Of witchery and wrinkles

April 27, 2007

Seven years ago, Ann Oakley fell on a patch of ice and smashed her arm.

That trauma, and the subsequent impact it has had on her, prompted this intriguing collection of insights that, while seemingly fragmented like the splinters of her fractured bone, are held together not just by the author's account of her own experience but by her habitual vigorous feminism. And it is both appropriate and inevitable that Oakley, who has devoted her career to the angry documentation of women's entrapments, should now turn her attention to the next stage: that of being older, housing a decaying skeleton and facing up to mortality.

What troubles her most is not the scar or the disfiguring shape of her arm, but rather the alienation she feels from her own limb and from the hand that no longer functions as it once did. This dislocation leads her to speculate on the nature of bodily integrity, how bodies are defined by culture and how far we exist separately from them.

The loss of any bodily function or any part of the body, Oakley argues, is a form of bereavement. But hand injuries cause particularly acute psychological complications because we use our hands as first contact with the world and with others. A hanging, useless claw-like hand is an alien presence, a reminder of death. "I don't feel I have a right hand. It just hangs there at the end of my arm. I hate it. I want someone to take it away and give me my old right hand back."

And for this author, the dislocation from her right hand is cataclysmic because it threatens her identity. She views handwriting as a fundamental part of the creative process. This may explain the extraordinary passion with which she launches into a catalogue of random facts about right-handedness that together demonstrate conclusively how the right is associated universally with maleness and the left with female weakness: "insubordination, sorcery, deviousness, carnality, impulse and general evil versus upright, strong, rational male authority".

It is this male authority, in the form of Western medicine, that is Oakley's ultimate target. She makes the distinction between pain, which doctors recognise and can treat, and suffering, which encompasses a spiritual response to physical disability. This, and her own exposure to an alternative therapeutic regime, leads her to offer some familiar contrasts between the holistic approach and what she presents as the inferior Western "body-as-machine" model.

She is equally scornful of the contemporary worship of bodily perfection, regarding women who disguise the signs of ageing as sex traitors for seeking to conform to the image that a gendered society has defined for them.

Her final, furious diatribe is against the patriarchal categorisation of older women as damaged and deteriorating. This negative stereotyping of ageing as a shameful illness rather than a natural progression, she maintains, is a conspiracy concocted by a massively profitable industry.

And this is where Oakley's undeniably magnificent feminist stand becomes not only disturbingly dogmatic but also downright dangerous.

She describes hormone replacement therapy as "the ultimate case study in pharmaceutical marketing". The medicalisation of female ageing has meant that powerful drugs are being marketed as "cures" for what in her view is not an illness at all. Hormones are injected to address what she sees as a spuriously described "deficiency," cheerfully dismissing the more debilitating symptoms of menopause as yet another cultural construct. She refuses to have her bone-mineral density measured because she does not accept the connections between the ageing body and osteoporosis. Most worrying of all, she also denies the benefits of breast and cervical screening, relying on selective smatterings of research while ignoring the vast body of evidence of lives saved and prognoses improved through early diagnosis.

Rather like Germaine Greer, another feminist icon who advised us to celebrate our witchery, Oakley wants us to embrace our wrinkles and rejoice in our eccentricity. We must reject any medical interventions that might alleviate those hot flushes, brittle bones, weakening hearts, dry vaginas, not to mention the flaky skin, straw-like hair and miserable exhaustion.

Rather than obeying the calls for screening, we should take our chances just as nature intended. Anything, rather than fall prey to the patriarchal plot.

Sally Feldman is dean of the School of Media, Arts and Design, Westminster University.

Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body

Author - Ann Oakley
Publisher - Policy Press
Pages - 304
Price - £45.00 and £12.99
ISBN - 9781861349385 and 9378

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