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  • Writer's pictureACTIVHISTorian

What If 'Female' Bodies Were the Default?

Try this:

In your mind's eye, imagine what a naked Human looks like. Are you imagining what Human looks like without sex or even racial categories? Is the person you imagine standing on two feet with two arms visible? Two functioning eyes? What does the hair look like? What age is that Human? Or is the person missing a limb or more, like some humans?

Are we taught to consider, even imagine, what Human actually looks like? Or are we taught to think Human looks like a Da Vinci drawing--the Vitruvian Man, perhaps--a drawing that has come to represent a universal male, even though Da Vinci saw it as an ideal, though one does wonder why. Is it your ideal? And Da Vinci didn't bother with an idealized woman. Oxymoron: Ideal Woman.

What if we first recognize that male bodies have long been the focus of science, medicine, psychology, education, history, and so much more?

Often enough, when Experts talk about What People Do . . . or Don't Do, they aren't very specific. Doesn't mean they shouldn't think more clearly and precisely.

Does the Vitruvian Man look like most or any of the people you know? Would you want laws, medical treatments, governments, educational systems--and history--to be geared only to Mr. Vitruvian?

What if bodies associated with or assigned the category of female were the default? What if we start with the assumption that those in the category of female exist, outnumber those in the category of male, and are not the exception, a one-off, or something odd needing accommodating? You know, start with what are facts.

What might this allow all of us to learn? How might it improve health outcomes? Could it

help us gain a better grasp on what passes for History-capital-H? Could it help us understand events better when the news footage shows "People protesting in the streets," but the only visible People are men? Where are the women? Could it help create better workplaces and jobs that don't just "accommodate" (read: put up with) the realities of a full life, let alone one embodied by a Human with, say, different physical characteristics than Da Vinci's Ideal. How might those in the category of male benefit? And what if imagining things differently could help Us eventually realize that none of those physical markers so many have found so important don't matter to the degree We think they do?

During the decades I taught courses with the word, women in the title, some seemed concerned that men would then become invisible. As if. When looking at the history of so many places where men made the laws, tried to control women's labor, reproduction, and even how much nourishment they got, men are clearly in view even when using women's experiences as the starting point. Men are generally visible too. They don't disappear even as history that has focused on men has often disappeared women. We can do better.

And to be clear, the idea that male bodies (especially their much touted Upper Body Strength!) are to protect weaker female bodies is a farce. As only one of many examples: Were enslaved women Protected because they were female? Were they sheltered from rape or was rape part of the institution? Were enslaved men allowed to protect enslaved women? Were women's workloads lighter given the female need for Protection?

Even as cultural differences exist, for a very long time the so-called "Western" view of the female body (weaker, lesser, dumber, more emotional, more unpredictable, an enigma!) has held considerable sway, even as what ancient Greeks and others thought about the female body was factually false. What does it suggest about our current medical knowledge when we realize that the Ancient world's Aristotle continued to hold pride of place well into the 19th century and often enough, still in the 20th. After all, if a woman can't produce semen clearly that indicates inferiority! (thought Aristotle and many since . . .)

But more to the point, why has there been so little curiosity and what passes as decent investigation? Why don't We want to know? What if the collective We remains woefully ignorant about female anatomy, let alone the effects of drugs on their bodies. But We are still quite willing to tell those that possess female bodies what's wrong with them, what they can or can't do with them.

And know this is not to simplify the descriptive physical and cultural differences among the Human species that are not about sex categories, as problematic as recognizing only two of those has been and continues to be.

But let's just start with the imagining. Imagining that maleness is not an ideal or the default for anything. Wondering why it's so challenging to imagine a Human that isn't sexed and raced given we have no problem imagining Dog, Cat, or Fish without getting around to sex categories and color. Why have we made sure to prioritize skin color, reproductive characteristics, and more at the expense of imagining what Human is. But in the meantime, what if we try--just try--to imagine Female as a default, a universal--not a forever-exception.

Related Items of Interest

Ackmann, Martha. The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight (Random House, 2004).

Gross, Rachel E. Vagina Obscura: An Anatomical Voyage (Norton, 2022).

Russett, Cynthia. Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood. (Harvard, 1991).


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