Dream Anatomy

Body Commodification

By Karen Darricades, This Magazine

Of the more than 200 human body parts roaming the globe in Dr. Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds and Body Worlds 2, The Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies, only six of the 25 whole body specimens are of the female sex, despite the fact that 60 percent of the body donors have been women.

The Ontario Science Centre was the first to welcome this exhibition in Canada. The space is filled with donated bodies and organs that have undergone a plastination process of von Hagens’ invention (essentially consisting of injecting plastic into donors post-mortem), bringing to mind what one might imagine Francis Bacon’s version of a wax museum would look like. This visual pairing of the bloody horrifics and clinical examination is no doubt what has prompted some to call von Hagens Dr. Frankenstein.

Anatomy Theatre

Anatomy Theatre

When questioned on the exhibition’s lack of women, von Hagens responds by saying he “did not want to appear voyeuristic by revealing too many female bodies.” In fact, five of the female figures were added to the Body Worlds 2 exhibit in response to requests from female attendees who wished to see themselves more prominently reflected in an exhibit about the science of humanity.

La Specola

Wax Anatomical Model, La Specola, Florence

According to the Body Worlds website, “He sees himself in the tradition of Renaissance anatomists, whose works traditionally included far more masculine than feminine bodies.” That begs the question: Can women’s bodies be viewed clinically or are they always sexualized by the gaze of the viewer?

Because we’ve seen Historica’s “History by the Minute” heritage series, many Canadians are aware of the ridicule Canadian suffragettes like Dr. Emily Jennings Stowe endured at medical schools in the 1870s. But, despite the current inclusion of women as students, women still continue to be excluded from many of the visual representations that serve as tools of education. The most culturally prominent of these tools are images such as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and the evolutionary chart demonstrating man’s development from ape to Homo sapiens—adorning the classroom walls and home pages of every major medical and scientific institution in the western hemisphere.

Vitruvian Man

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

Among the iconic images that illustrate the scientific history of humankind, women are scarcely seen. And when they are, they exist in the margins as exceptions to the rule of the male norm. “Male is what it is to be human,” observes Phoebe Gloeckner, a renowned comic book artist with a master’s degree in medical illustration from the University of Texas. “[The male] doesn’t need segregation because it’s considered the base value,” Gloeckner adds. Von Hagens’ assertion that men’s and women’s anatomies are “essentially the same” is reminiscent of the lazy and confused attitudes of his second-century predecessors, who were convinced that female reproductive organs were “lesser” or smaller versions of the male’s.

For centuries the presumption was that the vagina was an inverted interior penis and testes. In fact the fallopian tubes did not get their name until Gabriele Fallopio discovered them in the late 1500s. With the 17th century came the coining of the term “ovaries.” A 17th century engraving from Casserio’s theatrum anatomicum depicts a serene woman with an open flower in the centre of her abdomen exposing a fetus. The petals are labelled A-G revealing the order of the artful cuts of Casserio’s dissection. Vesalius’ 1543 precedent-setting atlas, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), forms the tradition of portraying primarily masculine figures. “It is like taking the skin off of Renaissance paintings where man is the hero and woman the procreator,” says Gloeckner of the Body Worlds show.


Casserio’s theatrum anatomicum foetus

Until its arrival in North America, the Body Worlds’ 10-year stint had only used the female form as an example of reproduction—in a separate part of the exhibit equipped with warnings for those wishing to abstain from knowing this part of human anatomy. Recently, a female figure known as The Diver was added to Body Worlds 2, demonstrating that when science turns commercial—as is the case with Body Worlds—women can use their economic power to buy themselves a place in a visual history that has always been refused to them by elitist systems of education.

Medical illustrations teeter on the brink between art and science. Diagrams use symbols to convey information and create visual explanations, but those visual explanations are rendered in ways that reveal concepts of cultural norms. Frank H. Netter’s contributions to medical illustration earned him the title of “medicine’s Michelangelo” in the New York Times. His vivid illustrations brought the concept of the living patient into the textbook. But Netter’s drawings made his subjects pop off the page in a way that made the lack of diversity in his subjects, concerning gender and race, all the more glaring. His 1989 Atlas of Human Anatomy is considered the quintessential textbook for med students and medical illustrators. The fact that the organs on display in Body Worlds come primarily from the female body donors reveals von Hagens’—and von Hagens’ perception of his public’s—difficulty in accepting the female form, in its entirety, as human.

Female Anatomy

Female Reproductive Anatomy

The Body Worlds 2 exhibition finished its five-month stay at the Ontario Science Centre on February 26 to go to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Body Worlds and Body Worlds 2 have been seen by over 17 million people in 22 countries over the last 10 years. How many of those viewers were women?

To see my Anatomical Art page, click here.

To see my La Specola series, click here.

To see more anatomical illustrations, check out the Dream Anatomy website here.

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