Art + Culture Featured

The History of ‘Unwell Women’ by Elinor Cleghorn

“The history of medicine, of illness, is every bit as social and cultural as it is scientific,” Unwell Women, Elinor Cleghorn

‘Unwell Women: A journey Through Medicine and Myth in a Man-Made World’ by scholar Elinor Cleghorn is an exposé of medicine’s treatment of women throughout history and how it tightly intertwines with misogynistic and patriarchal societal beliefs of the time. The book was inspired by her own experience with undiagnosed lupus.

The domino effect of each prominent male medical figure onto the next is also explored, as the ideas of an untamed, feral womb and women as unreliable narrators of their own bodies are passed down through generations of medical practices. This piece is an incredibly eye-opening historical analysis, illuminating the seemingly echoing experiences of women throughout history as they face the ignorance and lies perpetrated by the healthcare providers placed on pedestals above them.

Opening the book is Cleghorn’s assertion that “the history of medicine, of illness, is every bit as social and cultural as it is scientific.” The introduction outlines how intertwined our ideas of gender and the nature of being human are and how gender divides often reflect patriarchal ideas. Modern medicine is described as male-dominated since its inception in Ancient Greece, where the one and only Aristotle described women as the inverse derivative of men, claiming that what made women, women is their reproductive capabilities. This sets the stage for her later timeline of healthcare and the butterfly effect of this ideology on the ongoing medical treatment of women.

The piece tells a dense chronological look at the healthcare of those deemed women throughout history and the intense oppressive views and myths they were subject to. The reader can connect their own experiences within the healthcare industry or beliefs they have been told about their own bodies to that of the unwell women featured within its pages.

After an impactful overview of the all too familiar dismissive treatment of women and AFAB (assigned female at birth) individuals by healthcare professionals and its intersection with racial identity, the author gives an impactful account of her struggles with getting answers for her health struggles and discovering that many others in her situation were also women.

She describes how she went down a rabbit hole of medical records, detailing the lives and experiences of women that came before her, mirroring her own. Her statement that “these women were part of my history… I felt an intimate kinship with them. We shared the same essential biology. What has changed is not the female body itself, but medicine’s understanding of it” is incredibly powerful and effectively lays out the core of the text as existing to give the women within its pages the dignity they deserved and to expose how and why myths about AFAB bodies came to be.

Unwell Women © Elinor CleghornThis critique of the definiting of women solely by their physiology is also used to discuss how who society deems as female does not always align with the complexities of gender. Not all who have a uterus are women and not all who are women have a uterus. However, in the eyes of medicine, the idea of female and uterus is cemented together. ‘Unwell Women’ becomes a narrative of male dominance over those they label as women due to their physical differences, rather than those who describe themselves as women. The text stands as a statement on how to discuss ‘female’ issues whilst respecting the identities of all those that are impacted by them.

The origins of hysterics and other womb centric ideas, as well as why women’s symptoms are overlooked, become abundantly clear. Cleghorn describes Hippocrates’ knowledge that women’s difference from men comes solely down to her uterus and sets the foundation that Hippocratic practice. And, this still influences modern practice, namely via the Hippocratic oath, which was widely interpreted through a Christian eye and thus became highly socially influenced, rather than scientific and evidence-based.

Throughout history, women were denied knowledge of their own bodies and those who listened to their experiences, such as midwives, were barred from helping them, forcing reproduction, childbirth and menstruation to become increasingly pathologized and so, interpreted by men.

Later in the text, she describes how ideas of the ‘wandering womb’ were substituted with hormonal theories and old ideas about women’s bodies being naturally defective and deficient still pulsed through endocrinological theories. Originally, hormonal treatments were targeted at men to free their wives from the constraints of the menstrual cycle, then were marketed as a form of liberty to women themselves, telling them that to be free was to reject what medicine has pedalled as what made them women for as long as it has existed. This seemingly hypocritical change in view maintains the social control of women ageing back to the Christian influenced views of the docile, reproducing woman and even further to the idea that AFAB individuals are defective men.

Unwell Women Book

The healthcare and societal understanding of AFAB individuals and their bodies have a long, long way to go. And, this is evidenced by Cleghorn’s account of her own experience attempting to get a Lupus diagnosis being met with suspicions of pregnancy and psychosomatic conditions and the real-life threat this ignorance has for women, as well as the medical misogyny far too many of us are familiar with. I highly recommend taking the time to read ‘Unwell Women’ to better understand the baffling, yet all too common, myths and disbelief met by the lived experiences of AFAB individuals even today.

My experience reading this book can be summed up in one word, anger. The character studies of some of the women forced into historical records to be poked, prodded and gawked at without thought or care of her autonomy left me horrified. The myths perpetuated about bodies like mine felt scarily familiar and the echoes from the continuous injustices faced by women throughout are easily connected with Cleghorn’s accounts of modern medical practice.

