When I was a teenager, most of my health information came from Dolly Doctor. Pretty sure it was the same for my friends. Occasionally, someone would access a copy of Cosmo from an older sister or their mother – Cosmo had a ‘sealed section’ that was full of the details that Dolly Doctor only hinted at. I mention this because girls and women have talked about their health for an eternity; the sources of information are varied (in accuracy and reliability); and there’s lots of myths that persist well beyond what seems sensible (who hasn’t heard the story about the washcloth, glitter and a visit to the gynecologist?).
Kaz Cooke examines centuries of ‘bad and bonkers’ advice to women in You’re Doing it Wrong. The book begins with health and relationship advice, and moves on to how to manage housework, how to dress, and how to behave (essentially, ‘be pretty and be quiet’). As Cooke describes, each sub-heading in the book is a lie that woman have been told, and those alone are enough to horrify –
- You’ll get bicycle face
- Girls need charm school
- Your uterus wanders around
- Your doctor is in charge of you
- Pick a side: science vs women’s knowledge
- Hot and cold baths are medicine
You’re either a fan of Cooke’s brash style of humour, or you’re not. I like it in small doses (her classic, Up the Duff, made me laugh during each of my pregnancies). Her style is conversational and familiar – I can totally imagine Cooke saying ‘Aristotle was a fuckwit’ to one of her friends (that’s on page 12 – he’s deemed a fuckwit because he said that women had brains and bodies that were lesser versions of men). Like it or not, Cooke keeps the pace throughout the book.
The social history elements were interesting, and the focus on the etiquette system as a way of embedding racism, sexism, colonialism, misogyny, and disrespect of others in the guise of ‘manners’ and certitude, was fascinating. A number of sections focus on Indigenous women, and although the information about Indigenous women and girls being relegated to a life of ‘domestic service’, was not new to me, Cooke’s account of her own family history, provides depth, and highlights how very, very recent this shameful ‘history’ is.
Cooke doesn’t only look back. Indeed, much of what is happening today in the lucrative ‘wellness industry’ and on social media, is really no different to bicycle face, charm school, and the wandering wombs of yesteryear.
While the first ‘influences’ may have been strong-willed local people interested in feeling powerful or being sure of themselves – fathers, husbands, and clergy, anyone with access to a platform and a printing press, they’re now often models, ‘footballer’s wives’ and celebrities leveraging their fame to spread their beliefs, often for more influence and cash.
Get a copy of this book for the photographs alone – from drawings of control underwear and corsets that look like torture devices, to early gynecological instruments… that are torture devices, Cooke’s meticulous research has paid off.
I’ll leave you with the story shared under the subheading, ‘Being single is frightful’ –
When I visited an elderly lady called Joan on a research visit to an assisted living village a few years ago, we talked about how she was one of the many widows there. She leaned towards me, and confided in a whisper, “It’s bliss not having to make anyone’s dinner. A lot of ladies here are very relieved. Sometimes,” she paused, “we’ll just have a biscuit.”
I love Joan.
3/5 The humour wears a little thin, so read in short bursts.
These days, anyone in a crop-top who can produce a guava smoothie is giving nutrition advice.