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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.2 (2000) 161-172

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Jarring Bodies: Thoughts on the Display of Unusual Anatomies

Alice Domurat Dreger * **

This past April I woke up suddenly from a frightening yet laughable little dream in which I couldn't breathe because Governor John Engler, dressed in a power suit, was sitting on my naked chest. My dreams have always been this transparent; they would bore a psychotherapist. I knew immediately when I awoke what this dream was about. The next day I had an appointment with a professional photographer who was going to take a picture of me, bare except for my wedding ring on my left ring finger and a hospital bracelet around my right wrist. After he developed the picture in black and white--assuming I didn't chicken out--he would use PhotoShop to make three changes: impose a stark measurement grid behind me, black out my eyes with a rectangular band, and blur what my mate, Aron, calls "the naughty bits."

This picture would then be used for an anthology I was editing about the medical treatment of people born intersexed--the kind of people who used to be called hermaphrodites. I wanted to use this picture to make a point about the difference it makes whether people (including doctors and medical students) see intersexed people primarily the way medical books show them, or the way intersexed people see themselves. The volume, Intersex in the Age of Ethics, includes autobiographies of living intersexed people, and accompanying many of the autobiographies are photos of the authors looking like "normal" people [1]. They are shown with their [End Page 161] pets and their lovers, clothed and smiling, with clear, focused eyes--very much not blacked out.

The chief aim of the inclusion of a textbook-style picture was to contrast clearly these two kinds of images. The picture illuminated the paradox of the masking of patients: making patients anonymous by using pseudonyms (or no names) and by shielding their faces is great for protecting their privacy, but it is also terrible for the way in which it immediately dehumanizes them. Contributing a photo of myself in the medical textbook style also showed how anyone, even a non-intersexed person like me, could look rather pathological if photographed this way.

I learned from contriving this "medical" photo of myself that the intersex activist Cheryl Chase was absolutely right when she told me the only thing the black band over the eyes accomplishes is saving the viewer from having the subject stare back. Even with my blackened eyes and blurred parts, those who know me can recognize me in that picture. This being the case, the decision to do this photo shoot was not an easy one, as indicated by the stressful dream in which Governor Engler embodied my university and by my choice to have the "naughty bits" blurred, something you would never see in medical texts about intersex, since the whole point of those photos is to show the sexual anatomy. Yet the decision to do the photo addressed the lament, chiming in my consciousness, that I had heard time and again from intersexed people about their medical "exhibitions." These people were talking about the general problem of medical textbooks showing intersexed people not just as different but as tragically deformed [2]. But they also spoke of specific personal experiences. They themselves, as children and adolescents, had been repeatedly subjected to physical and visual examinations by medical students, residents, and attending physicians [3]. Although it was certainly not the medical professionals' intentions, these "exhibitions" had left the subjects feeling freakish and violated--"like insects tacked to a board for study" [4].

This outcome is painfully ironic, since the central goal of the medical treatment of intersex is to help intersexed people feel normal and happy [5]. Protocols for treating intersex children are founded upon the belief that ambiguous sexual anatomy constitutes "a social emergency" [6]. Although ambiguous genitals may signal an underlying metabolic disorder, they themselves are not diseased; they just look different...


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pp. 161-172
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