Uncovering …

Uncovering the Female Sexual Anatomy: depictions and discourses, 16th -21st C.
Abstracts, Bios
Summary of the book to come

The Archipelago of our conference

As times call for distance and prudence, all meetings and events will be online :
May 12-15, 2021, lectures and exhibition, open to all. Zoom link will be sent on demand.

  • 12 mai 2021    Ouverture. Presentation of Perfecta resources and online exhibition Depictions of the Female Sexual Anatomy, 16-21 (Perfecta team).
  • 13 mai 2021    Helen KING, The Open University (Milton Keynes), Classical Studies: From print to wool: Vesalius and the ‘knit your own womb’ movement.
  • 14 mai 2021    Jacqueline VONS, Université de Tours : Le lexique de la gynécologie avant la gynécologie.
  • 15 mai 2021    Annagiulia GRAMENZI, Università di Bologna : Inventing the female anatomy in the 16th century: dissections and interpretations of the uterus.
  • June 7 2021 David GIFFORD, University of Victoria, Artist : Proportions, Gender and Disproportions.
  • June 7 2021 Marina BETTAGLIO, University of Victoria, A Womb with a (Political) View: Reclaiming Reproductive Rights in Spanish Graphic Narratives.
  • June 9 2021 Caroline BOILEAU, Montréal, Artiste : Hors d’elle / Beside herself.

1-9 June 2021 : round-tables and debates

Closing events

June 7 juin 2021
8h30 (PST)/17h30 (Paris time): David GIFFORD, University of Victoria, Artist : Proportions, Gender and Disproportions.
9h (PST)/18-19 (Paris time): Marina BETTAGLIO, University of Victoria, A Womb with a (Political) View: Reclaiming Reproductive Rights in Spanish Graphic Narratives.

June 9th juin 2021
9h Caroline Boileau, performance: Hors d’elle/Besides herself.

See our schedule-program.

Mid 2022 : publication with the UVic Libraries Press

With the support of Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, of the University of Victoria Libraries, of the HCMC (UVic), of the French Department (UVic), of the Faculty of Humanities (UVic), of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Santé (Paris), and of the General Consulate of France in Vancouver. Thank you!


Once never seen or shown, masked with a fig leaf, a hand or a lock of hair, veils or drapes, the female sex has rarely been publicly represented until the last decades, when new imaging technologies but also a militant desire recognition of the female body prompted the production and dissemination of images and works of art depicting the female sexual anatomy. Now present in online galleries, photographs, walls, comic books, and exhibition, outside of the contexts of medicine or pornography, vulvae, clitoris and vaginas are becoming a public sight. The conference proposes to measure the stakes and the discourses of this public “exposure”, in the interdisciplinary prism of history, genre, medicine, art and communication, by comparing this contemporary epiphany with that, more restricted, of the first modernity. Its topic is the gaze, in its blindness, its avoidance, and then its reversal on the supposedly blind point of the female anatomy.

As if to remedy the generic invisibility of women, contemporary images carry a discourse on the status and issues of the gaze on sexual anatomy ; these exhibitions tell of the need to know and to show the female sexual anatomy. They show not so much an element of the body as the gaze on this very place of the body and the position of this gaze. They claim the reflexivity of this gaze, the subject and the object being the same person, and make its views the political and cultural inclusion of a sex too easily presented as invisible, hideous, terrifying. They say in fact the birth of a new female nudity, beyond binary divides from which the female would be paradoxically excluded. They say the birth of a new female nudity, based on the sight of this part of the body long considered obscure, hidden, unsightly and now reclaimed as an integral part of personal identity and of the perfection of the human anatomy (male, female, queer, trans). These images also carry the feminist and queer claims for a reflexive look, on oneself, where the body would no longer be the object of the other’s gaze but a subject. Finally, they speak of the right to citizenship, in public space, of women and of their bodies. The public dimension of these contemporary representations, from The Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet to the Vagina Monologues or to the recent Vagina Bible, is indeed crucial: a gesture even more than a representation, it aims to bring down the ancient generic definition of  the “second sex”, based on a discourse defining the female sexual anatomy  as a naturally blind and unfulfilled conformation, condemned by nature to clandestinity.

