The Female Interior: A Critical Analysis of Sixteenth Century Dissection and Visual Representation of the Female Body

Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard (Cixous 880).  

There are two ways to look inside yourself. The first being from without. Meaning, one can look into themselves by sit behind a mirror, trying to catch a peak at what lingers in the invisible. The second way to see inside is held by feeling and making. This way of looking means we must first welcome ourselves. One must return to a place that goes deeper than the imagined internal. With your eyes closed and hands open, all exteriors become silent to the voice on the inside, visible and rejoining.

This essay attempts to mark the journey into the internal, by asking the question: how can women visualize their interiority? By engaging in a critique concerning the way in which women’s bodies have been historically represented in the visual culture of sixteenth century female anatomy, the way in which women have taken up a male eye by becoming both the spectacle and spectator and the disconnection between mind and body. This essay will further its critical lens to explore the visual representation of the feminine internal that is made possible through ancient myth. Finally, the essay will end in the discussion of how female crafted representations and explorations of the internal create a subjective connectivity, needed to continue the cycle of inward looking.

The Looking


Viewing From Without 

In an analysis of sixteenth century anatomical dissections of women’s bodies, Patricia Simons surveys the visual representations of female anatomy through the work of physician and anatomist Andreas Vesalius. Simons writes “all the more did male audiences enjoy the legitimated spectacle of a dead woman’s naked body at public demonstrations of anatomy” (316). Simons continues explaining that “Vesalius conducted on the genitals, and a German professor later had to warn his audience that… they should contemplate everything with chaste eyes” (316). Yet, as Simons goes on to explain, the positioning of the female figure being dissected, along with the placement of Vesalius’ cadaver conjures up a resemblance to phonographic images (Figure 1). When looking at the visual representation of Vesalius’s lecture, there is an invitation to define the inner workings of the women up for dissection through masculine exploration. These anatomical visual representations of female dissection allows for the viewing of woman’s internal body as spectacle, which is held acceptable under the pretence of knowledge production.

Figure 1. Andreas Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem (Cover Page), 1543. Wiki Commons:

Two predominant ideologies are being put into practice here. Firstly, the view of women bodies as spectacle. Secondly, the separation of mind and body in knowledge production. To understand the way these ideologies translate into the current view of women’s interiority, we must look deeper into the culture of seeing.

My Body Through Your Mind

In The Anatomy of Gender: Women’s Struggle for the Body, Winnie Tomm speaks to the separation of mind and body that has become apart of the female experience through the practice of masculine knowledge production. Tomm states that “knowing through our bodies as well as by intellectual reasoning is compatible with the paradigm of knowing according to an “ethos of passion and empath” (Christ 1987a) … this model reflects the rejection of impersonal, analytic knowledge and the corresponding male authoritarianism of the “ethos of objectivity” (211). The study of female anatomy through sixteenth century dissection works under this masculine knowledge production. One can see their body through another parties external exploration.

Although this way of viewing organs is necessary for dissection, its premise of externality carries into visual culture and women’s self-knowing that is not concerned with anatomy. This type of knowledge production is based on the ideology that tells women they must understand themselves internally by approaching themselves externally. We must remain impersonal to our interiority. We must be both the spectator and the spectacle.

Women as Spectacle

The tradition of the viewing the female figure as spectacle is a way of seeing that has become apart of the female experience. Women have been made to adopt a masculine eye. Although this way of viewing is not accepted by women, its constant practice through visual culture has repressed the innate understanding of our subjective internal. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger outlines how viewing the female figure as a spectacle has been adopted by women. Berger explains that “men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. This she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision : a sight” (47). Berger’s understanding of a woman’s inner male eye comes from his analysis of the female figure depicted in paintings. By positioning oneself as a surveyor, the women becomes physically detached from her internal.

This rose a question within me. What would happen if one were to depict a part of  femininity that the external gaze is not privy to? A marker of the female identity that a woman herself cannot know by remaining the surveyor? A space of the internal woman that cannot be seen? What does that place look like and how can I get there?

The answer to this internal question made me look past the history of painting, past women’s sixteenth century anatomy and into myth.

The Feeling  


The Wild Women Within

Allowing myself to engaging with my internal question and longing for visual representation, I realized that the work of depicting the interiority of women could not be done by anyone but the women who take up space within their body.

To gain ancestral prospective on the way in which women have seen their bodies from within, I turned to Clarissa Pinkola Estés. In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, myths

Natalie Cito. “Colours of Inner Identity” (2018). April 1, 2018.  © Natalie Cito. Ryerson University.

and ancient stories of the wild woman archetype are offered up to illuminate the paths of the present day wild woman. In the chapter Joyous Body: The Wild Flesh Estés inscribes: “I saw again what I had been taught to ignore, the power in the body. The cultural power of the body is its beauty, but power in the body is rare, for most have chased it away with their torture of or embarrassment by the flesh” (208). Here, Estés provides a way to see the interiority of the female body that is not concerned with the cultural definition of women’s worth. Moving away from the external examination of male gaze and placing ourselves as the surveyor, women can come back to see, once again, their bodies from within.

Here, comes a personal moment of illumination: I am concerned with how women can identify their interiority by not looking outside of themselves. In order to see what my interiority looks like, I must reclaim it, I must understand it like no one else can. I must see from within.

