Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body (25 page)

BOOK: Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body
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The process of symmetry loss gains pace with the emergence in the embryo of an arrangement of cells known as the primitive streak. As growth continues, cells begin to apportion themselves equally either side of this putative midline of the organism. Although the same set of genetic instructions is used to make the corresponding parts on either side of this line, it is something of a mystery as to how the cells, which seem otherwise identical, direct themselves into mirror-image positions. The cells may pick up positional information by detecting variations in waves of cellular activity, rather like a driver using a satellite navigation system. But this still leaves the problem of directed left–right asymmetry.

An unignorable potential clue to the phenomenon was revealed in 1848, when the young Louis Pasteur discovered that certain chemical molecules exist in left- and right-handed versions. He knew that tartaric acid rotated polarized light (light filtered in a special way) to the right, while tartaric acid made synthetically had no such effect. When he crystallized some of the synthetically made acid, he found he had an equal mixture of crystals that were mirror images of one another. Half were the ‘dextrorotatory’ form, the one that occurs in nature, and half a new ‘laevorotatory’ form. It was eventually discovered that many biological molecules, including sugars, amino acids and DNA, have this property. It can matter greatly which form of these substances is present in our bodies, as the author Lewis Carroll seems to have guessed. Lactose and lactic acid are two examples of so-called ‘handed’ molecules that occur naturally in only one of their handed versions. In
Through the Looking-glass
, Alice holds her kitten up to the mirror and wonders if it would like it there, but then she considers: ‘Perhaps Looking-glass milk isn’t good to drink.’

It is hard to believe that this molecular handedness is not connected in some way with the overall handedness of biological organisms. So are our left–right asymmetries ‘due to some molecular asymmetry that is transferred to a global asymmetry’, as the embryologist Lewis Wolpert suggests? If so, how might this scaling-up take place? Wolpert speculates that asymmetric molecules produced along the embryo midline may function chemically to push certain other molecules – and cells – preferentially to one side rather than the other.

A chemical mechanism like this may explain the left- and right-hand biases we (almost) all share, such as having the heart on the left. But what makes nature produce handed molecules in unequal quantities? The answer to this is not known for sure. However, the mirror-image forms of amino acids and other biologically important substances contain one last asymmetry – more of their electrons spin leftwards than rightwards. Might this explain the bias? If so, how did this disparity arise? Perhaps there was some cosmic event to cause it, such as a great burst of polarized light. In that case, there may be another half of the universe where the opposite bias applies.

As for left- and right-handedness in behaviour, the psychologist Chris McManus proposes a genetic mechanism. Handedness may be controlled by two genes, not a
gene and
gene as you might expect, but one that favours right-handedness, called
, and one that does not discriminate, called
. Such a mechanism would account for the observed (natural, rather than culturally suppressed) minority of left-handers in the overall population. As is always the case when the talk turns to ‘a gene for . . .’, it raises the prospect of genetic therapy. We might one day be able to ‘cure’ left-handedness by suppressing the
gene. But would it not be a sign of our liberation from age-old superstition if instead we chose to suppress the
gene and leave everything to fifty-fifty chance?

The Sex


The best sight gag in the entire history of art must be the fig leaf. How large it is! And how very suggestive in its shape! How it engrosses what it purports to hide. How many other plant leaves might have done the job with less blatancy. And yet the fig leaf it assuredly is that artists have elected to use when asked to preserve the public decency. The Bible gives them their cover story: in Genesis, when Adam and Eve realized their nakedness, ‘they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons’. But aprons are garments that surely provide rather more coverage than the single, strategically positioned leaf of artistic convention, with its three major lobes simultaneously screening and outlining the penis and testicles behind, and two further vestigial lobes appearing so neatly to represent curls of pubic hair.

The artistic fig leaf became all but mandatory when in 1563 the Roman Catholic Council of Trent ruled that ‘all lasciviousness be avoided’ in religious images ‘in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust’. Up until that date, in Classical statues and in the Renaissance art inspired by them, false modesty had taken a different form. The human figure was often modelled on the bodies of athletes, who performed their exertions naked. In a monument to a civic dignitary, a philosopher or a general, a well-toned body was the sculptor’s means of indicating their good citizenship. The artist would carve the genitals on such statues to be somewhat less than life size. Unless the point was to celebrate fertility, as with the conspicuously erect penis of Priapus, the Greek god so eagerly adopted by the Romans, a sculpted penis of normal size, even a flaccid one, was thought vulgar and a distraction from the achievements that it was the business of the statue to celebrate.

