A woman’s head was once also a portable shelf
Images from the past show just how good women were at balancing water pots and children while juggling weights without prams or petroleum
Women seem to accept as a basis of fact that they are physically weaker far too seriously. Take this female-centric physical comparison where the writer seems to moan about differences in female strengths and how to compensate women to redress the balance1. The fact of the matter is that physical strength and stamina aspects are less important than differences in how men and women think and what their attitudes are to prevailing conditions incorporating capricious societal mores. Physical differences mattered more in the past when we lived in villages that revolved around an agricultural economy or further back when men and women had to gather resources and raise families battling climate and wilderness.
Leave aside the fictitious portrayal of women’s physical prowess in films like Wonder Woman or X-men. In such caricatures, women beat up men in fights hands down. The reality is somewhat different. With increasing feminism and female empowerment has arisen a weaponised MTF transgender agenda that sometimes dis-empowers women. Nowhere is this clearer than in competitive sports where transwomen - originally or still anatomically male, are toppling cis-women like ninepins in a bowling alley. That is unfair2.
There remain differences between the sexes and areas where women’s physique, anatomy and stamina exceed those of men but most modern women will not have the privilege of exhibiting many of these aspects as they were displayed a hundred or more years ago.
When it comes to childbirth, the womb represents one of the strongest muscles3 of the human body, capable of distending from a tiny volume to something huge, with the strength to push out a substantial baby through a relatively rigid hole, smaller in diameter than the infant. So intense is this effort, in comparison to other mammals that it represents peak thresholds of pain and stress on the female hip structure. Human babies have some of the largest heads compared to the offspring of other mammals – the price of a large brain. Women bear the physical consequences of this expanded mental volume compared to our ape ancestors. Maternal mortality was much higher during childbirth in the past and the design of modern female anatomy is testament to enormous selection pressure from past deaths of untold numbers of our great grandmothers.
There are certain lifting exercises a man is generally incapable of in comparison to women – consider the chair challenge where men and women bend at the hip and try and lift a chair while maintaining their head against a wall4. Most women can succeed in this simple exercise whereas men, especially the taller ones can’t budge. Although they are top heavy at the chest, owing to their breasts, women have a centre of mass much lower than men that helps to explain part of their success during this and similar challenges. Furthermore, apparently women have lower backs that are more concave and presumably more flexible and this is an area of dimorphism that is very little discussed today, at a time when university academics are largely paid to spout a philosophy that emphasises that the difference between the sexes is somewhat trivial – or needs to be equalised at the expense of men.
Women are probably anatomically better designed for carrying things in a vertical orientation than men even if men may carry heavier loads. This especially applies to carrying babies, but also heavy objects on their heads. This aspect of female carriage and function is not seen today but was evident in the past. Today one struggles for space in a bus as any woman with a child takes it in a pram or stroller with a physical footprint around four times hers, whereas in the past, she carried them off her spine and took up less space. Women’s arms are also proportioned slightly differently, even if they are shorter relative to body size than male arms. Once more, this is an area with either little research or, perhaps more likely, much less comment.
When I was small, it was quite common to see village women in Sri Lanka carrying large water pots balanced on their heads, walking quite large distances, swaying themselves in such a way that the pots needed very little support from their hands. The best of them could walk quite naturally with a large pot on their heads resting on a small head cushion, and be hands free as they were experts at balance. They had straight backs and the pots would have weighed a great deal more than their heads at say 5-7kg. Women (and it was usually female) also carried water pots off their hips pegged in by a wrist – these bulbous pots of fired clay had smallish mouths and a short narrower neck above their capacious spherical bellies.
This kind of practice was common the world over a century or more ago, when women needed to carry things a great deal more than the pleasures of using strollers and vehicles of today. Primarily, women used to carry children by themselves, but they also had to carry water or liquids in pots back home from a well or stream in the absence of piped water. They also carried things a great deal more in contexts of fishing and farming and taking goods to the market. To illustrate these points I present eight plates from a geographical work from the 1920s that gathered images from its own time and decades before. This was when traditional dresses and costumes were fast disappearing (being replaced by modern or more Western clothing) and such works are a testament to a greater human diversity when we all needed to walk and carry things a lot more, without the assistance of petroleum.
