You Go, Girl

A project for our times

by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, AIR staff

Here is a call for help, from a researcher who has an exciting new research project. The call went out in the form of a public announcement. As a service to you, and to the scholarly community, we reproduce it here in full:

I've been working on a project about women and their bowel habits, the movement of substances through bodies even as bodies are located in and moved through larger social systems; the peristalsis of consumption/elimination as well as of consumer capitalism, etc. I've been galvanized by works like Lupton and Miller's book on the implications of modernist kitchen and bathroom design for the "human digestive system," as well as James Whorton's history of "Inner Hygiene" with its detailed accounts of the promotion of remedies for constipation in the late 19th early 20th century (in the form of purgatives, laxatives, internal lavage, radical surgery, diet, exercise, etc). I am drawing from literary texts, but also from psychoanalytic case studies, and I hope from other kinds of unpublished accounts written by women referring to their "regularity" or lack thereof. This would be the "other side" of studies of anorexia, bulimia, eating practices, etc. Initially, I'm focussing on the first three decades in the 20th century, in the U.S., Britain, and the Continent (may narrow down the geographical focus later when I figure out exactly what my archives will be). I have two research questions for the list:

1. At the moment I'm working with a psychoanalytic case study from the mid-twenties: a German or Austrian woman consulting Wilhelm Stekel. Her symptoms: she can't have a bowel movement unless she seats herself at the breakfast table near someone she's attracted to (the resulting anxiety gets the peristaltic action going). Stekel remarks that she picked up "foolish habits--the taking of drastic purgatives and checking their over-effect with opium" in a sanitarium she had stayed in. I would like to know more about European sanitaria in the early 20th century: where were they? who frequented them? for what purposes? what, in particular, was the daily regimen in a sanitarium? How were they differentiated from (if indeed they were) spas, sanitoria, institutions for the insane, etc. I haven't been able yet to find a book or even article that offers such information.

2. I've been granted a sabbatical for next year, and plan to consult archives (in both the U.S. and abroad) in hopes of finding women's unpublished accounts of their bowel habits: correspondence by writers for instance, but also letters from women writing to pharmaceutical companies, or medical regulatory agencies, asking about the safety or advisability of using certain products such as laxatives, aggressively marketed enemas, etc. I have some ideas about collections to consult in the U.S. (Loma Linda hospital library archives in Southern California, for instance, or the Wellcome Institute in London) but would welcome tips from anyone who, in the course of other research, has come across a particularly rich fund of material of the sort I'm looking for.

Jean Walton
University of Rhode Island

The Annals of Improbable Research endorses the aims, intents, means, and morals of Professor Walton's project. We would be grateful to any readers who keep us apprised of its progress.

(Thanks to Karen Graffius-Ashcraft for bringing this to our attention.)

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