, a radically different knowledge, rationalized and theorized in the hands of men.
And for centuries to come.
This process of rationalization and theorization has the direct consequence of women’s dispossession of their own bodies, whether in terms of perception, communication or treatment.
This dispossession serves to found a medical science where only the male doctor, through his empirical practice, knows the truth of the female body and where the woman, who is progressively represented in medical treatises as ignorant or a liar, becomes simple object of study. The words of women, who are excluded from the process of compiling and understanding empirical knowledge and who are not listened to in their feelings (if they have the chance or the courage to express themselves) are totally devalued.
If we have to talk about menstrual cycles or endometriosis, two radically opposed discourses are offered to women who suffer: that considering periods as naturally painful and that qualifying women as psychologically abnormal when they talk about said pain (Krebs and Schoenbauer, “Hysterics and Heresy: Using Dialogism to Explore the Problematics of Endometriosis Diagnosis”).
Pain is intrinsic to the female condition, but making it visible and verbalizing it denotes a mental imbalance. The discourse based on hysteria is particularly used to talk about so-called “difficult” women, that is to say those who do not respond to the proposed treatment or those who contradict their doctors (Kate Young, Jane Fisher and Maggie Kirkman, “Do mad people get endo or does endo make you mad?”: Clinicians’ discursive constructions of Medicine and women with endometriosis).
During the exchange between the practitioner and the patient, the power relationship is structurally in favor of the professional, who is not only in a position of authority due to the social recognition from which he or she benefits but also due to the strong discursive power of medical speech (Krebs and Schoenbauer, “Hysterics and Heresy: Using Dialogism to Explore the Problematics of Endometriosis Diagnosis”).
When women try to talk about their pain, it often becomes a personal psychological failure (Ballweg, 1997, Jones, 2015, Krebs and Schoenbauer, 2020). The testimonies of women who have seen themselves described by their doctors as “difficult”, “soft” or having been told that “it’s in their head” or that “it’s normal to being in pain” are unfortunately legion – even in recent years.
It is easy to imagine what impact this type of discourse can have on women who are already suffering and who are now facing incomprehension, questioning their own feelings and the deepest guilt because they internalize the medical discourse which speaks about non-performativity and feminine failure.
Endometriosis and uterine pain have long been associated with fertility problems, which still remains the central point of a woman’s gynecological journey today. This is explained, as we have seen, by the history of the establishment of pregnancy as a healthy natural state of women and by the incarnation of the Nation in its fertile body. Therefore, any reproductive dysfunction is a problem internal to the woman, whether it is a bad temperament, a failing psyche or poor hygiene that she does not know how to regulate and which makes her at fault in her infertility.
This twisted reflection is accompanied by an exclusion of women from the space of knowledge, power and communication over their own body, and the whole contributes to the conceptualization of infertility as a non-realization of femininity ideal, that is to say motherhood.
Act IV – Towards a reappropriation of their bodies by women
As mentioned above, politics takes on a particular problem when intellectual research, statistics and media coverage converge.
With regard to the woman’s body taken in its two intrinsically linked aspects which are the pleasurable aspect of the always available female body and the reproductive aspect of the woman-mother, the media and statistical bombs which exploded with #MeToo, combined with the immense long-term work of associations dedicated to women (whether it concerns sexual violence, endometriosis and incest) have enabled a liberation of female speech and a gradual reappropriation of the female body.
The #MeToo media phenomenon is barely six years old as of the date I write these lines, but the liberation of women’s voices on subjects as serious as sexual violence, gynecological violence or incest and the appearance of divergent words on social media concerning the societal pressure that weighs on women on subjects such as femininity or motherhood has forced political power to elevate certain issues into public health policies.
This is the case with endometriosis, which the Macron presidency has taken as a French public health problem at the start of 2022.
This is also the case with incest with a campaign launched by the French government against incest and sexual violence against children in September 2023 – following the publication of statistics (one in ten adults have experienced incest) on the subject.
And because the cultural always follows very directly the political, perhaps we have the chance to witness since #MeToo the change in cultural referents linked to women’s bodies.
November 3, 2023