“You have 1 minute to draw the female reproductive system”
by Natasha Alford

Reflection

Art can be used as a very powerful tool in medicine. Doctors can gain insight into patients’ feelings through the medium of art. However, art can also be used to show doctors or in this case medical students', own perspectives into certain areas. I wanted to use art to investigate whether there was a difference in the way male and female students saw the female reproductive systems.

Therefore, I asked 14 male and 16 female medical students to draw the female reproductive system in 1 minute. I choose 1 minute because it’s short enough not to raise expectations regarding the artistic quality of the drawing. I chose a small square of watercolour paper because it provided an adequate surfaced texture for the drawings and since I gave everybody the same paper the drawing would look somewhat uniform. However, what medium to draw with I left up to the participants. The students were given no guidance about what to draw, it was completely up to them on how they interpreted the question. The student’s names were kept anonymous; they were only asked to indicate their gender on the back of the paper. I asked each student to complete the drawings separately, so there would be no sharing of ideas. Furthermore, we were taught the female reproductive system in anatomy last term, the participant’s lack of knowledge about the female anatomy shouldn’t be a limiting factor.

After I collected all the drawings I painted over them with watercolour. I choose watercolour because I could dilute the paint and add a slight alteration to the pieces without changing or adding anything to the established drawing. I selected the diluted pink partly because it is the colour people stereotypically associate with anything related to the female gender, when people think of female reproductive system they think pink.

I decided to display the drawings in an album, without exposing the gender of the student, to give the audience an experience of predicting whether a female or male student drew it. The final 2 pictures of the drawings displayed according to their gender allows the audience to view them together and make their own assumptions about the pattern. At the end of the album I included the index to reveal which painting corresponds to which gender. I think this allows the viewer to understand their own pre-conceived ideas about what they expected each gender to draw. I incorporate my essay into the album, as part of the art piece, to allow the viewer to read about my own conclusions about the experiment.

After analysis of the drawings I discovered that the majority of the female students drew a ‘textbook’ biological representation of the female reproductive system, without the external genitalia, with many including labels like uterus, ovaries, cervix and details about what happens at e.g. fertilisation. A female student wrote about the hormones FSH, LH and the accessory organs. Most female participants used careful lines and highlighted certain details in their drawings. One female student wrote the words pain, which perhaps is an example of how some females even associate the female reproductive system with pain, especially during menstrual cramps.

The majority of the male students interpreted the question differently; several male students pictured the reproductive system as if they were looking at it from between the woman’s legs, thus portraying the external view to the genitalia. Some male students drew the full female figure, breasts included, perhaps because males associate the reproductive system as a whole. The male students, that interpreted the question to mean the ‘textbook’ definition, sketched vague drawings with no labels and messy lines that vaguely represented the female reproductive system. Similar results were found by the website Sheknows (2014) where they asked a group of men to draw the female reproductive anatomy, they found a similar result where all men drew external anatomy of the vagina. They concluded that the males didn’t understand how it all connects internally and the function in terms of reproduction.(1)

Art plays an important part in understanding the views of medical students toward the female reproductive system, it’s important to gain this perspective they will become doctors who will make decisions about female health. These drawings can be used to identify any misconceptions with the student’s representations of the female reproductive system, whether it’s to reveal any biological misunderstandings about the anatomy or to identify any conventional sexualisation of the image. Perhaps the absence of labelling found in the male drawings can be interpreted as lack knowledge of biology, but the female students labelling wasn’t accurate either, some labels were omitted or incorrect. It would be fair to say that both genders needed an enhancement in their biological knowledge. Furthermore, the male drawings of female external genitalia can be seen as sexualisation of the female reproductive system and lack of understanding how external and internal aspects work together. However, that is not to say that the textbook image that most female students produced is better, perhaps it indicates their detachment and clinical view of the system. In which case, the two drawings of the female figure drawn by males actually represent a less disjointed image of the reproductive system. A study by Koski found similar results, the male students drew the external view of the female reproductive system, which the study attributed to the fact male students’ drawings are influenced by their sexual experiences and a sense of importance of the male role in the conception. But females drew internal drawings, which the study concluded could mean the students wished to avoid too personal portrayals with a reference to the body as a person.(2)

The analysis and the conclusions drawn from the art pieces are significant because they can highlight areas of improvement for the future. Whether its improvement in education of the female reproductive system or more emphasis in viewing the female reproductive system as a whole thus seeing the female patient as a whole person not just a textbook representation. It’s clear that neither gender owns the monopoly on female health, Balayla found that a gynaecologist’s gender is not an issue but characteristics like communication and empathy are more important to the female patients.(3) Identification of these issues through art research could improve female health care in the future.

Natasha Alford, Whole Person Care, Year One , 2017

  1. Brown-Worsham S. Men asked to draw the female reproductive anatomy fail hilariously [Internet]. SheKnows. 2014 [cited 19 April 2017]. Available from: http://www.sheknows.com/love-and-sex/articles/1068149/men-draw-the-female-anatomy-video
  2. Koski k. Mapping the Female Reproductive System: Arts-based Inquiry of Medical Students’ Anatomy Drawings. studies in material thinking [Internet]. 2007 [cited 19 April 2017];Volume 10 The Art of Research(1177-6234):12-13. Available from: http://www.materialthinking.org/sites/default/files/papers/SMTV1001Kaisu%20Koski0.pdf
  3. Balayla J. Male physicians treating Female patients: Issues, Controversies and Gynecology. McGill journal of Medicine. 2011;13(PMC3296153).