BODY POLITIC: Our Bodies, Ourselves at 40

Women’s understanding of their bodies has come a long way in the last 40 years. In the era before Our Bodies, Ourselves was first published—long before we were encouraged to look at our private parts with a hand mirror, way before we were exhorted to stop calling them private parts and use words like labia, and certainly before the advent of vaginal cosmetic surgery—in other words, for most of human history—doctors, by and large, were men. These men had no firsthand knowledge of what it was like to be women, and the stories of condescension and judgment at their hands are legendary. Little more than a century ago, doctors believed they could cure the majority of what ailed their female patients by manually stimulating their clitorises. For hundreds of years in China, women’s bodies were presumed to be so untouchable that when speaking to their doctors, women had to point to what hurt on a carved nude figurine of a woman, known as a “doctor's lady.”

Before the Boston Women's Health Book Collective produced the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1971 “there was no information; it was a total vacuum,” said Judy Norsigian, a contributing editor to the new anniversary edition of the book. “College-educated women had no idea how their bodies worked. Now, forty years later, there’s a ton of information out there, but a lot of it is inaccurate, misleading, or outright distorted. You need a trustworthy resource to know what’s true.”

Norsigian participates in a panel discussion and Q & A at Collected Works Bookstore on Tuesday, Nov. 29. The book is published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. Paula Doress-Worters, a founding co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves, said that the book may be even more necessary in 2011 than it was when it first published. “When the book first came out, there was so much pressure on women to be socialized a certain way. But there’s such a media barrage on women right now. How do you sort out what’s good information and what is commercial advertising? We’re being pressured to do things that put our health at risk,” she said, referring to vaginal cosmetic surgery, which is discussed in the “Body Image” chapter. “Every inch of a woman’s body presents a new opportunity for improvement, including our vaginas. Much as with waxing, it’s difficult to ignore the obvious link these procedures have to pornography,” the book states.

Like previous editions, the new Our Bodies, Ourselves is more than a desk reference for medical questions. It’s a highly political collection of women’s thoughts and experiences about sex and their bodies, as well as stories of activism: women fighting for the increased regulation of hazardous chemicals and access to medical care and reproductive choice options, and protesting various forms of violence against women. For the first time, the book includes a chapter on gender identity and carefully explains the differences between one’s gender and one’s sexual orientation, though it offers this shortcut to understanding: “Sex is between your legs, gender is between your ears.”

“The question of gender identity has become a more public conversation recently. As to the question of who is or isn’t a woman—our position is that whoever identifies as a woman is a woman,” Doress-Worters said.

One of the most significant health issues facing women today is the over-medicalization of maternity care. Too many women are pressured into cesarean sections they don't need—or they elect to have them out of fear of a vaginal birth—and it’s even become acceptable for doctor and mother to set a mutually agreeable date to induce labor, often before the baby is ready the regular way, Norsigian said. “If we don't change the conversation around childbirth, we’ll see fewer and fewer vaginal births after cesarean. The over-medicalization in this area doesn’t improve outcomes. There should be no elective inductions without good medical reason.”

Another major issue Norsigian and Doress-Worters see affecting women’s health is the hyper-sexualization of girls in the media and advertising. “We’re creating a generation of young women who see themselves as sex objects—not even for their own sexual pleasure but for the benefit of other people. We want young women to think of themselves as full human beings,” Norsigian said. “We live in a commercial culture, a culture that thinks it values ‘edginess,’ and this is particularly captivating to the young. Lots of young women are shaving their pubic hair, seeing what their labias look like. They see that they don’t look like the porn stars, and they want to change that with surgery. Women are still getting breast implants, even though we still don’t know the long-term health effects of silicone gel. Some boyfriends and husbands suggest these surgeries; some boyfriends and husbands beg their girlfriends not to get them. If you can plaster the internet with paid advertising, you can sell these ideas to people who are vulnerable to the belief that they have to fix themselves.”

Norsigian and Doress-Worters are often asked what is the right age for a mother to give her daughter a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves; a girl getting her period for the first time may want information about the changes her body is going through but isn’t ready for the book’s frank descriptions of sexual acts. “We say that a good age is whenever the mother thinks the daughter is ready,” Norsigian said. “Some girls aren’t ready until they’re fourteen or fifteen. The book speaks to women across a life span.” Possibly the most illuminating portion of the book is the chapter on relationships, which features excerpts from an extended online conversation between 37 participants who represent a range of identities and ethnic/cultural backgrounds. Astrid is a 47-year-old straight Caucasian immigrant from Europe; 60-year-old Cathryn was born a hermaphrodite, surgically assigned male at birth, and as an adult had surgery to restore her body to its original state; Rebeka is an 18-year-old African American/Caucasian bisexual; Victoria is 33, a mother to two daughters, and married for eight years. Their honesty in responding to a list of general questions—“How do you define and express intimacy?” “What is it like to be in a relationship when you don’t like some or all of your own body?”—harks back to the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s, in which women first pulled out those hand mirrors. “In today’s environment, you have people on reality shows and on the internet telling all kinds of personal things, but they’re not educating people—they’re exhibitionists,” Doress-Worters said. “Consciousness-raising groups are more than a tell-all – they’re a way to share experiences as women. And they’re coming back.”   


This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 11/25/2011