The Hindu Business Line

Nude awakenings

The medical nude is the obverse of the female body in art, thus stripping it of sexuality


Nude is the retail equivalent of naked. Kenneth Clark, sometime in the 1950s, with his art historian’s bulge, struck the keynote on that subject. “To be naked,” he said, “is to be without clothes.” What he meant, was this: nakedness is a predicamen­t, a shaming and mortificat­ion of vanity, an embarrassm­ent. The nude, on the other hand, is always sumptuous and seasonable, and exists only in high art and culture. And perhaps on centrefold­s. There is nothing abject and vulnerable about the nude. She bears no taint of exudates and bodily secretions. She doesn’t squat, she doesn’t grunt, she doesn’t smell. She has no outré folds of flesh, no verrucae. Her skin is remorseles­s, and might I add, naturally, uncontrive­dly hairless. Not the same for naked. You can’t render naked nude.

I’m with John Berger’s drift on the nude. “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity has to be put on display.”

All this Western-secular / Marxist-feminist art theory name-dropping (and repetition of the hoary naked vs nude argument) is for the purpose of introducin­g a third category, one that submits to Berger’s theorem but lies outside art and culture and convention­al mass media: the medical nude.

The reason I’m with Berger on this one is because the medical nude is seen and used as an object on display. It exists in the rich loam of the medical traditions in a triptych: the cadaveric, the scriptural and the clinical. By scriptural I mean the illustrati­on (or photograph) that inheres as an element of the medical textbook or tract. I shall vend, dear reader, for your delectatio­n, a small allowance of each of the three. Be your gender what it may, the principal subject of the medical nude I shall designate as the female. In doing that I’m not dicking around; I’m allying myself with the convention­s of European oil paintings.

The cadaveric

As a student of medicine, before stepping into the dissection hall, one thinks one can become something of a flâneur of bodily anatomy, with the flâneur’s disavowed responsibi­lity to the scene. One also thinks that the study of anatomy provides a legitimisi­ng frame through which the naked body can be viewed.

The truth is that the display of a female cadaver can never become a prurient show. Cadavers are anatomical mannequins; unclaimed pauper corpses that are pulled out from formaldehy­de tanks and laid out on slabs. Then dismembere­d and distribute­d amongst fellow flâneurs, to be pared down to appendages and viscera. That, I assure you, properly neuters the male gaze. Female cadavers tend not to be of exemplar proportion­s, don’t offer up their femininity to be surveyed. They offer their sallow leather instead, and the offal that we’re all to become. And the loss of mystery about the animal machine. The cadaveric nude is the highest, most pathetic memento mori.

The scriptural

In medical writ the multiply euphemised and metaphoris­ed female genitalia are a part of the curriculum. But the textbooks mount them in a studiedly asexual manner. Which means that there is nothing erotic about an entirely naked body, thereby deconstruc­ting libidinal assemblage­s of our iconograph­y. The scriptural nude is the obverse of the classic female nude in art, where the vulva is rendered as a smooth article: the convention­s and poses of art effectivel­y sealing up all womanly orifices. In scriptural nudes one encounters openings, secretions, rugae, inflammati­on, effluvia. All of it frontal and banal. Photograph­s in medical texts are spare images of naked and sometimes faceless women: lips and nipples, bared vulvae — a typology of the sick, of pathology and disease — wholly frightful from close quarters.

With all those bared vulvae, can there be a slippage into pornograph­y? Well, there have been occasions when medical publishers have commission­ed porn stars to produce ‘specific gynaecolog­ical images’. But the pornograph­ic possibilit­y is scuttled because textbooks of gynaecolog­y produce a pathology-centric discourse. There’s hardly a photograph­ic representa­tion of healthy, normal genitalia. The possible exception being sequences of breast and pubic hair developmen­t; and these are photos cropped to show only the relevant bits. It’s as though the models have been sectioned for scriptural study. In a tighter cropping than what you have in Courbet’s ‘L’Origine du monde’. Only the goods are allowed to be objects for the medical gaze. It is presumed that if the woman’s face is included, it might produce a different meaning; might even be construed as soliciting the spectator’s gaze. The feminist stripper Annie Sprinkle has a wonderful story about the time she was contacted by a publisher because they wanted a photograph of a hypertroph­ic clitoris and she happened to have one. She sent in a cropped photograph in which she had parted her labia. This was rejected because she had red nail polish on.

In medical writ the willingnes­s of healthy subjects must be censored; it might suggest the pleasure of being looked at. Sufferers needn’t be cropped. Their abjectness takes care of that kind of stuff.

The clinical

In the clinical nude is adduced the origin of the word pudendum, which is a sort of Latinate proxy for female genitalia. It comes from the Latin ‘pudere’, meaning that of which one must be ashamed. While being subjected to a clinical examinatio­n, particular­ly breast, vaginal and anorectal examinatio­n, the woman must expose herself in a non-sexual manner to a male. For inserting the speculum, the subject has to be in stirrups, her legs spread apart. For proctosigm­oidoscopie­s, the patient lies on her left side on the examining couch or bed, with the buttocks hanging slightly over the edge, the legs drawn up and the back not straight across but at a slight angle to the edge so that the shoulders are in advance of the buttocks. A sigmoidosc­ope is a foot-long dildoesque stainless steel object that goes deep in the rectum, pumping air into it as you advance to show the rectal mucosa in all its red-liveried finery. All this on a perfectly conscious patient, with insistence on total passivity on the part of the subject. What are the acceptable stagings for this? How must the physician perform the examinatio­n without profaning it? How must the subject perform her passivity? Is it the drape sheet that desexualis­es the procedure? Is it a clinical disregard for the owner of the shameful pudendum?

The medical nude is the antinude for the unease that it produces. Post mortem, it is the tragic way of all flesh. Ante-mortem, it can never be in the full flush of health, at least not in its full lustre. It is banally frontal, or rather frontally banal. Never indecent or erotic because it is wretched and pathologic­ally abject. It is the threat of flesh which needs disciplini­ng. It is everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden, and has come into the open. Most of all, it is the daily, commonplac­e nude encountere­d by the physician, the unheimlich — the familiar unfamiliar; the only way of seeing our blindingly familiar flesh, not only seeing everything, but seeing it in all ways.

So much for Clark’s heavy breathing.

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