(WOMENSENEWS)–The 16th century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote about a man in Vitry-le-François who had grown up a girl.
She jumped across a river one day and the trauma of a heavy landing on the riverbank brought down the testicles that had lain dormant in her since birth.
The idea that women were "imperfect men" goes back a couple of thousand years as far as Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen.
To Galen, a 2nd century Greek physician and philosopher who lived in the Roman empire, women were conceived with the same genitalia as men, but because of a lack of heat while a fetus, the testicles did not descend. Sex was determined, then, by whether the testicles had descended, creating boys, or undescended, thereby creating girls.
It is sadly surprising that, earlier this month, at the start of National Women’s History Month 2015, another story landed in the public spotlight showing us how little we’ve moved past the notion of "imperfect men" and shape-changing myths.
A modern manifestation of women’s lesser perfection, ironically, is the impossibly perfect standards of female imagery. In other words, no matter how hard we try, we just don’t measure up. As wannabe, or halfway, men, we are stuck in this critical struggle over our appearance.
Consider the allegedly un-retouched photograph of supermodel Cindy Crawford, age 48, in a bikini and showing some stretch marks, which quickly went viral and which we have now learned was itself doctored to make her look older. In the earliest reactions to the photo, amidst cheers of "Yes! This is what 48-year-old women really look like!" (yeah, I wish), what emerged yet again in the discussions is the persistence of unrealistic ideas about the beauty of women, of just about any age.
This has been going on for years.
Seeming Moment of Transformation
When the actress Jamie Lee Curtis bravely posed for a magazine in 2009, wearing only a sports bra and spandex briefs, no make-up, while photographed under harsh lights, it seemed to be a moment that could transform future portrayals of women.
And yet, here we are years later astonished at the picture of a 48-year-old woman with a bit of a sagging tummy, galvanized into a defense of depicting and not Photoshopping out the body of a real woman. Except for a few discussions about the occasional tubby politician, men do not face this kind of public anatomical dissection that’s meant to diminish or demean the realistic female body.
Indeed, as we also know, even much younger women’s photos routinely undergo plastic surgery by photographic means, and we have an astonishing number of women who seek "perfection" or at least improvement by cosmetic surgical procedures. Quite simply, we differ from our male counterparts in our perceived lesser perfection that requires major and minor upgrades.
To go back again a few hundred years, Montaigne had much to say on the topic of female beauty, which he claimed was the "true privilege" or "true advantage" of women, for women are incapable of friendship and high intellectual achievement, among other things. Most of his references to women touch on female sexuality, male desire and beautiful or ugly women. Sound familiar?
Women have perpetuated the standards of beauty, whether by their own conviction or capitulation to male attitudes. Montaigne claims that Queen Marguerite de Navarre, author of the "Heptameron," and brother of the French King François I, in attempting to extend the privilege of a woman beyond beauty alone, made it clear that beauty had an age limit. According to Montaigne, she ordained that after the age of 30 a woman could change her title from that of being "beautiful" to being "good."
Our physical lesserness remains a rights issue for teen girls, even when legislation has worked to counteract discriminations.
Recently, the Department of Education ruled that New York City high schools have violated the gender equity principle of Title IX by not providing enough spots on sports teams for girls. Such injustice carries an echo from deep history.
Male Ruler, Female Subject
In his work "Politics," Aristotle wrote: "as regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject."
Galen built on Aristotle’s ideas with his own hierarchical theories of anatomy, and his medical assertions were considered to be scientific fact until well into the 16th century, as Montaigne’s anecdote tells us. As perceived inferior beings or "imperfect men," girls and women lacked the opportunities afforded boys and men, an ongoing historical trap. We see it at work in the way society consistently offers less to girls than to boys and abrogates women’s human rights.
Female students’ right to educational equity under Title IX also extends to safety from sexualized violence but there again we see how that human right gets shortchanged.
On my campus and others, sexual assault remains a grim reality in dorm rooms and as a topic of administrative discussions.
Historically, in the ancient and medieval worlds, rape often had to do more with abduction and forced marriages, with an assault on the honor of the male relatives of the victim, or an attack on their "property," than with a crime against women. As the "weaker sex," "subject to males," only when pregnancy occurred did the authorities weigh in on the topic of fault, placing blame squarely on women.
Many thinkers before Galen believed that men imparted seed to women and that alone engendered pregnancy.
But again, Galen’s scientific theories held sway for centuries. He claimed that both men and women emitted seed during sexual intercourse, but that women could emit seed only if they felt pleasure during the sex act. And if they felt pleasure, it followed that there had been no rape.
The late 20th century reclassification of rape as violence and aggression–and not about sex–about power differentials and domination, reflects our struggle with ancient views of man as the legitimate dominator and woman as appropriately subjugated, a world of perfect men and imperfect ones.
History is our trap, unless we understand how it is working on us, from the depths of time.
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