The medical theories of the Hippocratic tradition, until the sixteenth century, interpreted the inner position of the female genital organs a design of nature, which would have responded to the allegedly innate modesty of women ; defined as a retroverted and inferior copy of the male sex, the female genital system was described fragmentarily, and exclusively for generation. This incoherent and imperfect female body remained a “mystery”, a “dark continent” to be kept out of light or speech. Above all, an object without representation, unless to make it the field, the frame, or the space of reproduction: a void temporarily filled by conception or pregnancy, returned to emptiness and darkness once generation is completed. The first images of the female reproductive system were those of anatomists of the European Renaissance, who gave themselves as emblematic object of the “new anatomy”, based on the gaze, the female sex. Already, this first appearance on the public scene represents a genre: this “female sex” has a nature (modest and lustful at the same time) and a destiny (procreation). In this first step out of invisibility, the anatomical engravings testify to the uncertainties of the gaze: how to share an interior depth on a page? how to avoid the scandal of “dishonest” engravings? In addition, this female anatomical nudity is aimed at a restricted and male audience, that of doctors. It is accompanied by erotic images, for a public, also male, restricted and here private.This new sight is certainly public, widely disseminated by the new technology of the printed book; it remains nonetheless indirect, mediated by the scientific discourse and distance, impeached by the refusal of a reflexion on its own production, by the detours of decorum, by the almost obligatory inclusion of a penis or of a fetus, and by excluding non-male subjects.

The modern gaze will denounce both anatomical butchering and pornographic objectification. Personal mirrors, photography, ultrasound, magnetic resonance allow you to grasp the interior of the body. and to watch / show oneself. Women acquire a view on their bodies from which to claim ownership and pride. Three-dimensional printing, the invention of new artistic conventions, the deepening and dissemination of anatomical knowledge give birth to new images. The veil is lifted. The precise — and complete — descriptions as well as the representations of the female reproductive system multiply as many positions, where a critique of the tradition of scientific illustration initiated in the 16th century is played out: the violent organ extraction through dissection does not show the female body in its unity nor its dignity. Old imaging procedures followed male models of body representation, sometimes to the point of offering mirror images of the male reproductive system, when they did not use metaphor, floral or geological : they are revisited and reversed. The gaze and the sight become ways of owning and belonging.

The contemporary explosion of images and discourses provides and disseminates depictions of the female sexual anatomy in different contexts: vulgarization of the medical knowledge, campaigns of awareness, political demands for respect and rights, constructions of the self, etc. As such, it questions the categories of genres, but also the traditional line of divide between the public and private spheres. After the anatomical revolution which, in the 16th century, toppled the classical model defining the difference of  sexes, the contemporary “outing” of the female sexual anatomy may well  overthrow the acceptance of a binary division of sexes and bring forth a redefinition of sexes, genders, and science.

Researchers from different disciplines (history, literature, philosophy, art history, bibliology, gender studies, health sciences) and artists (medical illustration, art) capture and categorize the images’ revolutions and visibilities: today, response, denial, demand and scandal serve the new public sharing of nudity, where genres and traditions are questioned; the comparison of eras and productions make it understandable and measurable.

Nous remercions le Conseil Canadien de la Recherche en Sciences Humaines, le Consulat Général de France à Vancouver, l’université de Victoria ( bibliothèques, presses, Faculté des Humanités, Département de Français, laboratoires Digital Scholarship, ETCL, HCMC) et la bibliothèque interuniversitaire (Biu-santé, Paris.) Leur soutien rend colloque et recueil possibles.

We thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada), the University of Victoria (Libraries, Press, Faculty of Humanities, Department of French, Digital Scholarship Commons, ETCL, HCMC) and the library Biu-santé (Paris). Their support makes our conference and our publication possible.