Like the Bible, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, Christiane Northrup’s seminal – and prodigious – volume on optimal well-being for women, begins with a Fall. But this version doesn’t involve ingenuous Eve getting kicked out of God’s backyard for messing with a wheedling serpent. No, she is ousted from her own Power and Embodied Wisdom after reigning supreme in a “peaceful” matriarchal society where “the arts flourished,” by an influx of “violent […] dominator tribes” ruled by – you guessed it – men. And while the nature of the Fall is different in either story, the end is the same: Man strides blithely into the patriarchy (albeit as a sweat-of-his-brow labourer) and Woman is consigned to “Know pain in childbirth.”
The result of this 5,000-year tumble from Goddess Ville was a schism between mind and body and the subjugation of the Feminine. Today, rape warfare, FGM, and the generally crappy treatment of women as “second class citizens,” can all be traced back to the pervasive belief systems of the masculine “Dominator System,” which Northrup has distilled and interpreted through her experience as an OB/Gyn MD working for decades in the medical establishment.
These beliefs begin with the notion that the female body, and in particular her sexual organs and reproductive processes, are a minefield of weakness and dysfunction (not to mention weird smells), and end with the presumption that her condition can only be cured by medical science – and a good douche.
The power of belief is central to Northrup’s philosophy, and those of the “Dominator System,” meted out on women’s bodies and minds for millennia, have manifested not only in collective horrors like sex-trafficking, but individually in the severing of a woman from her own intuition and a dissociative relationship with the body.
All of the conditions from which women uniquely suffer – from genital warts (don’t men get these, too?) to bad pap smears – however, are in Northrup’s understanding, “the language through which our bodies speak to us,” and require a holistic approach to first understand and then heal. Her healing strategy includes an incorporation of a feminine “multimodal, spiral” intelligence, “using both hemispheres of the brain,” and an engagement with the “Feminine Energy System,” namely the chakras and our Yin/Yang balance.
Basically, we’ve got issues in our tissues, and Dr. Northrup serves as our board-certified gynaecological tour guide and Wyse Womyn for a 900-page romp through the female reproductive organs, life-stages and hormonal system. (Fun fact: the etymological root for vagina means “sheath for a sword.”)
But I digress. In truth, Women’s Bodies is an important and necessary work that has indeed served as an alternative Bible for women seeking reliable information about their Lady Parts for over 20 years. Central to Northrup’s agenda is the wiping away of the myths, baseless ‘facts,’ superstitions, and beliefs that have plagued women’s understanding of their anatomy for centuries, and essentially ‘reprogramming’ the feminine psyche with equal parts solid, science-based information and more holistic musings.
Northrup systematically and methodically takes on the most culturally loaded nexuses of the feminine psychophysical experience and offers hope and comfort by reminding women that they always have more power, control and choices with their body than they might have previously thought possible.
Taking in a multiplicity of embodied experience – with all the vulnerability that entails – can itself become a permission structure for women to feel and introspect on what they are experiencing.
Crucial to the perception of choice is Northrup’s inclusion of the voices and testimonies of many women experiencing the same conditions. There is biographical information of the patient here, but also a cataloguing of all their fear and conflicting emotions, how they confront or evade the truth of their illness, and the time it takes to heal. Taking in a multiplicity of embodied experience – with all the vulnerability that entails – can itself become a permission structure for women to feel and introspect on what they are experiencing. These stories honour more than the linear progression of illness-to-wellness, invite in different layers of consciousness in the telling, don’t bow to the authority of one voice or perspective, show women extracting meaning from their bodily experience, and encourage an empathic response. They, in short, use an inclusive, feminine means of storytelling in order to disclose a uniquely feminine experience.
Northrup also does something fairly radical: she puts erotic flourishing at the centre of the conversation about women’s health – and she does it in a savvy, compassionate way. Some books, most recently Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography have also attempted to forge the link between women’s psyches and their sexual expression, “The vagina is the delivery system,” Wolf writes, “for the states of mind that we call confidence, liberation, self-realisation and even mysticism in women.”
Her book tries to reconcile a Yoni-massage-and-scented-candle brand of mainstream Tantric Sex with new-ish science that validates the idea that female sexual response and experience deeply impact a woman on all levels, gross and subtle. But she lacks the comprehensive knowledge and experiential background to support what remain vague, intuitive and often hereto-centric theories about feminine sexuality.
Northrup’s relatively brisk treatment of the subject in “Reclaiming the Erotic” takes for granted that sex and consciousness are inextricably connected and goes about prescribing a few methods (like, uh, breathing the spirit of Salma Hayek into your left side) for women to “[become] the energy of joy or love and [gain] the essence of these ecstatic feelings.”
While Wolf’s book pits a hyper-sentient and uber-intelligent vagina and “clitoral system,” (which, we are told, hold as many cosmic powers and quantum mechanical wonders as the swirling heavens) against the government-issue, lowest-common-denominator, blunt instrument of men’s equipment and desires, Northrup acknowledges that many men also suffer under a system that limits their pleasure and intimacy, and might equally desire to witness and experience the sexual flourishing of women.
Northrup’s mission is undoubtedly to serve women’s thriving. At heart she is a bit of a shit-starter and provocateur – a classically trained medical doctor who went rogue and started a FUBU clinic for women with a deeply holistic orientation. Northrup is also an inheritor and purveyor of New Thought, (Her latest book Dodging Energy Vampires, is for sensitive people who feel, well, sucked dry by the world) and these two strains – of hard science and New Age belief play through every page of this book:
“Consciousness creates the body, pure and simple […] our consciousness is the part of us that chooses and directs our thoughts. Thoughts that are uplifting, nurturing and loving create healthy biochemistry and healthy cells, while thoughts that are destructive to self or others do just the opposite […] To improve our lives and our health and truly flourish, we must acknowledge the seamless unity between our beliefs, behavior and physical bodies.”
New Age concepts, however, can become just as calcified and dogmatic as those of rigid empiricism – and do as much to prevent us from having a direct experience with the body. I am reminded of women in Yoga classes saying things to me like, “I don’t get it. I do so much core work but I’m still having boundary issues.”
New Age concepts can become just as calcified and dogmatic as those of rigid empiricism – and do as much to prevent us from having a direct experience with the body.
We can get hooked by a just-so metaphor for an illness, and process this ‘idea’ instead of actually encountering the emotional discomfort or pain of our bodies. A blanket diagnosis, even when cloaked in ‘alternative’ language is still a diagnosis.
It is part of Northrup’s genius to bring an expansive and holistic eye to the body, but some of her assertions feel a little facile: Can all women conceive children into their fifties when not subject to the limiting beliefs of the patriarchy and its obsession with glowing, eggy, bouncy youth? Do all women tend to “lead with their hearts,” and is this indicated by the fact that our yang-y boobs “protrude from our chest?”
Can a man only open a woman sexually by “Using a slow yin approach that involves tenderness, earning trust, and praise?”
Do “independent” women always have low risk childbirths?
Is physical blindness necessarily the result of issues with your third eye?
And finally, are the conflicts in the Middle East really due to “entrenched first chakra beliefs” and, more importantly, has anyone told Jared Kushner?
In full disclosure, I absolutely do believe that collective trauma and inveterate cultural beliefs affect our reproductive health, and really, there would be no harm in cis, hetero men trying a yin (or even yin-ish) approach to sex. But, if the point of such a work is to recoup displaced feminine power by encouraging women to trust their own self sensing, then perhaps being too attached to what we ‘know’ is (sometimes) as dangerous as knowing too little.