The Hindu Business Line
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.
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.
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.
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.