The first nude statue to be put on public display in London since Roman times was the monument raised to the Duke of Wellington not long after his victory over Napoleon’s armies at Waterloo. The sculptor Richard Westmacott created a dynamic bronze figure of Achilles so large that it could not be transported into Hyde Park, where it was to be stationed, without knocking down a wall. The artist had taken the precaution of including a fig leaf, but the leaf – and presumably also any genitals that it hid – was comically small. The caricaturist George Cruikshank was not slow to see the potential. His cartoon of the unveiling shows ladies clustered round the statue, which was paid for by a subscription of British women and ‘erected in
Park’, as the caption explains in a barrage of puns. ‘My eyes what a size!!’ one lady squeals, while another at last locates the salient detail with the aid of a telescope. ‘I understand it is intended to represent His Grace after bathing in the Serpentine,’ another opines. See, one lady tells the duke himself, ‘what we ladies
can raise
when we wish to put a man in mind of what he has done & we hope
will do again
when call’d for!’ And inevitably, a small child points to the leaf: ‘What is
mama’. Immune to such ridicule, the Victorians retrofitted fig leaves to many statues. Even the cast of Michelangelo’s
in the Victoria and Albert Museum sports this extra adornment.

In the art of the nude, man gains symbolic virtue at the expense of personal identity. After all, Westmacott never would have represented
actually naked. Nor would the British public have expected to see their great leader’s actual private parts or even his body replicated in bronze. Woman also loses her identity: she becomes simply ‘the nude’, the generic of female sexuality and vulnerability. The male nude swaggers through the city streets, keeping public decency with his fig leaf. The female nude is for private consumption, preserving her modesty more coyly in what is known in the trade as the pudica pose – with one hand attempting, more or less vaguely, to cover (or is it directing the eye towards?) the genital area. The specialist word in fact acknowledges this ambiguity, stemming as it does from Latin words for both external genitals and shame.

In both cases, we remain uncomfortable about honest depiction of the sex. We have even communicated our prudery into outer space. Michelangelo’s
may have a small penis, but the gold-plated representation of woman sent out far beyond our solar system aboard the
Pioneer 10
Pioneer 11
space probes in 1972 and 1973 has no vagina at all. Why are we withholding the story of our true physical appearance from other species? Will they puzzle over how we reproduce?

The idea that the spacecraft – the first human-made object intended to leave the solar system – should carry some sort of message about the creatures that sent it was enthusiastically taken up by the space scientist and television personality Carl Sagan. At first, only scientific diagrams indicating our location in the universe and one or two other things that we have discovered about it were to be included. But Sagan’s artist wife, Linda Salzman, suggested that the graphic should also show a man and a woman. The figures are supposed to have ‘panracial’ features, to use Sagan’s word, though Salzman based them on Greek ideals and the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. But any fashion-conscious alien would immediately note that their hairstyles alone pinpoint them in the late twentieth century and imply a Caucasian ethnicity. In fact, so provincial do the couple seem, the man waving in greeting, the woman standing demurely at his side, that a satirical magazine in Berkeley ran the image with the caption: ‘Hello. We’re from Orange County.’ As Sagan wrote: ‘The man’s right hand is raised in what I once read in an anthropology book is a “universal” sign of good will – although any literal universality is of course unlikely.’

plaque excited comment from almost every quarter. Women wanted to know why the woman wasn’t also waving. Homosexuals demanded to know why homosexual partnership wasn’t represented. The art critic Ernst Gombrich pointed out in
Scientific American
that only aliens with a visual system that operates within the same specific region of the spectrum as our own would be able to see the image.

But the most heated debate swirled around the nakedness of the humans and their visible or invisible sex organs. The two figures stand slightly apart rather than holding hands as initially conceived, so that they are not misconstrued as a single hermaphroditic organism. But other than this subtlest of clues, there is little to indicate that we are a species reliant upon sexual reproduction, which seems a significant omission considering that this phenomenon remains one of the deepest oddities about life on earth. Reprinted in newspapers, the design drew predictable accusations of pornography. The
Philadelphia Inquirer
took the precaution of erasing the woman’s nipples and the man’s genitals. The
Chicago Sun Times
progressively amended the versions they printed in successive editions of the day’s paper to obliterate the man’s genitals, too. On the other hand, the incompleteness of the woman’s drawing also provoked complaints of censorship. Sagan defended the omission of a line representing the vagina on grounds of artistic tradition, although it seems that he and his wife took the decision at least partly to head off any difficulties with puritans among the NASA top brass.


Sagan pointed to ancient Greek statuary in particular, although the Greeks created few statues of women other than Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. For the most part, during both the Classical and neoclassical periods, artists preferred to duck the whole issue by the use of the pudica pose or a strategically draped cloth, but it is true that female nudes made without these devices did, like the
drawings, generally omit any hint of a vagina. As Sagan himself noted, the real value of the whole episode was to raise the issue of how we represent ourselves to ourselves more than to any other species.