However, my question of visual representation still remains. How can I see the way my sister views her interior? After all, if women had not created an external representation of their internal, this exploration would have ended before it began…


To continue my exploration I turned back to Winnie Tomm. As discussed earlier, Tomm analyzes the separation of mind and body that comes from a history of masculine knowledge production. Calling women to reshape their relationship of mind and body, Tomm’s stresses the re-connective work that women must pursue to gain back space within themselves and their surroundings. Tomm furthers her theory in stating that one must gain back inner space though sharing a subjective connection: “as women, we have largely lost touch with our “re-membering place”, the place where we locate our connections to our female heritage. We often do not remember the intricacy of beauty and wisdom, which lies in the intensity and energy reflecting the subjectivity of a person” (217). Tomm continues by explaining that “in order to know the desires of our re-membering places, it is helpful to have symbols upon which we can reflect and whose power we can call upon” (218).


Here, is where I found my answer…


The subjectivity of one women must be made public in order for the collective to remember the importance of going inward. The viewing of our inner body must be felt from within, understood in the mind. Then one must bring their inner finding forth, for our surrounding women to visually digest and go within themselves to feel their subjective internal, continuing the ancestral circle. It is the work of female artists, who hold space in their bodies to depict its interiority. An interiority that cannot be physically pulled out of us and opened up for inspection, but one that must be felt by a women herself.

The Making


Painting Back Our Bodies

My questions of visual representation lead me back into myself. Through the process of understanding the ways in which women’s bodies have been seen and understood historically, under anatomy, painting, and the disconnection of mind and body, I knew that the only way I could see my inner body was to create it myself.

Through my painting, Colours of Inner Identity, I created a visual representation of the way in which I feel my inner body. The way I chose to represent my interiority forces viewers to acknowledge my identity that forms this inner self. In order to translate this message, I visually depict the relation between the mind and the body. The larger image of a woman’s face is formed by smaller moving women. My mission is to show that connective womanhood comes from ones relation to their inner identity, as I discussed earlier. Subjective understanding of female interiority must be brought from within to continue the process of reclaiming our inner space.

The methodology used to create my painting allowed me to return back to Clarissa P. Estés. Here, she writes of the ways of seeing that can happen from within the body. Asking her female audience to question their body, she states: “does it have its own music, is it listening, like Baubo through the belly, is it looking with its many ways of seeing?” (207). I took Estés’s concept of the body as having many ways of seeing into my medium. By using multiple different line formations, I painted in blocks of warm hues, representing the many ways my body can see.

Natalie Cito. “Colours of Inner Identity” (2018). April 1, 2018.  © Natalie Cito. Ryerson University.


Artistic inspiration came through the female artist Inès Longevial. Her depiction of women acted as an inspiration to my work through her use our shared acrylic medium. Specifically, her use of colour relation and broad brush strokes. My second visual inspiration allowed me to represent the way in which going inward feels, expressing my fluid interiority. Thus I turned to Matisse. My work is largely inspired by Matisse’s cut outs, especially the way in which he expresses movement through the female form. 

In conclusion, I bring forth the larger mission statement of my project through the explanation of my final muse. It is important to highlight the influence of female Puerto Rican artist within my work. Ivette Romero-Cesareo outlines the work of Puerto Rican artist Maria Antonia Ordońez explaining that


although Puerto Rican artists do not seem to restrict themselves to a particular outlook or iconography to assert commitment to a national artistic tradition, most art forms today display a preoccupation with the body… This “autobiography of the body” may indicate the humanist perspective of this process of self-definition; it is the body performing within different social contexts that provides the language for this quest for sexual, racial, and/or national identity. The body provides, not only a site for “anatomic/archaeological” exploration, but also the metaphors through which the findings are displayed (Cesareo 913).

Cesareo’s analysis of Puerto Rican female art holds the belief that is central to my inner looking and creative process. That is, to explore the internal body, women must not feel the need to place themselves within a tradition of expression. To feel one’s body can mean, as it does for these Puerto Rican artists, that one’s self expression does not present as concrete or easily understood by a marked place in society. This mission statement expresses the wider goal inherit in the way in which I chose to hide the female figures within my work. I aim to  make the viewer search for the representation of the physical body. This visual search is meant to inspire the viewer to do the same within themselves… 

 To go within, hands open wide and eyes close. Calling yourself to remember, return and welcome the inner feeling. 


Works Cited

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York, The Viking Press, 1972.

Buchbery, Karl., Cullinan, Nicholas., Hauptman, Jodi, and Nicholas Serota. Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014.

Cesareo, Romero Ivette. “Art, Self-Portraiture, and the Body: A Case of Contemporary Women’s Art in Puerto Rico.” The Johns Hopkins University Press, Callaloo, Puerto Rican Women Writers, vol. 17, no. 3, 1994, pp. 910-915.

Cixous, Hélène, et al. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs, vol. 1, no. 4, 1976, pp. 875-893. JSTOR,

Estés, Pinkola Clarissa. Ph. D. Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myth and Stories of  the Wild Woman Archetype. United States of America, Ballantine Books, 1992. 

Longevial, Inès. “Bio.” Inèslongevial, Accessed 24 March 2018. 

Simons, Patricia. Anatomical Secrets: Pudenda and the Pudica Gesture., 2002.

Tomm, Winnie.Knowing Ourselves.” The Anatomy of Gender: Women’s Struggle for the Body. Edited by Dawn Currie and Valerie Raoul, Carleton University Press, 1992, pp. 211-218.

Vesalius, Andreas. De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem. 1543. Wiki Commons: Accessed 6 April 2018. 

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.