This text should not be taken as a historical retelling, but rather as a social analysis of medicine and femininity. Cleghorn’s PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies, education in medical humanities and her status as a feminist advocate lend themselves well to the social aspect of historical medicine. However, the lack of medical knowledge comes through in some factual inaccuracies throughout the chapters.

‘Unwell Women’ is a must-read for those seeking to better understand their own, or their peers’, experiences within the medical field and in life.

Community Thought + Opinion

I Fell Down the Study Blog Rabbit Hole

Could TikTok actually help students become more productive?

Like many students, I went into lockdown determined to use the extra time to improve my study habits. But, like so many others, I instead ended up scrolling for hours on TikTok in between never-ending Zoom calls.

During one of these scrolling sessions, I stumbled across a niche of students sharing study hacks, pastel stationery and pretty notes. This ‘StudyTok’ is a manifestation of the wider ‘Study Blog’ genre: a diverse group of social media accounts and traditional blogs that centre around encouraging students to work smarter, not harder.

What’s a Study Blog?

These Study Blogs exist on virtually every social media platform, ranging from Tumblr’s ‘Studyblr’ to TikTok’s ‘StudyTok’. They focus primarily on productivity and motivation for students, sharing stationery recommendations, study techniques and tips on how to go digital. This expression of hustle culture seeks to encourage healthy habits, such as scheduling regular breaks and active recall techniques, rather than the stressful cramming and overworking techniques that so many of us are guilty of.

With the diverse range of study methods promoted by people in the study blog sphere, there’s something for everyone. So, whether you prefer tried and true on-paper methods or are switching to digital techniques, StudyTok could help you.

How we’re taught and how we learn today is quickly changing as education adapts to tech. Study blogs are no exception to this. For some, the traditional paper methods still hold up. But, for many, the days of lugging around half a dozen overpriced textbooks and chunky folders are over and replaced by much more affordable e-books and digital note-taking.  And, of course, StudyTube (the YouTube branch of the Study Blog genre) has no shortage of videos recommending note-taking apps and digital planners. 

Study Blog ImageBefore the pandemic, seeing students working on anything other than paper was a rarity. However, when students returned to in-person classes, I noticed more and more people had started taking iPads and Apple Pencils to their classes and taking notes in styles promoted online. Alongside this, my courses’ reading lists became increasingly digital, so much so that I’ve yet to buy an actual textbook.

The increased presence of digital methods in study blogs across platforms is a direct reflection of how education is being modernised, spurred on by the remote learning we’ve come to know, as well as an increased consciousness about sustainability. 

My personal favourite study app is Notion – a highly customisable online planner that I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit tweaking and filling in, which has been invaluable in the organisation it’s brought to my studies.

On the flip side, there’s no lack of traditional tips featured by study influencers. The popular ‘Pomodoro’ technique encourages users to work for 25 minutes, then take a short 5-minute rest. Each chunk of studying is called a ‘pomodoro’ and includes 4 work-rest cycles, which are rewarded with a 20-minute break. Its prevalence in the Study Blog community emphasises the culture of a healthy work-life balance that exists throughout the advice given by its influencers. The technique is popular as it plays into the sense of achievement we get when we complete a task, so it keeps you motivated. It also provides structure to those long study sessions we often find ourselves off task in and allows you to break down large, daunting tasks into smaller, manageable pieces.

Study Graphic

Study Blog Recommendations

Alongside studying techniques, these study-based accounts also preach stationery holy-grails, which, as someone who collects pens and notebooks like a dragon adds to its hoard, I love. 

The TikTok famous ‘Sharpie S-gel’ was hailed as the perfect pen for all note-taking needs at the start of this academic year. This led to it to sell out across popular online retailers. 

Another gel pen I heard legends of was the ‘Pentel EnerGel’ with a 0.5mm needle tip refill. After watching an undisclosed amount of pen reviews on StudyTube, I bit the bullet and invested in the EnerGel and was not disappointed. The pen writes smoothly without skipping and dries down quickly, meaning it’s hard to smudge writing with your hand and highlighting is no issue. Sometimes I’ll write out pages of lecture notes just as an excuse to use the pen, killing two birds with one stone.

Interestingly, the EnerGel 0.5mm needle tip refills appear alongside the ‘Zebra Sarasa Clip’ in the ‘Frequently bought together’ section on Amazon. This is potentially a result of the popular StudyTube vlogger ‘studyquill’,  who frequently cites the EnerGel 0.5mm refills in the Zebra Sarasa bodies as her staple pen. This, alongside the selling out of the Sharpie S-Gel, hints at the real-world influence study influencers have on their audiences and their habits. 

During my journey through the study blog genre, I’ve come away with a new arsenal of techniques to tackle my bad habits and many more pens than I probably need.

 The reflection of trends within this community, real-world education and purchasing habits is intriguing and serves as a tool to better understand students and how they choose to engage in their education.