(warning: I am in a rotten mood. I have a splitting headache that won’t go away. I got about 4 hours of sleep. I have been reading Andrea Dworkin. This might be a bit ranty.)
So, last week I went for a pap smear. I know, nobody wants to hear about this stuff. it’s private, it’s about icky girl stuff, whatever. The attitude towards women’s bodies is ridiculous in our society. Women are taught to loathe our own bodies, and knowledge about our bodies is held in a monopoly by a male-dominated elitist field of doctors. I resent that I have to go for a procedure once a year in which my doctor is inspecting my insides. it seems like such a violation of personal space. This is the only thing that genius doctors have come up with to determine whether or not I have abnormal growths on my cervix. Prying open a woman’s vagina with steel instruments, shining a light inside her body, poking her cervix with swabs, putting hands inside her vagina. And all the while, we are told to relax, submit, don’t tense up, just breathe.
I’ve written a bit about how pregnancy and childbirth has been completely taken out of women’s hands and placed into a medical sphere here and here. What was once a matter for women to know and share, what was once a communal event for women to bond together, has become full of beeping machines monitoring this and that, machines that take pictures of women’s uteruses, and surgical procedures that determine primarily fetal health. Lately more women have been undergoing caesarian sections by “choice”. Andrea Dworkin calls this a surgical fuck, penetration of a scalpel as violence against the woman’s deepest privacy, to maintain the intactness of the vagina for the sexual pleasure of men. (I’m not saying I agree, but it’s something to think about.) What used to be women’s knowledge about women’s bodies has become knowledge about women’s bodies held captive by a male-dominated elitist profession and industry, and women have to pay to gain access to that knowledge – incomplete knowledge based on the study of male bodies (and largely male bodies already subjected to discipline through the military or prison systems or concentration camps, and whose presence in these systems has often been subject to determinative social forces such as poverty and racism) that has discredited the traditional knowledge of midwives and doulas and women who practice herbal medicine who were burned at the stake and hung and thrown over cliffs in burlap bags with their hands and feet tied and called witches. The medical profession has been a large proponent of biological essentialism (the idea that men and women are fundamentally different based on biological differences that are largely arbitrary), and yet still they have refused to study women’s bodies specifically in order to properly diagnose and treat ailments and disease in the female patient (thankfully, this has finally partially changed, but only recently: women were excluded from participating in medical reasearch trials by the NIH and FDA until 1994; read about it here). The male body is the standard, the normalized and accepted standard of biological knowledge. Female bodies are deviant from this norm, and are of interest only in how they can be managed and disciplined out of their “natural” and unruly state and into the better service of patriarchy, largely through breeding and sexual service. Women have been treated by the medical field like cattle, of use to breed and work. Use women’s bodies as much as possible before they are of no further use. Keep them from being able to control their own bodies, their own sexuality, their own pregnancy – it is not their bodies, those bodies belong to men; it is not their sexuality, their sexuality is in service of and in relation to male sexuality; it is not their pregnancy, that child belongs to the father, so much so that he (or less desirably, she) will be given his name, but only until she becomes the property of a husband who may own and use her body for his purposes. More recently, the left has encouraged women to control their unruly bodies to avoid pregnancy and to avoid menstruation, so as to be more desirable and fuckable to men- all in the name of freedom, sexual freedom, freedom of expression of desire – but of course women’s sexuality and sexual pleasure is still defined in terms of male sexuality and male sexual pleasure. Witness the overwhelming research into drugs to increase male libido and virility, and the comparative lack of research into increasing female sexual desire and pleasure. This is because the male orgasm is what matters; the female body is submissive, receptive, a vehicle for male sexual pleasure; the female orgasm only exists to cement an emotional bond and endear her partner to her so she will be more receptive and submissive for him. All of this has legitimized male domination.
