I have always been fascinated by women in history, primarily because we don’t actually hear much about them. Simply put, women have always been viewed throughout history as inferior, their voices silenced by androcentric historiography. So, in celebration of women and International Women’s Day I have decided that this week I am going to be publishing a series of short articles discussing women and female experiences throughout history starting with the female body in the Ancient World.
Ancient Greek authors on the female body
Now academics always say we can’t view history through the eyes of the present and apply modern concepts like ‘misogyny’ to ancient texts, and to an extent I agree with this. But sadly (for them and for my grades) my opinionated shock couldn’t always be held in check. Once such time was in my ancient medicine lectures where I remember being appalled by the way in which ancient figures such as Aristotle and Hippocrates discussed the female body and what it is to be female.
Now for Aristotle, if you were born male, then you were “the best and most divine thing for beings who are born” (Aristotle G.A 2.1 732 a 6-9). Essentially, men embodied perfection and were a gift to this earth. Being born female on the other hand meant that you were the polar opposite, and this dichotomy began from when you were in the womb. What do I mean by that? Well, in the ancient world they believed that a pregnant woman’s complexion could tell you a lot about whether the baby would be male or female. If the woman in question had radiant skin the baby she was carrying was most likely going to be male, however if she had spots on her face she was carrying a girl (Diseases of Women 216= Sterile Women 4). So even in the womb, women were viewed as a blemish, something imperfect and undesirable. This theme of imperfection is carried on throughout ancient texts which discuss women where women are even referred to as the ‘mutated’ male form. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but the word ‘mutated’ isn’t one that I personally would take as a compliment. Like imagine that being thrown into a chat up line on Tinder.
So, for ancient figures being female was by definition to be inferior and imperfect, our bodies and anatomy not only the inversion of the male body but an inversion that rendered us disgusting. The disgusting nature of our bodies evident in Hippocrates’ treatise ‘Diseases of Women’ and sadly the clue is literally in the name – our wombs were considered the root of our disease. According to this founder of Western medicine, the womb could be caught wandering around the body filling us with too much emotion, causing insanity as we are unable to control our emotional outbursts. How to cure this insanity? Periods! Our menstruation therefore was a symbol of toxicity, a toxic substance born out of our own inefficiency as women to “dissipate the impurities in the blood.” All men had to do was sweat to get rid of their impurities, but for Hippocratic authors, women couldn’t even sweat efficiently, so we simply had to menstruate or else we would go insane! Now although it is somewhat amusing to read all of this in the modern era, sadly, the view that female bodies are kind of gross and that menstruation is disgusting and taboo is still all too prevalent in our society.
This can be evidenced by an event that happened recently following the abolition of the Tampon Tax in the U.K. HM Treasury tweeted that from January 1st 2021 there would be no more tax on feminine hygiene products (about time!) and included in this tweet an image of a tampon. The image received backlash for the inclusion of a tampon with men commenting that they found the image “obscene” and the ‘curve of the tampon’ suggestive. The latter comment is just so ridiculous I won’t even entertain that here but the dictionary definitions of obscene are as follows: ‘dirty, filthy, abhorrent, vulgar and offensive.’
Let that sink in for a while.
To me, the very fact that men in 2021 view menstruation as obscene is indicative of how little progress we have made in this area and our education around this topic. This can be highlighted by the fact that when I was at school, we had the ‘period talk’ separate from all the boys in a way that made me, for one, feel uncomfortable. Why were the boys separate from us? Shouldn’t they know about periods too? After all, one day some of those boys will have girlfriends and wives of their own- what are the women meant to do then? Hide away for a week! We even apologise for being on our periods as if it’s something we should be ashamed of, something to keep hidden and secret. This shame is perpetuated by social media platforms like Instagram removing images of menstruation, like the one put forward by Rupi Kaur in what was an attempt to eradicate the taboo that surrounds this subject. The fact it was removed is something I still find inherently shocking and appalling because it teaches young women that periods are something to be ashamed of, that their bodies are somehow flawed and imperfect.
Like come ON guys that view was so 360 BC.
So yes, ancient medical texts about menstruation are amusing, but the subconscious effects of those texts on the psyche of individuals thousands of years later is not to be laughed at. Some of our views are still ancient, and we need to take a look at them quite seriously.