The vast bulk of images deal with the carriage of children, but they also display clearly how women carried things, often finely balanced on their heads or by the use of baskets or pots. Based on these images, women appear better talented to carry relatively heavy items using their spines while standing straight in comparison to men. Men could often do the same things as some of the images testify but not with quite the same felicity – these images emphasise that women’s sense of balance was or is better developed than men. Perhaps, they can carry more, balanced off their flexible spines than in their arms or shoulders as men can. This seems to derive both from their anatomy and adaptations to carry children (both inside and outside) as well as training from a young age. The plates are organised geographically and the European ones in particular resolve between themes and countries leading to some of the most impressive images from Portugal, representing sights that you wouldn’t now see.
Plate 1: Africa
Plate 1, Africa: The palanquin with its female occupant is carried by an apparently all-female team. Perhaps females of a certain rank could only be carried by other female palanquin bearers or some of them are men. Palanquin travel was quite common in hot countries – now all but extinct and they were carried by both sexes. Here is a rare instance of a large weight being carried by some women. The Ashanti ladies carry water pots much as observed in Sri Lanka – balancing large vessels on their heads seems to have been a universal female specialism from a bygone age not seen today. This is seen again in the other images.
Plate 2: Middle East
Plate 2, Middle East and Egypt: Apart from children, the Arab woman carrying her pitcher on the head, echoes a familiar them highlighted from Plate 1.
Plate 3: South America
Plate 3, South America: Again, apart from children, notice the woman balancing hats on her head and baskets on her body while going to market. Although her goods are not especially heavy, she carries them well balanced and vertically with skill. This market woman echoes similar ladies in market contexts from Europe in subsequent plates.
Plate 4: East Asia and Japan
Plate 4, East Asia and Japan: The Vietnamese ladies carry children and goods off their spines using pouches, baskets and seem well trained in this art. Japanese girls were trained from age four to carry their brothers and sisters as a prelude to their own children and after they were too large for carriage, then animals could be used as shown. Note that Japanese women were taught to be subservient to the men in their lives and even today one hears that they represent ideal wives for those men lucky to find them.
Plate 5: European, includes fishwife
Plate 5, Europe with fishwife: Notice a water pot scene as in plate 1 and accommodations to carry children. We also see a proverbial fishwife with a large basket to carry the catch to market one presumes if not for further processing such as smoking and other treatments.
Plate 6: European Agriculture
Plate 6, European Agriculture: Agricultural and rural scenes. Women and men co-operated in agriculture and carried things including sheaves of corn as seen in England (you wouldn’t see this now in an age of machinery) and an attractive Romanian woman carrying a water-pot in traditional clothing. Notice the ornate little cots for carrying children seen here and in other plates.
Plate 7: Marketing in Europe
Plate 7, European market scenes: An Italian carnation seller with flowers balanced on her head juxtaposed against London’s flower women with their carnation baskets. Covent Garden market would have been stuffed with sellers like this and a male basket carrier shows that this is not just a woman’s skill. Hungarian women carry ducks in their basket backpacks while exchanging gossip.
Plate 8: Portuguese weightlifting women
Plate 8, Portugal: Astonishing scenes of the power of women carrying extraordinary loads in baskets or balancing things on their heads. The captions speak volumes. A young girl carries her shoes to save them being worn by her feet (in both senses of the word).
Too little work is now done on the precise differences between how the backs of men and women work although there is overlap. We have all observed that men have stiffer backs that can often take more weight, but men’s torsos are slightly shorter and the overall figure is much less supple and often slightly bent. Women have more concave backs balancing a narrower ribcage (seen in profile) and at least based on catwalk models in heels, have a finer sense of balance even if their hips may sway while keeping the upper body relatively still. This aspect could certainly be of use in balancing waterpots as women once did. On average, women tend to stand much straighter than men – this applies to the tallest of them approaching 7 feet based on my observations and this clearly points to anatomical distinctions.
We cannot now see the carrying powers of women as could be observed fifty or more years ago and perhaps as a reason of this, male physical strength is over-emphasised by writers. It is high time that we noted the greater facilities women have for load bearing and carriage of goods and children. More commentary and exploration of this would certainly be useful in revealing some real understated differences between the sexes and the historical weight bearing powers women once revelled in.