- Joanna Bourke *
- BBC HistoryExtra Magazine
The body has a history, and attitudes towards it have evolved over the centuries.
We chose three parts and we bring you anecdotes of moments in which they were protagonists.
1. The battle for breasts in the United States
On June 21, 1986, seven American women were arrested for being in the nude in a park in Rochester, New York.
They were protesting a law that criminalized women for not covering their breasts but not men.
The judge ruled that the State was right in requiring that “the female breast should not be displayed in public places” because “the standards of the community (…) consider the female breast as an intimate part of the human body.”
Since “community norms did not consider the exposure of men’s breasts offensive,” the judge concluded, the men were allowed to roam shirtless.
In other words, women’s breasts were offensive; men were not.
Male nipples used to be just as shocking as female ones. In fact, it was illegal for men in the United States to expose their chest in public.
Beginning in the early 1930s, men on the beaches of Coney Island, Westchester, and Atlantic City began to protest. The male swimmers removed their shirts and bathing suits that covered the nipples. They were ridiculed, called “gorillas”, fined and threatened with arrest.
A magistrate rebuked them with the words: “All of you, comrades, They may be a Adonis, but there are many people who oppose to see so much of the exposed human body “.
However, by the end of the decade, the “Adonis” had earned the right to flaunt their breasts.
This is not because women’s breasts are significantly different from men’s.
At birth, the breasts of girls and boys are the same. Adult women tend to have larger breasts than men, but many men have large breasts and many women have small ones.
Both male and female breasts consist of tissue, fat deposits, pectoral muscles, and mammary glands.
They both have a similar number of nerve endings and a degree of “erectile capacity.” Male nipples are clearly erogenous. With the right hormones, men can breastfeed. In fact, they have.
Clearly, the rules on public indecency and bodily liberties have to do with gender.
(The legal battle was later won in New York and other parts of the US where women are free to expose their breasts in whatever context a man may expose theirs. The Topfreedom movement continues its fight) .
2. Tears down the penis
The penis can be an uncertain and erratic organ.
In the United Kingdom and the United States of the 19th century, male anxieties were caused by the spread of a new and hateful (albeit phantom) disease: spermatorrhea, or the excessive and involuntary discharge of sperm.
It was believed to be caused by masturbation or ‘self-contamination’, as well as indulgence in all things sexual.
It was also a disease of civilization, disproportionately plaguing urban professionals.
Although women were tempted, spermatorrhea eout fundamentally the fault of men themselves.
Considered a vital fluid, even a refined form of blood, the leakage of semen was thought to be extremely debilitating.
As an anonymous Victorian gentleman calling himself Walter wrote in his memoirs, “My Secret Life,” he had been warned: “You look sick … you’ve been masturbating … I can see it on your face, you’ll die in a madhouse or of consumption “.
The spermatorrhea allegedly caused constipation, “nervousness”, flaccidity and impotence. It made men cry and weak.
Cures for spermatorrhea phatedn be as distressing as the ailment per se.
Doctors recommended everything from leeches and laxatives to blisters on the penis, dilatation of the anus, and inserting the penis into a urethral ring with sharp “teeth.” The less drastic proposed exercise in the open air, gymnastics and cold baths.
The panic over excessive sperm discharges occurred at the same time as the fear of insufficient flow.
Businessmen and Doctors eager to make a quick buck they had known for a long time that form it was easy to explode the anxiety by the functioning of the penis.
They marketed products with names like ‘Aromatic tablets of steel’ or ‘Elixir of life’. The Mormon association promoted the labeling of aphrodisiacs called ‘Bishop Mormon Tablets’ and ‘Brigham Young Tablets’.
Ingenious devices that promised to strengthen or lengthen the penis were also touted.
3. The eyes, reflection of the world
From ancient times to today’s most popular self-help books, the eyes have been seen as “windows to the soul.”
They are deeply mythological, metaphorical, and historical.
Think of the divine eyes of the Egyptians; the Greek evil eye; the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva, who has a terrifying third eye on his forehead “whose look reduce athe world in ashes“.
There are huge cultural variations in the eyes.
In the West, honesty is reflected in “looking eye to eye”, an act that is considered rude in Japan and among the native peoples of Australia and Canada.
Indeed, the judgments made on the eyes have been incredibly damaging to indigenous peoples: for example, the invaders viewed the failure of Aboriginal peoples to make eye contact as proof of their dishonesty.
In the UK, Victorians viewed the body as the location of the human essence, and the eyes played a dominant role in their assessments.
One of the most prominent proponents was Sir Charles Bell.
In his “Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression in Connection with the Fine Arts” (1806), he argued that human eyes had been designed to be “indicative of the highest and holiest emotions” that “distinguish man from brutes.”
Therefore, when people were “wrapped up in devotional feelings,” their eyes instinctively looked up to the heavens.
Bell admitted that “the savage” may not always believe in God, but even he raised his eyes “to the canopy of heaven” when he “prayed for rice and yams.” It was “an action neither taught nor acquired.” The anatomy had a divine stamp.
Bell’s reflections were very influential, especially in the development of physiognomy in Victorian times (the practice of evaluating a person’s character from his external appearance, especially the face).
Rapid urbanization and industrialization meant that people had to find a way to quickly assess the character of large numbers of strangers. That was the promise of the physiognomy.
As one physiognomist put it: “When our stock of expressions is exhausted, we resort to the silent eloquence of the eyes, which, freed from the bondage of grammatical rules, say with a glance what numerous and complicated sentences would not have been able to express” .
According to that vision, the eyes never deceive.
The eyes not only see the world, they also reflect it.
*Joanna Bourke is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.