Images of white men predominate in western anatomy textbooks, which present them as a “universal model” of the human being. This is the main conclusion of a study that has analysed 16,329 images from 12 manuals currently recommended by 20 of the most prestigious universities in Europe, the United States and Canada.
Where features are the same for both sexes, three times as many male bodies as female ones were illustrated in the six anatomical textbooks and six texts studied (14% compared to 4%, while in the remaining images it was not possible to deduce the gender of the body), according to the study that will be presented by its author, Marνa Josι Barral, a medicine professor at the University of Zaragoza, at the Women, Health and Gender Forum, being held today and tomorrow.
“Each body has individual features, and the more you see the more points of reference you have – this is an advantage in clinical practice,” the researcher told SINC. “We’re not dealing only with diseases, but people with diseases.”
The six North American manuals studied used male bodies in 17% of cases and female ones in 5% to illustrate “neutral body parts”, while the six European ones used male images 12% of the time and female ones only 2%.
People of Caucasian ethnicity were the only ones represented in nine of the 12 manuals (all the European ones and half the North American ones), and were in the majority in the other three. Only one of the textbooks studied showed “parity in male and female images” and represented other ethnicities, although Caucasians still predominated.
The central nervous system was presented exclusively using male bodies in the six European manuals and in one of the North American ones. There was not one female image of the lower limbs in four of the manuals (three European and one North American), nor of the upper ones in eight of them (five European and three North American).
In some books, the circulatory system was mainly illustrated in female bodies while the nervous system was presented in males, with the locomotive system equally divided. The researcher raises the question of whether this is due to thought being considered a male attribute and nutrition a female one.
“Sociocultural contamination is evident in some of the images,” she said, such as the fluctuating size of women’s bodies in line with changing fashions, or the representation of social stereotypes.
Most of the hands illustrated are male. Barral asks whether this is intended to show that “manipulation, a sign of our species’ evolution” is a male feature.
“Medical research in terms of the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of diseases has been focused on this model of white, heterosexual men, who are a minority on this planet, and this does not reflect true diversity,” the researcher said.
The scientist says many of the doses for pharmaceutical drugs have been calculated using this body model as a basis, without taking differences into account, and that this is only now being corrected. “You are prescribed a dose for another body,” she stressed. “Using only one body type as a model and treating the rest as variations is dangerous for health,” she told SINC.
Dismantling male/ female dichotomies
The researcher also points out that using female bodies to illustrate body parts that are identical in both sexes is a recent development. “Up until virtually the 1990s, male Caucasians were used exclusively to represent anatomical bodies, with female bodies appearing only in fragments to represent their sexual organs.”
Barral points out that these biased views persist, with an image appearing in the popular science magazine Mente y Cerebro as late as 2003 that made the female brain appear to come between that of a child and an adult male in the evolutionary process.
Biological dichotomies and stereotypical male and female sexual behaviour are omnipresent in scientific texts, even though the scientific evidence does not support this, since diversity is the norm in nature, says the researcher.
Barral explains that when these dichotomies arise, the hierarchisation of “more and less evolved” also tend to appear, and that such biases become increasingly radicalised between the original research to the point where it appears in the manuals.
The scientist concludes that the model of white, heterosexual males is described as the apex of evolution in some scientific texts.
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