My Body, Myself

(Homepage photo credit: Georgia O'Keeffe, Grey Line with Black, Blue, and Yellow, 1923. Houston Museum of Fine Arts.)

So you've been watching those early '60s nostalgia shows in fascinated horror -- oh lord, women really had to live like that -- and wondering: How in the world did that world change into this one?

Here's one part of the answer: Forty years ago this week, a dozen women published a book called Our Bodies, Ourselves, which explained the basics of how our physical equipment worked and how we should maintain it. All that was served up with a revolutionary philosophy: Women should know -- and make our own decisions -- about our bodies, sexuality, and health. It sounds ordinary now, but a glance at Mad Men tells you it wasn't once.

When I was barely a teenager old enough to drive, waaaaay back in the mid-1970s, I came across an early copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS) in the Dayton, Ohio, mall's chain bookstore B. Dalton. I've puzzled for decades over how it got there. What visionary buyer put such a revolutionary tome in the blandest bookstore in the world? Whoever she was, it changed my life. The book offered a diagram that let you see whether you were normal "down there" -- an unspeakable relief if you had no clue what it should look like. And it had a chapter on lesbians -- the first time I ever saw that word in print -- that talked about, um, those people, in a good way. I cannot tell you what a relief that was, back when I was still running away from my dizzying and terrifying feelings for my Girl Scout tentmate.

Yes, we've come a long way since. Over at the Daily Beast, Jessica Bennett has a fabulous article about the book's importance, and how it's changed over the years to stay useful and relevant. Stefanie Weiss at The Washington Post has another, with an entertaining flashback to the hand-mirror years.

American women, however, have many other places where we can find respectful information and health care now. But that's still not true in many parts of the world. Which brings us to the second revolutionary genius of the OBOS women: Its generous and thoughtful global outreach.

The book was never seen as a stand-alone effort: It was an organizing tool, an owner's manual to be used as a teaching and learning guide. And so OBOS looks for global partners who want to adapt the material to their region and culture and hands them the material, free of charge, for them to adapt and use in any way they like. What works in the U.S. doesn't necessarily work in Turkey, Senegal, Japan, or Ramallah. And so once OBOS hands off the material, partners can change as much or as little as they like, subtracting chapters or writing new ones as they believe is culturally appropriate. How radical is that?! But necessary.

This weekend I was lucky enough to celebrate OBOS's anniversary here in Boston. The various global partners I met told me that they'd kept between 10 percent and 60 percent of the original material, adapting quite freely, as needed -- while keeping the core idea. Understandably, the sexuality and reproductive-rights chapters appear to be the most often adapted to suit varying cultural attitudes, religious beliefs, and laws. But other material varies too. Christine Cupiauolo, managing editor for OBOS's latest U.S. edition, told me that while regional political obstacles, social strictures, medical knowledge, and relevant laws may differ, at heart, the power of the book is the same: It's transformative for women to begin to understand their bodies as their own and not as a foreign object under the control of parents, husbands, doctors, politicians, and others.

I spoke, for instance, with Gamze Karadag, whose group Mavi Kalem is creating a Turkish edition; their section on domestic violence includes honor killings. Real radicalism, she explained, was simply the decision to read the book: Mavi Kalem was handing out buttons that, in Turkish, said, My Body Is Mine, a radical idea for some of the women she was reaching. I spoke with Dana Weinberg, who was involved in Women and Their Bodies, a group of Israeli and Palestinian women collaborating to produce two Israeli editions, one in Hebrew and one in Arabic. She told me that they had preserved about 10 percent of the American OBOS, rewriting the other 90 percent.

Marlies Bosch, a Dutch photojournalist and health activist, told me how she had stumbled upon a group of Tibetan Buddhist nuns in Ladakh, in northwest India, who knew absolutely nothing -- nothing -- about their bodies and health. Bosch said, for instance, that the women actually believed they didn't have children because "the channel" where children came out was blocked by their vows. Bosch overflowed with outrage about how the Ladakhi nuns were treated; she said that the women weren't fully ordained, that they lived in cowsheds and were, essentially, servants for the monks living in magnificent centuries-old monasteries. She turned to OBOS for the tools she needed to train them in their own health care. Bosch's work has included finding a local group to do the adaptation and translation and finding funding to pay for that. Most recently, she told me, she had secured funding to take a census of all Tibetan nuns, not just in India but in Tibet under Chinese rule as well, so that she could give every nun a free copy of OBOS.

Teaching women to take care of their own health builds a sense of power and worth. The OBOS gals figured this out long before the international development community grasped that empowering women and girls is critical to social and economic development worldwide. When people say the '60s are dead, they're missing OBOS's steady and successful commitment to grassroots organizing.

You may also like