Bodies: inside and out

Everybody in Fruit and Veg was quietly grooving to Ed Sheeran’s song, Shape of You when I was shopping yesterday. It’s a sweet, sensual song. As he sang ‘I’m in love with your body,’ it reminded me of Monique Wittig’s book The Lesbian Body, which I read when I was nineteen and still recall vividly. It’s a slender, erotic volume. But it reads as extreme, because Wittig expresses her love and desire for her lover’s body all the way through. She loves her stomach, spleen and pancreas. She celebrates her partner’s beautiful intestines as well as her shiny hair. Gross, huh?

I was too immature to relate to such a deep acceptance and love of the body when I read Wittig’s book but I aspired to it. Curiosity about the bodies we live in was an impulse that carried me through years of study: massage, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Science, Medicine and Traditional Aboriginal healing—all of this, for me, was learning about these fascinating, complex material bodies: how we inhabit them, what they express to us and to others, how we grow to accept our bodies or not, how we find our way when our bodies seem to be at war with our selves.

I’ve had the great privilege of studying some of the sciences of the body, like biology, physiology, neurology, histology, anatomy. Each has its beauty and wonder. Most were taught in ossified and imposing systems of rote learning. The teacher’s passion and inspiration sometimes leaked around the edges of the material. You could catch it if you were looking closely for it. My tutors at medical school, often younger than me even then, could be inspiring. I had an anatomy tutor who was not afraid to exclaim over the beauty of the internal body. I had a neurology tutor who loved the idea of spending his career exploring the brain. We loved discussing Oliver Sacks’ work. The psychedelic landscapes of differently coloured stained cells in histology and embryology have never left me.

The first time I saw the inside of a living person's thorax, when I was a medical student, was unforgettable. The cardiothoracic surgeon graciously asked a nurse to give me a stool to stand on. I was allowed to stand above the patient's head to see his heart and lungs working while the doctors and nurses worked on him. I stood as still as I could, gowned up with my gloved hands held tightly in front of my belly, afraid of falling in, deeply impressed by the power and magnificence of it.

I was a squeamish child, disgusted by bodily secretions and organs. Perhaps I was a Buddhist monk in a past life. Or maybe I was exposed too young to the strong smell of chickens being plucked and dressed. I had disdain for blood and vomit as young as six or seven, when I recall deciding that being a nurse was something I could not do. My career options then were teacher, nurse or secretary. Being a teacher looked clean, at least.

Tripe on sale at a Florence market. Photo by Warburg.

Tripe on sale at a Florence market. Photo by Warburg.

My mother cooked us tripe once, when I was about nine or ten. We were urged to eat it. But it was one of the very few foods Mum ever cooked that I couldn’t eat. Perhaps it was my powerful imagination. The look of the intestinal villae, pretty as they are, was too much for me when I understood their physiological purpose. I gagged and spat it out; infuriating my father, who saw it as a willful expression of my theatrical character. Indeed, I dreamed of being an actress then, paid and admired for dancing and making faces.

People who hunt animals have a better idea of how organs fit together and a healthier concept of the existence and nature of internal organs. I refused to learn even to clean fish. While my brothers were dissecting lizards I had my head in books.

It seems a long way from an Aboriginal way of thinking. Animals were and are understood to be composed of their insides. Xray paintings are a hallmark of Australian Aboriginal art. The Yolgnu in Arnhem Land are masters of the style, their exquisite, cross-hatched paintings made with little sticks. Some eastern Australian Aboriginal artists use the style, too. It’s a different way of thinking of animals than making, say, a teddy bear.

I have an x-ray style painting by Gayeli Yunupingu of a barramundi fish.  I commissioned her to paint it for me when I was working in Yolgnu country. The barramundi is born in salt- but grows up in fresh water, returning to the sea to spawn. It needs salt water to change into a female in its maturity: the fish changes sex from male to female if it can get to salt water at about five years old. The Yolngu people have saltwater and freshwater moieties. You’re a saltwater or a freshwater person and everything else – animals, plants, rocks – belongs to one group or the other. I would be freshwater because my Aboriginal family is from the mountains.

Australia Post stamp of a Barramundi rock painting, showing x-ray style. Pic via Wikicommons.

Australia Post stamp of a Barramundi rock painting, showing x-ray style. Pic via Wikicommons.

Even from this, you can see that the barramundi is an important ancestor, moving in the space between the moieties and genders, between the surf and the estuaries and mangroves. I’m sure there are many deeper stories in the barramundi x-ray paintings. Yolngu traditions are deep and wide.

Here in Europe now, in the Black Forest village, the local butcher slaughters pigs and makes something special of each part every Monday. I went on an excursion to the shop this week with a note to be sure I bought the favoured body parts. My mother-in-law was determined to have some of the best fresh cooked meat from happy, clean pigs. I brought home cheeks, ribs, trotters, blood sausage and liver sausage, all cooked or spiced just the right way. Claudia cannot eat blood sausage. She saw a vat of the blood cooking as a child. She knew meat came from their animals, she said, but it was when the butcher dipped his fingers in the blood mixture to taste it and got the mess all over his face, that she was scarred for life. 'He looked like he'd been biting the pigs' heads off', she said. She’s strong though, my wife. She was able to cook the sausage and squeeze it out onto our plates, looking like curds the colour of beetroot, for her mum and me. I enjoyed it.

I started eating animal organs in my twenties, in my third year of studying Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). I was still breastfeeding my son. The Chinese are great believers in menstruating, pregnant and breastfeeding women eating blood-rich parts of animals. A Philippine colleague taught me how to eat ‘spare parts soup’ to make my blood richer in iron and haemoglobin.

My Nana ate lamb liver with bacon once a month.  I thought of her example when I worked as the doctor at remote Aboriginal communities. I talked to parents and carers about their kids when they had iron deficiency, which is common in children breastfed into toddlerhood. The childcare director was able to source iron sprinkles at the suggestion of one of our nurses. And there was traditional food out bush that made the children’s blood strong, probably a desert equivalent of blood sausage. It worked within a month to get their haemoglobin up.

Although I have not changed gender (and have no desire to do so), I do relate to the barramundi. I’ve traveled from ancient medicines to the forefront of science, from science to spirituality. I’ve been seen as white on the outside and known myself as black on the inside. What’s on the inside creates the effect we have in the world. For the barra, salt and fresh waters are all home. I am grateful to be able to swim, so to speak, in waters of all kinds.


Thumbnail pic shows plastinated anatomy from the Body World museum, Berlin. Photo: Arthur Lambillotta.