She's Goiter Have It
Country legend and recent KFC Colonel Reba McEntire once asked "Why do we want what we know we can't have?"
I'm pretty sure she was referring to love, beauty, or something similarly romantic. Me, well, I just miss my thyroid gland.
Ever since my thyroid was radioactively destroyed when I was 14 (not nearly as cool as it sounds but let's be honest, it does make me sound pretty cool) and Imagine Dragons wrote a song about me, I've been fascinated with the thyroid gland and its various ailments and treatments throughout history. (Raise your hand if you, too, develop a sudden interest in things once they effect you personally.)
Since we didn't get good at seeing through people's skin until very recently, most of the early evidence and notes on the thyroid were focused on the one instance in which you can actually see it from the outside - when it is swollen. The vastly unflattering term for this is goiter.
A brief explanatory note: the thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of your neck below your larynx and above your trachea. It has a whole bunch of functions, the main one being to thyroid hormone. In order to do this, it requires iodine, which we don't make ourselves and therefor have to get from food. Today we put iodine in salt in order to ensure that people can get their proper dosage, but throughout most of human history we had a lot of people running around without proper diet, nutrition, and iodine intake. As a result of this, it was much more common to see people with swollen thyroids, or goiters.
In a paper I cannot believe exists called "Goiters in the Renaissance", authors F.G. Vescia and L. Basso identify four types of goiters presented in Renaissance art:
1. The pseudo-goiter, where subjects are depicted with what are probably just oversized Adam's apples, maybe because they are manly or whatever.
2. Imaginary goiters, where the artist just decided to add in a goiter for shits and giggles. Michaelangelo at once point decided to draw himself with a goiter because his neck hurt from painting ceilings. What a baby.
3. Allegorical goiters, where the artist uses the depiction of the goiter to tell you something about the character they're painting. Historically, they have not been good things. In my favorite PowerPoint ever, professor Luigi Massimino at the University of Turin in Italy notes that "depictions of the goiterus" (my new band name) are negative in 46% of cases: usually evil people, grotesque people, various torturers or sinners. Meanwhile, 6% are positive, consisting of women with mild goiters who could still be considered attractive, or even wearing "erotic accessories" like chokers to cover or enhance their goiter, or "cretins".
Cretins, or people who suffer from cretinism, is actually a fun little term that medicine adopted to address people with congenital iodine deficiency syndrome. This often occurred when a mother with reduced thyroid function giving birth to a child with a chronic under-functioning thyroid. Since the symptoms of an under-functioning thyroid can present in a lot of ways, including someone seeming slow, stupid, or stunted (believe me, I've been there), the term "cretin" faded from medical use and instead became synonymous with moron or other unflattering terms.
Before you ask why my hero, Doc Luigi, has placed cretins in the positive category, it is important to note that someone considered a cretin was also considered incapable of sin due to their simple-minded and childlike nature. So, to recap: the options for the goiterus (still a pretty good band name) are to be evil or basically incapable of evil. Not sure which one of those I would pick, honestly.
4. Real goiters, which the artist drew because they were actually present on the subjects, due to a vast majority of possible syndromes, from Graves' disease to tumors.
The most metal instance of a goiter can be found in none
other than the Sistine Chapel, on none other than God Himself. While I choose to believe that goiterus is closest to godliness, SOME PEOPLE (namely doctors Ian Suk and Rafael Tamarago, two neurosergeons who published their theory in Neurosurgery, way to be predictable) believe that the "hideous goiter-disfigured neck" of God is actually evidence that Michelangelo stuck the shape of a human brain into the ceiling, which could be considered his way of totally sticking it to the man, with the man being the Church.
So whatever the goiter means to you personally, be it the sign of sinners, saints, or just a giant middle finger in the shape of a brain stem, I can say that I came out of this investigation proud to join the legions of thyroid-effected figures throughout art and real history. And hey, next time you see someone with a sort of bulgy neck, maybe offer them some sea sponge soaked in salt water*, and tell them the swelling will go down eventually.**
*An early goiter cure.
**Do not do this.