Here it is, the new OBOS, on my desk, calling me to open it and dive in. OBOS? Yes, 'Our Bodies, Ourselves', a book that was first written by a group of women in 1970 for other women. It was the result of 12 women regularly meeting around their kitchen tables to discuss their bodies, health, and sexuality as a result of being fed up of being paternalized, spoken down to and treated as morons by doctors and by men. Since then, it has gone on to become a classic and has been published in 29 editions in different languages around the world. It has touched thousands of women's lives, be they individuals or groups of social activists. It helped create a women's health movement and changed the way many people think about health care.
So it is not surprising that 12 years ago, on my first trip abroad, OBOS was on my 'important books to buy' list. I can clearly recall the excitement of reading it, the joy of knowing that everything (well, almost everything) I wanted to know about women's health, sexuality and well-being was there between its covers, and the wonder of experiencing the 'voice' of the book. The book spoke clearly to me as an equal. It made me proud of my body and my sexuality, and assuaged my fears (silly ones, but all of us have them!). It was honest, compassionate, at times funny, and at others stern - a bit like a conversation about an Important Matter with a beloved friend. I had never read anything quite like it. Imagine reading that "an orgasm can be mild like a hiccup or a sneeze". That certainly put it in perspective!
The bottom line message of OBOS is that our bodies are our own. The body you have is the only one you have got. The book offers a wealth of easy-to-understand accurate information on how our bodies work, what makes them sick, what to do to feel better, and importantly, how all of this plays out in the larger context of the politics of health and of sexism.
In keeping with its feminist underpinnings, the latest updated 2008 special edition for South Asia, retains the spirit and much of the content of the earlier editions and begins with, "For women, life can often seem like a beauty pageant", going on to say "Being born female automatically makes us contestants, whether we like it or not." From Brazilian bikini waxing to hysterectomies, it's all about how we make decisions about what to keep and what to rid ourselves of. We can describe facts about our bodies and our experiences, but each of us experiences these in different ways, and that is fine. OBOS affirms and celebrates these differences. Literally hundreds of people (including men) have contributed to this book, sharing their own experiences and stories.
It is an especially important book for us in this region. In countries where matters of sexuality are not openly spoken about, many young women do not know that the vagina is different from the urinary opening or that they possess a clitoris. If you are one of them, using this book, you can take a self-guided tour of your sexual anatomy and make friends with hitherto unexplored parts of your body. Women who are not aware of the lines between an act of consent and one of abuse, will find a friend who patiently defines these along with providing markers of what to look out for in a relationship. For those worrying about ageing, please note that sexual well-being definitely does not end at menopause, and there's a lot to look forward to. For women with disabilities, there is useful information integrated right through the book.
There is something for each of us - the woman who wants a baby but can't conceive, the woman who doesn't want one, the woman who might have just lost one, the older parent dealing with the fact that her kids are too busy dealing with their own lives to pay too much attention to her needs, the lesbian trying to build supportive relationships, the woman dealing with the possible loss of a breast or her uterus - we're all in the book.
Because sexuality is one of the ways in which women's lives are controlled, the book gives it a lot of attention, teaching us not only to love our body but also how to make love to it. Refreshingly, however, it does not follow the mantra of 'the more the better'. In fact, it even advises, "If masturbating doesn't bring you pleasure, trust your own preferences and don't do it". Nowhere does the book degenerate into a series of prescriptions.
OBOS has sections on a range of issues: Taking Care of Ourselves, Relationships and Sexuality, Reproductive Choices, Childbearing, Growing Older, Medical Problems and Procedures, and, Knowledge is Power. The book includes material relevant to the realities of women in South Asia. Don't be daunted by its size. At around 800 pages it is a hefty tome, but remember you don't have to read all of it at once. Dip into it as you like - each section can stand alone and you don't have to proceed in a linear manner. Another advantage is that there is an accompanying website that you can go to for additional information on specific topics that interest you.
The clean white pages of the latest OBOS smile at me. The older OBOS is yellowing, its pages are brittle, but it still has a 'most loved books' smell and will always be cherished. Twelve years ago, I bought it in London for 17 pounds, a fortune well spent. Today, you can get your copy, right here in India for a special price of Rs 450. Buy it for yourself, your partner (regardless of gender), your teenaged daughter, your mum, your granddaughter. Each will thank you for it.
The publishers of this special South Asia edition hope that by making women readers of this book into well-informed health consumers, they will become catalysts for social change. There is every likelihood of that happening. This is one of those books that even if it doesn't change your life (though it well might), will definitely change the way you look at your body and yourself.