It advocates access to safe and legal abortions for all women, decries Brazilian bikini waxing for making adults resemble prepubescent girls...

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It advocates access to safe and legal abortions for all women, decries Brazilian bikini waxing for making adults resemble prepubescent girls, supports same-sex couples’ right to marry and contains a six-part, illustrated tour of the female anatomy — featuring “the vagina and its neighbors.”

“Our Bodies, Ourselves” is anything but a dull health-reference book.

Thirty-five years after its debut as an angry feminist booklet that railed against condescending doctors, a newly revised edition of “Our Bodies” is targeting a new generation of readers.

The 2005 update, the first since 1998, weighs in on a host of new issues, including hormone therapy, stem-cell research, Medicare prescription-drug coverage and informed medical consent. At the same time, the book retains much of the original’s bracing candor and graphic sexual content that in the early 1980s spurred the Rev. Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority to denounce it as “obscene trash.”

Today, the authors of “Our Bodies” downplay the book’s feminist roots.

Then and now

“Women and Their Bodies” first appeared in 1970, and the 193-page stapled booklet, with its confrontational language, launched the women’s health movement. The first commercial edition of the book was published in 1973 under the new title, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” The 2005 updated edition is 832 pages, with half of them featuring revised or new material. Excerpts below demonstrate the difference in tone.

From “Women and Their Bodies” (1970): “We as women are redefining competence: A doctor who behaves in a male chauvinist way is not competent, even if he has medical skills. We have decided that health can no longer be defined by an elite group of white, upper-middle-class men. It must be defined by us.”

From “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (2005): “Our medical culture also puts a premium on high-tech equipment and testing, along with surgical procedures and expensive prescription drugs. While many of these are necessary and useful, treatments that may be less expensive in the long run, including preventive and some alternative health practices and care by nurse practitioners and nurse midwives, are often dismissed or overlooked.”

Judy Norsigian, executive director and a founder of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, the book’s publisher, said “Our Bodies” is as much an advocate for skeptical consumers as it is for women. For instance, the book warns against misleading ads for prescription drugs, questions the benefits of routine mammograms to detect breast cancer and instructs patients on how to get the most from a doctor’s visit.

“Most people don’t pick up this book because they want to read a feminist book,” Norsigian contends. “They pick it up because they want good medical information.”

Yet there is no mistaking “Our Bodies” for, say, “The New Harvard Guide to Women’s Health.” Whereas the Harvard Guide methodically wends through women’s health topics in alphabetical order — kicking off with abdominal pain and concluding with zinc — the activist views and the frank tone that are hallmarks of “Our Bodies” are evident from its first pages.

Chapter 1, titled, “Body Image,” explores — and deplores — the way society defines women by their looks. It links the trend of Brazilian bikini waxing (which removes all but a wisp of pubic hair from the genital area) to the growing fetish to make women’s private parts appear younger and more appealing.

It also features personal essays on the pressures on women’s appearance. A New Yorker recounts how she resisted her own family’s entreaties to have her prominent Jewish nose reduced. A Korean American describes her view that cosmetic surgery to create creased eyelids is tantamount to cultural erasure.

“Our Bodies” tackles women’s most intimate health concerns in a straightforward style, often with catchy headings like “Douche: Do or Don’t?” or “Menstrual Activism.”

Coming up

Book signing

Judy Norsigian, executive director and a founder of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and a co-author of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” ($24.95), will host a talk and sign copies of the book at 4:30 p.m. May 16 at the Henry Art Gallery, 15th Ave. N.E. and N.E. 41st St., Seattle. Co-sponsored by Center for Women’s Health & Gender Research at UW School of Nursing and the School of Social Work, Women’s Studies Department and the Psychology Department.

The book deals unflinchingly, and some might say stridently, with issues such as abortion and domestic violence. It contains explicit photos of a victim whose boyfriend drove over her in his truck and the dead body of a woman who’d had an illegal abortion in the days before Roe v. Wade.

“This book has a very strong ideology and philosophy,” said Barbara Burns McGrath, research associate professor at the University of Washington’s School of Nursing. “It’s not just a straight” medical guide.

McGrath, who first read “Our Bodies” in the early 1970s shortly after it came out, says “the book is probably the reason I became a nurse. It was an eye-opener.”

Revolutionary beginnings

McGrath recalled that the book’s challenge against a paternalistic medical system, its mantra that knowledge is power and its plainspoken treatment of previously verboten health matters all were radical at the time.

“Our Bodies” was all the more revolutionary because none of the 12 original members of the collective who wrote it had a background in medicine. Instead, they were propelled by shared frustration and anger toward patronizing and judgmental physicians. The women, all white and all college educated, first gathered in 1969 at a women’s liberation conference at Boston’s Emmanuel College. They decided to research and share medical information, focusing heavily on reproductive health and sexuality.

The group’s efforts gave birth in 1970 to a 193-page newsprint booklet that has since grown to a 832-page reference tome. The book has sold more than 4 million copies, including editions in Spanish, French and Braille.

Norsigian, a co-author of “Our Bodies,” laments that today’s young women may regard the feminists of her generation as little more than “crazy” radicals. Norsigian reminds that under the prevailing medical wisdom in the late 1960s, nurses whisked newborns away from their mothers without giving them a chance to bond and doctors customarily banned fathers from delivery rooms.

