The Female Malady: Mistrust and Mistreatment of Women's Bodies
In Lay Her Down Upon Her Back, Irish photographer Roisin White explores female suffering in the history of medical mistreatment, as women’s experience of discomfort has been, and continues to be, discredited.
The “rest cure” - formally attributed to American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell in the late 19th century - promised to cure frantic women of a long series of nervous illnesses: hysteria, sadness, insomnia, anxiety, migraines, and other malaises. The treatment was simple: lay in bed, do nothing. Add seclusion and a fatty diet of dairy and the therapy would be complete. Female patients were cleaned and fed by nurses but supervised by male doctors who enforced the constraint. Massages and electrotherapy maintained muscle tone. During convalescence, patients were advised not to read, write, sew, walk or even talk. A ‘catch-all’ treatment, it turned out to do more harm than good.
In the stillness of such despair, a water stain yellowing the ceiling can offer some consolation; the hefty folds of the dusty curtain or the shadow of a light bulb on a wall become the only soothing sights during the grim wait for a dubious recovery.
Intrigued by the misconstruction of “the female body as a submissive entity,” Irish photographer Roisin White produced Lay Her Down Upon Her Back, an ongoing project that traces the history of this misogynistic medical practice, the serial dismissal of female needs and pain, and the oppression of subjecting women to male authority. “It became the catalyst for the work - the idea of not having the female experience taken seriously, and how not being heard, not having your pain taken seriously can aggravate it.”
At first using abstract language and drawings, and then later influenced by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper which chronicles the writer’s gruesome experience with this cure, Lay Her Down Upon Her Back visually investigates the rest cure in its ancient and modern forms, spanning genres: archival images retrieved from flea markets and online shops are enhanced by White’s personal and artistic take. Mostly, it proves her point - women are “manhandled,” manipulated, manly hands maneuvering their bodies robbed of their voice and will.
Mannerisms and social expectations emerge from the images of a naked woman in different positions, referencing the imbalance of power between genders. In one, stiff as a board, a woman’s body bridges two chairs, an unnatural pose uncomfortable to watch. “It's a stressful position, but it's made to look easy,” White explains. “That's the main thing - women would just get on with it and put themselves through things so as not to cause trouble, and not complain,” enduring the discomfort without a fuss. “[It’s] the kind of attitude that women are just supposed to greet and bear these kinds of struggles and do it smiling.”
For White, the issue hits close to home, as maternity wards in Ireland have a reputation for mismanagement and mistreatment. In her work, the neglect is skilfully rendered in the image of a veil concealing a woman’s face: her body exposed, her person(ality) hidden.
As a backdrop for White’s work is the 2018 abortion referendum whose staggering participation rocked Ireland’s conservative faction, overturning a 35-year ban on birth terminations. Still, women’s bodies remain a site of conflict: in May, Alabama legislature passed one of the most restrictive abortion bills in the United States.
While tracing the perception of mental illness, from 19th-century hysteria to today’s neurosis, White’s work also embraces the other side of the coin - the performative aspect sometimes attributed to hysteria fits (homeless women feigning seizure to secure a bunk in a ward.) Still, Lay Her Down Upon Her Back is a wider reflection on the stigma that exposes how unprepared we find ourselves to heal, or even hear about, a condition that is still difficult to address. A pain that White audaciously presents in the restlessness of her own body, “the kind of physical tension and hysteria that is seen to plague women,” her limbs spider-like and stretching on a pristine bed where no rest is found.
This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.