May 2005

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

Our Bodies, Ourselves

The brand new edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves has a pink cover. The color covers just over half the front, above the requisite photo of a group of smiling, diverse women. I have to wonder: what does it mean when a radical feminist book that was born in rejection of stereotypical femininity turns bubble gum pink?

It could be a sign that times are changing. Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for a New Era is the first complete revision of the classic feminist health bible in a decade. When it first emerged in 1970 in the thick of the women's liberation movement, Our Bodies, Ourselves was treasured for its frank discussion of women's health and its firm conviction that women should be the authorities about their own bodies. Now, in a decade that's seen Sex and the City spotlight women's sexuality on national television, the terms of these discussions may deserve different treatment. Controversies over abortion, emergency contraception and basic birth control threaten women's reproductive freedom, but the controversies themselves are proof that women's health issues aren't the secrets they once were, even if the issues are far from being resolved, or the solutions secure. With this in mind, the authors of the 9th edition decided to do more than just revise. The "new era" demanded a reinvention.

Despite good intentions, the pink on the cover isn't much more than a nice color. It's not the sort of pink that wants to riot, or even the sort that wants to drink cocktails and gossip. The color on the cover is not being reclaimed or subverted. It's a pink as calm and innocuous as the breast cancer ribbon. Just a color, but one whose association with women and girls was much too loaded to have been used in connection with this book until now.

Even with the drastic redesign and text revision, the book's overall tone hasn't changed much, remaining friendly and upbeat, if vaguely -- and unintentionally -- condescending (a typical line imparts, "The hour or so after active lovemaking can be a special time"). Along with such maternal wisdom, and the personal stories of individual women, overt politics continue to be key to the identity of Our Bodies, Ourselves. The chapter on abortion in particular devotes space to history, politics, and activism alongside medical information, and there's no other area where this complex view makes more sense. Even recognizing this, the politics throughout feel a bit forced. The opening chapter offers up a Calvin Klein ad for scrutiny alongside a deadpan analysis. By page two, a sidebar is scorning Brazilian bikini waxes in the same breath as thong-shaped panty-liners and vaginal rejuvenation surgery.

The new book's relatively compact size has less room for visuals than past editions, and nearly all of the photographs are new. That this means fewer photos of naked women in labor is kind of a shame for the generations of girls who have counted on their mothers' copy to scandalize friends at slumber parties, but updating the visuals has been key to keeping the aging book fresh. Some classics remain from earlier editions: notably, the police photo of Gerri Santoro, a woman who died from an illegal abortion. The photo is as jarring as ever, and serves the purpose of reminding young women that abortion wasn't always legal. Young women who, it must be said, the writers seem sure need the reminder.

Voices of these "young women" -- who have sometimes clashed with the generation of feminists responsible for the earliest version of this book -- have been carefully included in this edition. Jennifer Baumgardner's first-person account of living with herpes is one of the more powerful and interesting pieces in the book. Her story doesn't tack politics onto the end to hammer home a point: the honesty of her experience is enough to stand on its own. These kinds of personal stories were an indispensable feature of earlier editions and have given the book its legitimacy from the very beginning. All this said, the "fresh, modern design" has me nostalgic for tiny type and awkward layout. The original radical primer on women's health today blends seamlessly into the self-help section of Barnes & Noble. This kind of accessibility is what feminism should strive for. But even though I want this book to be more widely available, I can't help feeling protective of what made it special to begin with. With the softened presentation, the information inside feels less urgent. The good news is that this information in many ways is less urgent: there are, arguably, fewer taboos, and the book's impact has been dramatic enough to make rethinking its format possible. Still, I miss the rawness of the original. I miss its attitude, which now pales next to Inga Muscio's rousing Cunt, the implicit politics of magazines like Bust, and the cult that's grown up around Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues. Our Bodies, Ourselves played no small part in inspiring books like Cunt, Natalie Angier's Woman: An Intimate Geography, and a range of others, by giving women the information they needed to make declarations of their own about their health and situation, as well as about Our Bodies itself. So I want the book to feel more defiant than it does. I want the pink cover to smirk at me.

But it doesn't. Our Bodies takes itself, and the issues addressed in its pages, very seriously. Too seriously. For years it was a prescription for empowerment. It was proof of what women could learn and do if they took matters into their own hands. Even though this new edition includes extensive resource lists, the thing about Our Bodies, Ourselves that is least new is its determination to be and do everything. While the team behind the revision seems aware of the changed context that the book helped create, that very context complicated the effort to bring Our Bodies into the new era. Its identity crisis is a product of a rich history and an increasingly challenging present, and is no surprise in light of the struggles of the broader feminist movement these days.

Has Our Bodies, Ourselves really changed so much in the last thirty-five years? Yes. No. Both not as much as it needs to, and too much. I guess that's the way it goes, for a book whose continued relevance depends so much on its ability to be everything to every woman. And maybe that's the problem.

Our Bodies, Ourselves by Boston Women's Health Book Collective
ISBN: 0743256115
704 Pages