A satirical take on gender bias in medical textbooks

An interactive performance: The Flabby-Breasted Virgin and Other Sordid Tales. (Ayesha Susan Thomas  )
An interactive performance: The Flabby-Breasted Virgin and Other Sordid Tales. (Ayesha Susan Thomas )


Through an interactive performance titled 'The Flabby-Breasted Virgin and Other Sordid Tales,' Ayesha Susan Thomas challenges entrenched stereotypes found in medical textbooks on women's bodies that critiques outdated perceptions.

Ayesha Susan Thomas, who is a Serbia-based theatre maker and co-founder of KathaSiyah Collective, a multi-lingual, feminist performance collective, has had her share of experiences with prejudiced gynaecologists in India. Wasn’t medicine supposed to be an objective science? She spoke to other women, and each one had faced a judgemental gynaecologist or two, while in need of treatment.

She came across Dr Anamika Pradhan’s first-person account on Agents of Ishq, a multi-media project about sex, love, and desire. It was titled What Doctors (Really) Think About Sex, Abortion and Virginity, and delved into the lack of gender sensitisation in medical textbooks. Her research further led her to Dr Suchitra Dalvie, gynaecologist and co-founder of Asia Safe Abortion Partnerships, which works for women’s sexual and reproductive health rights, who also wrote about dated medical textbooks.

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Suddenly, her experiences as a woman and queer person were beginning to make sense. Over four years, she developed a satirical, interactive multimedia performance titled The Flabby-Breasted Virgin and Other Sordid Tales on modern and ancient interpretations of the female body through medical text. It started online in 2022 during the covid-19 pandemic. Now, the performance is available for viewing on demand on their website.

The hour-long performance is a tongue-in-cheek look at the absurdity of medical textbooks on virginity and jurisprudence. It is as funny as it is groundbreaking. Women dance in front of magnified textbook pages, the Sushruta Samhita, an ancient Sanskrit text on medicine, is discussed inventively, and a teacher shows up to clear your doubts. “I picked the student-teacher approach because it is familiar to me. I thought it would be interesting to play on the teacher stereotype. It is also a trope that lends itself to comedy easily," she says.

Susan Thomas wanted to bring that together with discrepancies in medical textbooks and the Indian education system that predisposes students to not question them. Often, she tells us, the result can be bad science. An example of this led her to title the performance The Flabby Breasted Virgin and Other Sordid Tales. “In a chapter on sexual jurisprudence, they talk about virginity in great detail. It explains the signs to spot a virgin, they include pink and perky breasts. In a non-virgin, they are saggy and flabby. I wanted to use the exact words and subvert them," she explains.

The deeply researched show was initially aimed at medical students. But soon enough, its scope expanded and Susan Thomas decided to produce it for a general audience. The performance is interactive throughout. There is a quiz at the end of every section and a disclaimer at the beginning, that everything you see has been drawn from reality.

Susan Thomas believes the performance will entertain, but also signal change. “How many times have you been gaslit about your own experience and pain, specifically as a woman? I want everyone watching to feel a little more empowered to advocate for their body when meeting with medical professionals," she says.

Available to watch online at www.flabbybreastedvirgin.org. Tickets, 350, are also available at www.insider.in till 15 June

Prachi Sibal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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