"Everything Below the Waist: Why Health Care Needs A Feminist Revolution," by Jennifer Block (St. Martin's Press, 336 pp., ★★★ out of four), is a fascinating examination of the past and present of women's health care.
It's also frustrating to learn how women are still suffering from a lack of information and proper care in the modern health care system.
Part science, part history and always personal, Block's dense and thoughtful book asks women to question everything they've been taught about their bodies. Interwoven with straightforward information are accounts of women and their experiences with the medical system.
Block clarifies that her book focuses on people who were born with female sex organs, however they identify. For women who have hormonally transitioned, this book might not fully address their health concerns.
“People who have transitioned or are in the process of doing so might still find value in knowing the health impacts of many treatments and procedures discussed here," Block says..
Here is a breakdown of the three main points made in "Everything Below the Waist."
1. “We have to recognize the foundation of obstetrics and gynecology as born of a racist ideology rooted in the institution of slavery.”
As revolutionary as the practice of gynecology was, its development came at the expense of women's consent and was created from the curiosity of a male-dominated institution over women’s bodies. The science of gynecology grew from midwifery but took a dark turn in the middle of the nineteenth century, starting with the “father of gynecology” himself.
James Marion Sims (1813-1883) refined the speculum and is credited with making the first women’s hospital. But before that, he operated on enslaved women without anesthesia. Most pioneering surgeries from early American gynecology occurred between white doctors and black slave patients. Many white doctors argued that because the women were black, they were impervious to pain with the impunity of “dogs and rabbits.”
This didn’t end in the 19th century. Gynecological abuse continued through the birth-control movement, with experimentation on women in Puerto Rico at a time when birth control was sometimes seen as the key to eugenics.
2. There might be truth behind the “wandering womb” myth.
Early physicians and anatomists believed in the “wandering womb.” The idea was that a woman's uterus could travel through her body, causing havoc and even "madness." Today, we might see this as a disturbing albeit hilarious interpretation of women's bodies. But according to the book, there might be some truth to the myth.
Megan Assaf always had terrible periods. Every month brought excruciating pain and severe digestive problems. Sometimes she would throw up, and even go to the hospital. She was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome; today she might be diagnosed with endometriosis.
Feeling desperate, she decided to try a uterine massage. She found that not only was her uterus upside down, but stuck behind a descending colon. The massage wasn't a miracle cure, but it did increase her quality of life immensely and cleared out a massive amount of old blood that has been pooling in her uterus for years. Assaf is now herself a practitioner of women's massage therapies.
This method of treatment isn’t widely known, but it is hardly new. Historically, uterine massage has been a standard of women’s health care around the world and is one of many alternative remedies Block explores in the book.
3. Achieving empowerment through speculums.
During the first wave of feminism, women began “taking back their bodies.” Specifically, by grabbing a mirror and speculum and viewing their cervixes for the first time.
The first wave of feminism largely saw gynecology as the “ground zero” of the patriarchy. Midwives in particular had always been looked down upon. Herbs that can safely induce abortion and botanical birth control had been largely written out of history as medical training became formalized.
In Europe, midwife teachings were considered that of the “old women” who often were subjugated to inquisition and murder through witch burnings. This is largely because the universities that study medicine were male-dominated and owned by the church. “Family planning” was not considered part of medicine the way treating disease and injury were. Although there's not a direct cause and effect, Block explores the connection between the legality of abortion and its evolution from botanical devices to medical instruments.
Block’s book is just as informational as it is a call to action — to take the speculum, look at our cervix, demand better research and rewrite the entire health care system.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Everything Below the Waist' tackles women's health care