“Try that on. That’ll make you pretty angry,” she said. “Parents had to insist that these changes had to be made.”

“Our Bodies” claims credit for launching the women’s health movement. It taught women to take charge of their bodies and taught them about their bodies. It preached that “sexual pleasure is a universal human right” and then explained how women could achieve orgasm, find their G-spot and explore different ways to make love.

Controversy, empowerment

Norsigian says that the latest edition of “Our Bodies” bears scant resemblance to the 1970 booklet. Many of the more than 100 contributors to the 2005 version have medical or clinical expertise. Half of the text in the current edition has been revised or added since 1998, including information on safe-sex practices and a new chapter on navigating the health-care system.

“Our Bodies” vs.
“The Harvard Guide”

Body image

“Our Bodies”: “Learning to accept and love ourselves in our bodies is an important ongoing struggle and a political statement. It can take time to embrace our own beauty, or even to recognize it. The self-loathing that many of us live with each day eats away at our well-being.”

“Harvard Guide”: “Study after study indicates that American women tend to be dissatisfied with their looks, rating themselves too ugly, too plain, too old, too pimply, too fat, too hairy, too tall, and so on. By contrast, men in general tend to be much more satisfied with their bodies, even when objective measurements indicate that they might not meet certain standards of perfection.”

Sexual Orientation

“Our Bodies”: “Letting other people know that we identify as lesbian, bisexual, queer, or trans can be one of the most challenging and life-changing decisions we face. Each of us must decide for ourselves to what extent we want our family, friends, and acquaintances to know about our sexuality and gender identity.”

“Harvard Guide”: “Not only do many teenagers experiment with both heterosexual and homosexual behavior before learning what is most natural to them, but also women in particular (many of them married, with children) are apt to discover a lesbian leaning well into life, only when they have enough time, confidence, and experience for that self-awareness.”

Sources: “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (2005, Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster), “The New Harvard Guide to Women’s Health” (By Karen J. Carlson, M.D., et. al. The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Copyrighted)

Still, many pages in “Our Bodies,” carry a vestige of its counterculture origin. For instance, the section on menstruation touts old flannel shirts and T-shirts as economical alternatives to tampons and pads.

The book also reprints a controversial photo of Geraldine Santoro, who bled to death on a motel floor in 1964 after a botched abortion attempt by her married lover. Norsigian said the decision to retain the photo came after an internal editorial debate. In the end, the authors concluded that the threatened erosion of women’s right to choose outweighed the photo’s shock value.

“Some people thought it was gruesome,” Norsigian said. “I think we might have chosen to take it out if we were in a more secure place [about keeping abortion legal].”

Penny Simkin, a Seattle childbirth educator and author, said she would not publish such a photo in her books. Then again, Simkin said, “Our Bodies” has never hidden its agenda.

“I think they feel so strongly about it that they’re using methods that appeal to emotion,” said Simkin, who has known Norsigian for years. “I don’t think they’re pretending to be objective.”

Norsigian acknowledges that “Our Bodies” is opinionated. But she says it doesn’t mean the book isn’t factual or balanced.

Norsigian said all the medical information in the book is reviewed by experts. “Our Bodies” urges women to arm themselves with knowledge, whether weighing the pros and cons of hormone therapy or choosing alternative treatments.

“We don’t make claims that can’t be substantiated,” Norsigian said.

McGrath, of UW’s School of Nursing, said she has never heard criticism about the quality of medical information in “Our Bodies.” McGrath said many health and medical reference books promote particular approaches, and there is a place for books like “Our Bodies.”

“The people who pick it up should know very quickly what viewpoint it has,” McGrath said. “They can choose to read it or not.”

Simkin, who at 66 says she identified more with the generation that came before the late 1960s feminists, recalls thinking that “Our Bodies” was “more radical and angry” than she felt comfortable with. The tone of the first commercial edition of “Our Bodies” in 1973 largely reflected the militant mood of women’s liberation at the time, when, Simkin said, mothers would rush back to work just days after giving birth and some women had surgeries to stop their monthly periods.

Still, Simkin credits “Our Bodies” with empowering female patients in a male-dominated medical field at the time.

“Our Bodies” was a bestseller in its early years. But the book sold fewer copies during the 1990s, which Norsigian attributes more to lackluster marketing than to fatigue with feminism. Most of the original members of the collective are still involved with the book.

Norsigian said “Our Bodies” isn’t competing directly with medical reference books such as the “Harvard Guide,” which first came out in 1996 and was updated in 2004. Both books cover many of the same topics, ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to pregnancy to urinary-tract infections.

But the two books diverge in key ways, too. “Our Bodies,” for instance, unlike the “Harvard Guide,” contains no entries on varicose veins or aortic stenosis, or narrowing of the heart valve, which is more common in women than in men after age 70.

At the same time, “Our Bodies” covers many health-related issues missing from the “Harvard Guide.”

“Our Bodies” examines the effect of pornography on advertising, body image and domestic abuse. It examines the limitations of Medicare coverage. It outlines the barriers that women of color face in obtaining quality medical care. And it gives tips on how to obtain prescription drugs cheaply.

The book that was borne of women’s rebellion is now a global brand. “Our Bodies” has been adapted or translated into more than 20 languages. Women can read local versions of the book in Japan, Poland, Bulgaria and Germany. Work is under way now to produce editions for South Korea and Tibet.

Kyung Song: 206-464-2423