Why should a man’s mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his own body!
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
If you pity Mr. Hardy, consider the predicament of every poor man who is thrown into relations with a far more precarious object: a woman’s body. This is an issue that seems to have flustered many a nineteenth-century doctor. Women’s bodies were embarrassing, mysterious, and inevitable, and nobody really knew what to do with them. The female body’s place in Victorian culture is a web of contradictions – a nebulous swirl of ignorance, allure, prudery, dignity, exploitation, and general awkwardness.
Victorians were caught up in the cult of domesticity, cherishing idealized visions of a woman acting as the angel of the household: managing servants, planning succulent yet nutritious menus, squeezing out healthy male babies at regular intervals, revolving peacefully in her quiet domestic sphere. Unfortunately, harsh realities often threatened to pop the bubble of this idyllic dream. The spread of syphilis through middle-class families belied the fable of universal, unwavering marital fidelity. Prostitution continued to thrive in the alleys of London, as documented in countless drawings, paintings, and eventually photographs, as well as in the reams that were written on the issue of fallen women. It’s easy to understand how, in attempting to reconcile these competing concepts, Victorians could have experienced some cognitive dissonance.
So what was the hold up? Were male doctors just too prudish, too embarrassed, or too negligent to thoroughly examine their female patients? Not necessarily. To be fair, this probably wasn’t a simple issue of male doctors’ behavior vs. women’s health needs. Modesty was an issue that popped up in medical practice and may have negatively impacted women’s health, but at least part of it often came from the women’s side. For example, once rumors of pregnancy started floating around the court, Flora Hastings refused to be examined by a doctor for weeks, and once she finally consented (upon great persuasion from friends), she insisted on being seen only by her childhood doctor, not the doctor at court. It’s difficult to assign blame, then, for unfortunate cases like Flora’s. Is it the doctors’ fault for possibly allowing sexism to influence his diagnosis? Is it Flora’s fault for not being more proactive about her own health? Maybe not, since both Flora and her doctors tuned their moral compasses to the culture in which they lived, absorbing its prejudices and hang-ups. Then again, the culture is made up of people just like Flora and her doctors. It’s easy to fall into a trap of judging past attitudes by present norms, and assume that the women really wanted to be freed from their cages of modesty and run around in pants and low-cut tops and be engineers, but it’s entirely possible (even likely) that many women preferred to conform to standards of propriety. The question of whether nineteenth-century women would feel differently if they were taught differently is almost irrelevant to understanding where they were actually coming from: the fact is that many women, like Flora, were genuinely uncomfortable with intimate examinations by unfamiliar male doctors.
The idea was to make the whole affair of the doctor’s visit less awkward for female patients. Instead of having to verbalize embarrassing issues, the patient could just point to the place on the doll that corresponded to her discomfort. The doctor could then narrow down the diagnostic possibilities by asking yes-or-no questions, which the patient could answer by mutely nodding or shaking her head. This may have genuinely alleviated real stress for many women, but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine how a doctor could effectively diagnose a problem without a thorough description of the patient’s subjective experience.
There is a whole other dimension of the modesty dolls that also fascinates me: they are strangely sexualized. The doll pictured above (which we saw at the Royal College of Physicians) is elaborately posed, crossing her legs, tilting her head, etc. Strangest of all, she’s also lying down. It would clearly be easier to indicate specific body parts (which is, after all, supposed to be the doll’s purpose) on a doll standing simply in anatomical position. So why go to all the trouble of sculpting a recumbent Greek goddess?
The modesty doll reminded me strikingly of an anatomical Venus. These were wax models of nude female bodies, opened to reveal their viscera, used as teaching tools in anatomy schools.