I work with two plastic surgeons. They are both male. Nice guys, really, both very nice. Not at all like that show. The majority of the patients we see are female. They come to these men for appraisal and revision of their bodies. They come because they are unhappy with their bodies for some reason. I’m going to put it out there and say society, which is male-dominated and has specific requirements regarding women’s bodies and physical appearance, is the reason women are unhappy with their bodies. These men look at the women’s bodies, tell them what they think is wrong with their bodies, and suggest ways of cutting them open (among other things) in order to change what they say is wrong with their bodies. Our clinic has a waiting list of women who are interested in coming to be appraised by these male doctors and cut open to correct their perceived bodily flaws. They pay to be appraised and told what is wrong with their bodies by these male doctors. They pay to have what these male doctors decide is wrong changed by these two men. They are cut open. Flesh is cut away. Fat is sucked out. Implants are put in. They are sewn back up. They sometimes have complications, mostly not. They are given pain medication (the dosage of which is based on scientific studies of mainly male bodies, because women’s bodies screw up study results, what with their freaky hormones and all, and anyway women are unreliable study subjects because they are either mothers or potentially pregnant). They have scars. One of these doctors I know for certain (I don’t know about the other one) has performed surgery to minimize the size of a black person’s nostrils, making the nose appear less “ethnic”. Both doctors I work for are white. Doesn’t this all seem just a bit unbalanced here?
I don’t mean to demonize the doctors I work with, they are both fine people. Their jobs reinforce patriarchy through the physical alteration of women’s bodies so as to adhere more closely to patriarchal standards of feminine beauty. They are handsomely rewarded for this work by the capitalist patriarchy.
Women have been taught by the medical system to find their own bodies repulsive and their bodily processes as both natural and disgusting (or at the least inconvenient). Witness menstruation. Women are taught from day one to hate their period: the curse, it’s called. Periods are a pain in the ass; they are messy and inconvenient and gross, we are taught. We must never touch menstrual fluid, we must never mention menstruation – we should pretend that everything is “normal”. We should use tampons for maximum discretion, and those tampons should be tiny so nobody sees. Tiny tampons, of course, must be changed more frequently, so this keeps women tied to the bathroom. Tampons absorb menstrual fluid right int he vagina, before it ever leaves the body. This is the best thing, we are told, because they we can pretend that our periods don’t really exist. Never mind that tampons leave behind traces of whatever fibre they are made of inside the vagina when they are removed, traces that the body must work harder to cleanse. The vagina is self-cleansing, but cleansing tampon fibres requires more production of vaginal mucous, so this means more vaginal discharge. Tampons are generally bleached to appear white and clean, just to remind you how dirty and red menstrual fluid is. That means traces of bleach is right up against the mucous membrane, which absorbs everything at a quicker rate. Do these chemicals play a part in increasing menstrual flow? It’s hard to tell. For many many women, these chemicals mean increased cramping and head and body aching during use. There is also the risk of toxic shock, a potentially fatal condition. When I was younger, women were encouraged to change tampons frequently to avoid this syndrome. Now, women are encouraged to leave tampons in overnight and up to 8 hours. All of this, and tampons contribute greatly to environmental damage. Tampons are pushed because pads are bulky and messy; you have to look at your menstrual fluid; they aren’t as clean.
There are wonderful alternatives available to pads and tampons. The Diva Cup and the Keeper are menstrual caps that sit just inside the vaginal opening and collect menstrual fluid. They can stay in for 12 hours. Once you get used to them, they don’t leak. They are made from either latex or silicone, so no weird chemicals are leaching into the blood stream and causing aches and pains. These are great options that are resusable so better for the environment, and are convenient and easy to use. Many women find these methods gross because they actually have to insert their fingers into their vaginas to insert and remove the caps, which means touching both the vagina and menstrual fluid itself. Both are deemed dirty and icky and gross by our society, and so this psychological barrier keeps many women from using these alternatives, despite the fact that they are so much better. This period-aversion has also led to the use of birth control hormones to prevent menstruation, as I mentioned earlier. Rachel at Alas did a couple posts about this earlier this year. If you’re interested, go read the debates there.
what do you think about the monopolization of knowledge of women’s bodies by the medical field?