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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Our Bodies, Our Selves: 40 years later

I was a young mother and a young nurse when I got my first copy of "Our Bodies, Our Selves". It had been in print for a couple of years by then.

I can't remember how I found out about it - probably advertised in MS. Magazine - but I remember reading it and being shocked. Not by what was in there but because I didn't know half the stuff I read in that book.

It's still sitting on my shelf.

I'm still learning from it.

The first edition of "Our Bodies, Our Selves" found its way into print forty years ago this month.

Originally produced by the Boston Women's Health Collective, it caused quite a stir when it was published.

Libraries banned it. Women hid it under their beds like some men hide pornography. But, this was far from pornographic. It became "the" book for young teenage girls - and boys - to steal from their mother's bedside.

The book shocked conservatives with its candid discussion (and close-up drawings) of masturbation, contraception and the clitoris (spelled out as klit-o-ris). It actually described the various ways women experienced orgasm and how to talk with your lover (no gender specified) if you weren't having one that was satisfactory to you.

In the beginning, the authors of the book were just 12 women, none of them medical experts, who’d met at a Boston women’s conference, bonding over their inability to find a good doctor. They started gathering in the basement of an Armenian church, and—suddenly realizing how little they knew about their own anatomy—decided to write down their thoughts.

Abortion, child-bearing, birth control, lesbians, patriarchy, capitalism — nothing was off-limits to these women, who believed, rightly, that with better knowledge, women would be better equipped to deal with their own health.

Mind you, at the time, abortion was illegal. Female doctors were as rare as, well, hen's teeth. Sex education in schools still consisted primarily of teaching young women "proper behavior" and how to put on a sanitary pad and belt (if you don't remember those things, count yourself lucky) and the best way to get rid of menstrual blood stains on your underwear.

In the Roman Catholic school of my youth, the nuns taught us not to wear patten leather shoes (they reflect up), not to wear our hair in pony tails (too phallic a symbol - which always confused me), and to bring a quarter (for a phone call) and a phone book (to place on a boy's lap if we were in a crowded car) on every date. 

I have no idea what the boys were being taught. I shudder to think.

The book was written in a very accessible manner. It's so easy to read, a teenager could understand it. Which was part of the point of writing the book.  No matter our age, we were all pretty much pre-adolescent in our understanding of our own bodies and sexuality. Indeed, part of the ritual of preparing our daughters for the onset of menstruation included her very own copy of this book.

Yes, yes. The book also contained a chapter on lesbians entitled, "In Amerika, They Call Us Dykes." It was nothing our kids hadn't heard discussed before in our home, around our kitchen table.

Indeed, we talked about many of the chapters in the book openly and with great care and respect. I think our daughters are the responsible, healthy young women they are today because we did. And, I'm pleased to say, our son is a fine young man and a fabulous dad.

None of our kids ever had an abortion. None of them are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. We want the best for our kids but, turns out, if you're "born that way" no one can "change" you. 

Forty years - and nine editions, 25 translations, e-books, and education campaigns — later, a whopping 825 page new edition has been released with new chapters on date rape, body image and plastic surgery and how to resist the pressure to conform to plasticized notions of “perfection.”

With four million copies sold already, the authors hope to reach a new cohort of young women.

Gone is the anti-patriarchy bent, as well as the iconic raised fist that once graced the title page of the original hand-printed 1970 edition.

No longer do the authors proclaim, “We must destroy the myth that we have to be groovy, free chicks.” (Do we even know what that means anymore? Did we ever?)

Instead of essays on “capitalism,” there are chapters on changes in the healthcare system, environmental health risks, and how to be an activist in the 21st century.

There is still a section on Lesbians and a new “Relationships” chapter comprised entirely of readers’ candid conversations, which looks really good.

I have a clear memory of being a Maternal-Child Health Community nurse in Portland, Maine, where I served predominantly high-risk mothers. Most of my work was with low-income families where I did a great deal of teaching with pregnant girls in their teens.

I will never forget the first time I went into one of the housing projects on Munjoy Hill in Portland. I had a folder with pictures of female and male anatomy and another with the various changes that happen to the woman and the fetus during the various stages of pregnancy.

As I began to speak with this one 14 year old girl, pregnant and in her second trimester, I noticed her mother peeking around he corner, listening in. I invited her into the room to join us, which the young girl seemed comfortable with. Soon, another woman was peering around the corner. It was the girl's grandmother who asked if she could join us.

There were three generation of women living in that apartment, none of whom knew anything about their bodies - or the bodies of the men in their lives. They were hungry for information.

The next week when I arrived at the apartment, there were 12 women from the neighborhood who greeted me at the door, asking if they, too, could sit in on my presentations.

It was amazing - the questions. The conversations. The hunger for information and education. It wasn't too long before we were meeting weekly in the community room - some 40 or 50 women altogether. I can't remember a time when I did more important work.

I have no doubt that this new edition will send conservatives into a 'new era' of tailspin. Some parents somewhere will try to ban it from their local bookstores and public libraries.  Conservative radio talk show hosts will snicker and titter and tell their listeners about how this book will lead their daughters down the road to sin and perdition.

Michele Bachmann will, no doubt, tell us that a woman came up to her and told her that her precious little girl read "Our Bodies, Our Selves" before she was inoculated with the HPV vaccine and now she has mental retardation.

"Our Bodies, Our Selves" introduced these key ideas into the public discourse on women’s health:
That women, as informed health consumers, are catalysts for social change

That women can become their own health experts, particularly through discussing issues of health and sexuality with each other

That health consumers have a right to know about controversies surrounding medical practices and about where consensus among medical experts may be forming

That women comprise the largest segment of health workers, health consumers, and health decision-makers for their families and communities, but are underrepresented in positions of influence and policy making

That a pathology/disease approach to normal life events (birthing, menopause, aging, death) is not an effective way in which to consider health or structure a health system
These ideas have helped to transform almost two generations of women and men in this country and in many places around the world.

Hopefully, this new edition will continue that work.

There's a new era of young women - and men - who still need to hear and embrace the ideas in this book.  Indeed, there are still members of previous generations who still need to read this book.

Everyone has a right to information about their bodies and their selves.

No one should have to steal it from a book underneath their mother's bed.


Rev. Katie Wright said...

The cover you show is one from 2005. The 2011 one is not pink...
I found out from going straight from your post to order one for my family. My mother had the original, I have a subsiquent expanded version. And my 13, 11 and baby will have access to this 2011 one. Important work.
Rev. Katie Wright

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Katie. My boo boo. Glad you caught it. I'll change it soon

JCF said...

I have one from the late 70s, and another ("Expanded!") from the 90s.

The 70s "In America, They Call Us Dykes" section is CLASSIC!

[wv, "risista": Sista Resista? ;-)]

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It absolutely is, JCF. I take it out and read it from time to time, just because I can.

MarkBrunson said...

Now that I'm middle-aged, I'm going to write a book:

Our Bodies, and You're Welcome to 'Em.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Tee hee. I'll keep mine around for a while. Even though it doesn't allow me to do the things I could do in my 20s, I'm not quite done with it yet.

whiteycat said...

Mark, your comment is priceless!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It really does tickle an ancient funny bone, doesn't it, Whiteycat?