HOW ODD TO come back, after all these years, to Our Bodies, Ourselves! I remember lovingly wrapping copies of the first edition, from 1973, to give to my wedding attendants, a gift of self-knowledge and power that at the time was quite unique. I still have my second edition, from 1976, nestled cozily on a bookshelf now crammed with similar books on the mechanics, and the politics, of women's health. Our Bodies, Ourselves is one of those books you like to have in the house; it can always be relied on to provide good information about abortion, birth control, or sexuality from a predictable and comfortable leftist perspective.
And now here is the third edition, nearly twice as long as the previous one, more than twice as expensive, and probably twice as useful. It's packed with information, including new chapters on "Violence Against Women," "Women in Motion," "Alternatives to Medical Care," "New Reproductive Technologies," "Women Growing Older." The index is excellent, the illustrations profuse, the writing usually clear (if sometimes ungainly), the package undoubtedly of use.
It must be said at the outset that this is a wonderful book. As in 1973, there still is nothing quite like Our Bodies, Ourselves. After three years of effort from dozens of women, the new book covers the gamut, from food and drugs to rape and birth control, from puberty to menopause. It is written in an intimate, personal style, full of "we's" and replete with lengthy quotes from scores of women. But I must issue a caveat. Reading a book like this in 1985 is, oddly, an unsettling experience. I found the book, for want of a better word, quaint.
In a decade when the personal has edged out the political, the 11 co-authors of The New Our Bodies, Ourselves still see everything in political terms. The chapter on food emphasizes cutbacks in the federal Women, Infant, and Children food supplement program (WIC), the profit motive behind processed foods, and the feminist call for "fat liberation." The section on sexually transmitted diseases includes a criticism of health professionals who treat venereal disease patients, especially women, as though they are being punished for "immoral sex" -- a habit that the left calls "blaming the victim." And the chapter on "reproductive technologies" includes a reminder that not all women need to become mothers to validate themselves, and certainly need not become mothers only of their "own" children.
This is not necessarily bad. I like having at least one woman's health book with a sharp political conscience. Often, the politics provides a good antidote to the presumptions and prejudices that trap even enlightened women. In The New Our Bodies, Ourselves, for instance, we read that endometriosis (a uterine disorder that can cause pelvic pain and infertility) is not, as is commonly assumed, a "career women's disease" caused by delaying pregnancy into one's late twenties or early thirties. "This anachronistic view," the authors write, "probably exists because these are the women who tend to have the financial resources, education, sense of entitlement and private doctors necessary to obtain a correct diagnosis." And this view, they point out, serves to heighten the guilt a woman might already feel for putting her career ahead of her desire to start a family. And where else can a woman considering abortion find such detailed information about vacuum aspiration, dilation and evacuation, saline abortion, and five other techniques -- including the methods (complete with illustrations), advantages, risks, and psychological impact of each?
BUT SOMETIMES the book's political conscience gets the better of it. For one thing, The New Our Bodies, Ourselves tends to suffer from an overzealous politicalization of language. It's irritating to stumble over such invented word forms as "s/he," "women of color," and "healthism." The impulse to create these nonsexist, nonjudgmental words is admirable, but the result is merely klutzy.
In the much-needed new sections on women with disabilities -- found in the chapters on body image, sexuality, and exercise -- the authors choose to use the pronoun "we," as they do throughout the book, even though none of the authors is disabled. Their disabled consultants, they write, "said that to use the third-person 'they' would be too distancing . . . and it is important to them that able-bodied women be conscious that they are only 'temporarily' able-bodied." Once again, the impulse is admirable, but the words don't quite ring true.
Also, in the authors' desire to sensitize the reader to the plights of particularly oppressed women -- including minority women, the disabled, lesbians and prostitutes -- they sometimes make statements which sound slightly absurd. For instance, they make a point of saying abortions should be available to women of any sexual preference. "You have a right to remain physically inactive if you choose," the authors tell fat women. You are simply "women at work," they tell prostitutes, "no different from most women in having to sell their services to men." In instances like these, feminist conviction seems to lead to literary -- and political -- hyperbole.
Still, The New Our Bodies, Ourselves is like a dearly-loved sister or old friend, a pleasure to have in the house even when its flaws get on your nerves. It's comforting to know that no matter what the issue in women's health, this bok -- true to the tradition it started 12 long years ago -- will find a way to turn it into a feminist, leftist, political issue.