Swati Joshi //
The word ornament brings to mind the image of an entity that is stereotypically designated for “embellishment” (Rosenbauer 1947, 222). While analyzing ornaments as beautifying agents, we recall the inseparability of beauty and gaze, and that the object of beauty (whether human or non-human) surrenders to the gaze of the observer. The intention of the patriarchal and androcentric gaze darted at these embellishing apparatuses has traditionally been to silence the individuals who don them. This is highlighted by Virginia Woolf, who writes that the history of most women is “hidden either by silence, or by flourishes and ornaments that amount to silence.” This phrase of Woolf’s later became the epigraph of Kennedy Fraser’s book Ornament and Silence: Essays on Women’s Lives From Edith Wharton to Germaine Greer (1998). In my article, I locate gynocritical languages of protest against the definition of womanhood as motherhood on digital platforms, such as online websites selling uterus jewellery and hysterectomy blog sites. The gynocentric take on ornaments posits them as pharmakon. In his text, Dissemination (1981), Jacques Derrida critiques the Platonic idea of pharmakon, which is interpreted as a “remedy” (97). Nonetheless, the same pharmakon, “can be both good (agatha) and painful (aniara)” (Derrida 1981, 99). Extending this Derridean analogy, this piece will demonstrate how ornaments that have been used to impose silence can be employed to protest through the digital platform.
Uterus jewellery problematizes the androcentric view of the reproductive organ as a sacrosanct cultural symbol intended to promote the performance of womanhood through motherhood. Uterus jewellery provides corporeality to the organ that is usually portrayed as symbol of veneration, owing to its patriarchy-imposed function of reproducing progeny. Particularly important in destabilizing these traditional strictures is the role of the uterus jewellery artist, whose workmanship is critical to ending the worship of uterus.
Traditionally, as ornaments work as embellishments, they also act as social catalysts for gender. Certain ornaments highlight masculinity, while others declare femininity. In this context, literature has played a vital role in exposing vulnerable feminine silence: “As leaves are an ornament to trees, the fleeces to sheep, the manes to horses, the beards to men, so silence is an ornament to women” (1864, 17). This quotation from Sophocles’ Greek tragedy, Ajax, highlights how ornament becomes a (figurative) tool for reinforcing gender. Meanwhile, the relationship between silence and ornament goes both ways: silence is an ornament employed to heighten femininity, and ornaments are used as efficient equipment to silence women.
Yet the notion that ornamentation brings only silence and surrender is challenged by the contemporary uterus jewellery. Uterine patterns imprinted on ductile materials can act as agents of cultural change and have the potential to challenge the patriarchal notion of ornamentation as a means to silence women. According to Online Etymology Dictionary, the word ornament is derived from “Latin ornamentum,” literally meaning “equipment” (Harper). The very ornaments used by the patriarchal society to silence women are now being remodelled by artists who are designing the jewellery that have uterus patterns embedded in them. In one of my conversations with one such ingenious Ukrainian artist, Ellen Rococo, she reported, “With different designs, I wanted to show how much we all are women with different inner worlds.” Rococo’s relevant statement exploring women’s reappropriation of the uterus through ornament acts as a link with the hysterectomy narratives that will be examined further in this paper.
The cultural belief in the uterus as an ornament that makes a woman complete has been promoted by and within patriarchal society since time immemorial. As a result, women have come to understand the existence of their womanhood in terms of the presence and functionality of their reproductive organs. The anxiety of losing their womanhood with the loss of their uterus is captured in the hysterectomy narratives posted on the digital forums: “Loss of reproductive organs created insecurity regarding gender identity for those women, including women who had already borne children or were past menopause” (Armeli 2015). Rococo’s jewellery gives voice to every woman and challenges the patriarchal definition of womanhood that depends on the presence and functionality of the female reproductive organs. “Ellen was very surprised, that among her clients: she had people to come for hope such as midwives, new mothers, ladies that are trying for a baby, struggling to conceive or have lost their babies in the past or had a hysterectomy for different reasons, they all wanted a modern art uterus talisman” (2018).
Employing this artistic movement as the backdrop, this piece will proceed to analyse hysterectomy narratives posted on various blog sites to demonstrate how the digital world in paving the way for a revolution in culture that would allow female artists, patients and allies (e.g. midwives) alike to voice their protest against the patriarchy-devised definition of womanhood.