The French twentieth-century philosopher Roland Barthes made much the same complaint of incompleteness when discussing Parisian striptease in his
. ‘Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked,’ he discovers. (We imagine the poor ecdysiast doing her best as the learned semiotician sits in his pullover and tweed jacket, taking notes.) ‘We may therefore say that we are dealing in a sense with a spectacle based on fear, or rather on the pretence of fear, as if eroticism here went no further than a sort of delicious terror, whose ritual signs have only to be announced to evoke at once the idea of sex and its conjuration.’ The fig leaf presents a vegetable barrier to the fleshy, animal sex. The diamanté g-string that is revealed at the (anti)climax of the striptease, Barthes groans, presents an impenetrable mineral barrier. ‘This ultimate triangle, by its pure and geometrical shape, by its hard and shiny material, bars the way to the sexual parts like a sword of purity.’

We can’t leave it here. John Donne goes all the way in his elegy, ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’. All such obstacles are removed one by one in this poet’s striptease: ‘Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear, / That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopp’d there.’ Then, ‘busk’ and gown and hose come off, until at last . . .

O, my America, my new found land,

My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,

My mine of precious stones, my empery;

How blest am I in this discovering thee!


I am perched on the edge of April Ashley’s bed at her flat in west London, flipping through her personal memorabilia in a cardboard box. There are copious newspaper and magazine cuttings – ‘My Strange Life, by April Ashley’, ‘The Sailor Who Made a Fair Lady’, ‘Sex Op Girl Weds Again’ – as well as modelling photographs and a California car licence plate that reads ‘APRIL’. I’m looking for the identity documents that April has assured me with an imperious wave of her hand must be in there somewhere.

April Ashley was one of the first people in Britain to undergo a full sex-change operation. (This procedure is now generally described as gender reassignment, which is both more sensitive and more biologically accurate, as we shall see.) She was born a boy – George Jamieson – in Liverpool and grew up there in a large family during the Second World War. ‘Although I was brought up a strict Roman Catholic boy, I knew from the age dot that I was a girl,’ she wrote later. George joined the merchant navy at the age of fifteen, making his way via a succession of jobs to London and then to Paris and the stage of the Carrousel night club, famous for its female impersonators, where she adopted the stage name Toni April. She began female hormone treatment in order to accentuate her femininity, but believed only surgery would bring about the full alignment between the sex she felt herself to be and the sex she by now appeared to be that would allow her to go on living. In May 1960, aged twenty-five, she travelled to Morocco and had a surgical operation to remove the male genitals that she felt were not hers and to construct a vagina in their place. Returning to Britain, she was required to change her name by deed poll and, as April Ashley, began a long struggle for official recognition as a woman.

I find the documents I am looking for – cancelled passports, a marriage certificate, a United States resident alien card, and a birth certificate reissued in 2006. There are many ways to tell a person’s story – or, to put it more honestly, to make a story of a person. Photographs and official documents are just the most obvious and conventional way to do it – the one accepted by authority. It occurs to me that you could tell April’s story very well in shoes – the wooden clogs in increments of size that George wore growing up in the slums of Liverpool, the deck shoes of a merchant seaman, sexy heels in Paris, and the more sensible shoes of mature womanhood. That at least would have character. As it is, the official scraps of paper that mark the progress of our lives often seem to miss out what really matters to us. In April’s case, they are hardly up to the task.

April – George – was male at birth, as the paperwork records. The fact that he did not feel himself to be male as he grew up is nowhere to be found. As we saw when discussing the face, society requires us to actually be what we appear to be, with little regard for all the other things that we might feel ourselves to be. If you have male genitals, you tick the M box on the form. If you have a vagina, tick F. They are the only options. So far as officialdom is concerned, sex and gender are one and the same. Only after she had had her operation was April able to change her name and obtain a passport in her female identity.

April has been married twice. The first marriage was not a success, and her first husband filed for an annulment on the basis that April had been of the male sex at the time of the marriage, even though the marriage took place after she had had her operation, with a new passport used as proof of identity at the ceremony. The case came to court in November 1969. April underwent physical and psychological examinations by medical teams for both the prosecution and the defence. They showed her to have normal male XY chromosomes, but she scored towards the ‘female’ end of the sexual spectrum in a psychological test. In a controversial ruling with far-reaching implications, the judge disregarded April’s psychological profile and the fact of her surgical alteration, and declared that the ‘true sex of the respondent’ was that indicated by the chromosomal evidence and original anatomy. The case provided a legal precedent for deeming a person’s sex in English law to be that which it was at birth, regardless of their subsequent gender history. Only in 2004 was the law liberalized to allow transsexual people to be recognized in the gender to which they have transitioned. The Gender Recognition Act now provides for the amendment of birth certificates to show the new gender. This enables people who have undergone gender reassignment to keep their former gender confidential from employers and partners.

BOOK: Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body
6.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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