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Society might develop synonyms for uterus such as womb or metra to portray it as a sacred space—but the uterus is fundamentally a corporeal entity, as one woman, Tonya, reported. In addition to fibroids, she also had adenomyosis: “It was like having a baby, birth pains, every month. I had some 800mg ibuprofen left from a dental procedure, and a Tylenol and that would stop the pain…” (The Centre for Innovative Gyn Care 2019). This excerpt from Tonya’s narrative offers a gynocritical lens to perceive the uterus as an organ, just like the liver or the kidney, which could be impaired. The concept of gynocriticism was coined by Elaine Showalter in her essay “Toward A Feminist Poetics” (1979, 131), which understands women as writers working to challenge patriarchal representation. Taking a gynocritical perspective might enable readers to see that when something is considered sacred, it is also assumed to be immune to abrasion and degeneration, something that can never undergo injuries, dysfunctionality, or damage. Tonya’s narrative demonstrates how patriarchal society valorizes the uterus as sacred within collective consciousness. Yet this patriarchal view does not take the corporeality and the materiality of uterus into consideration. Challenging the androcentric portrayal of uterus as a sacred, abstract concept, Tonya’s story emphasizes instead the need to accept the uterus as a woman’s biological property owned by her: “With one of my friends, I really had to talk to her about having a hysterectomy and my experience. She felt like she was giving up her womanhood…Even though I don’t have my cycle, I still have the emotions that come with it” (The Centre for Innovative Gyn Care 2019). Here, Tonya offers insight into how women who have undergone hysterectomy feel about their womanhood. Her comment exposes the cultural belief, consistent with the dominant patriarchal perspective, that hysterectomy is not a medical procedure required for women suffering from problems related to uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tube, but is rather an unwomaning procedure.
Through this gynocritical view, hysterectomy stories of women undergoing the procedure before their first pregnancy strengthen the revolt against equating womanhood with motherhood. In an article titled “I had a hysterectomy at 33. It was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Bonnie Bolden narrates the experience of a patient who had undergone hysterectomy, whose concern was to cure Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and endometriosis. “Procreation wasn’t a concern for me,” reported the patient (Bolden 2019). This story casts new light on one way a woman might view her uterus, her wellbeing, and her identity. The patient doesn’t adhere her womanhood to motherhood, and her sole goal is to maintain her fitness. That is why she opts for hysterectomy before pregnancy.
Like Rococo’s uterus jewellery, women’s digital stories of hysterectomy have the strength to bring out the corporeality of the uterus, challenging the patriarchal view of the organ as a sacred ornament. Digital platforms, such as online shopping sites and health forums, have not only been helping female artists and patients to debunk several myths regarding hysterectomy, but they have also de-ornamentalized the organ, thereby initiating a cultural re-evaluation of the existing definitions of womb, woman, and womanhood at a global level.
Swati Joshi is a doctoral student pursuing Medical Humanities at Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar. Prior to joining IITGN, she was working as a Lecturer of English Literature at St. Xavier’s College Ahmedabad.
Armeli, Alicia. “Who Am I Without My Uterus? The Psychological, Social and Cultural Stigmas of Hysterectomy.” HUFFPOST. 20 Oct. 2016. Web. 15 May 2020.
Bolden, Bonnie. “I had a hysterectomy at 33. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.” New Star. 3 Jan. 2019. Web. 24 May 2020.
Derrida, Jacques. “The Pharmokon.” Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. London: The Athlone Press, 1981. 95-117. Print.
Fraser, Kennedy. Ornament and Silence: Essays on Women’s Lives From Edith Wharton to Germaine Greer. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1998. Print.
Harper, Douglas. Online Etymology Dictionary. Web. 20 May 2020.
Rococo, Ellen. ellenrococo. “With different designs…” Conversation with the author on Instagram, 28 May 2020.
Rosenbauer, Wallace. “The Function of Ornament.” College Art Journal 6.3 (1947): 222-225. JSTOR CAA Advancing Art and Design. Web. 22 May 2020.
Showalter, Elaine. ‘‘Toward a Feminist Poetics’’. The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. London: Virago, 1986. 125- 143. Print.
Wunder, Edward, ed. Sophocles’ Ajax. London: William and Norgate, 1864. Google Book Search. Web. 13 May 2020.
“Tonya Got Her Life Back: CIGC Minimally Invasive Hysterectomy.” The Centre for Innovative Gyn Care. 2016. Web. 21 May 2020.
“Modern Art: The Uterus Necklaces by Ellen Rococo.” ILOBOYOU. 26 Apr. 2018. Web. 24 May 2020