Monday, January 14, 2008
I don't read a lot of self-help books. (Even if I did, Jennifer Niesslein could probably cure me of it.) But every now and then a book comes along that seems to transcend the genre. For my generation, it was probably Our Bodies, Ourselves, the feminist women's health bible that covered topics many of us were too embarrassed (or, frankly, too clueless) to ask our mothers or our doctors. But I remember coming upon OBOS when I was a teenager and finding it a little daunting--it went into too much detail about things I wasn't ready for, and assumed a maturity and experience level that I hadn't yet reached. Yet as a teenager I had a lot of questions that a book like OBOS could have addressed, and I wasn't sure where to get the answers.
Fast forward many years. I hate to admit how long it's been since I was a teenager, but suffice it to say my own daughter is only two years away from leaving her teens. So when I got a copy of Body Drama from the MotherTalk folks, I actually handed it over to her first. She was enthusiastic, if unspecific--she thought it was great, particularly for girls a little younger than her (I'd guess the target age group is 13-16 or so, though some might think it's a bit higher). She liked the way it focused on all kinds of bodies and all kinds of experiences. So consider that an endorsement. I'm going to give the book back to her when I'm done, because I think it could still be a useful reference book as she heads off to college in the fall. (How to select a piercer or tattoo artist comes to mind. Sigh.)
As I read through the book this morning I was struck especially by its accessible voice. Nancy Redd, with a Harvard degree in Women's Studies and beauty pageant success behind her, speaks directly and accessibly to girls and young women. Without condescending, she addresses a wide range of concerns--broad ones, from "should this smell like that?" to "do other people look like this?" and narrower ones, from "are mouth piercings safe?" to "what is a callus?" There are explicit pictures (none of those somewhat romanticized pencil drawings or anatomical diagrams), quotations from real women, and "confessions" from Nancy herself, scattered throughout the book.
In a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental tone, the book covers everything from halitosis to sexual abuse. Some may find the range a bit off-putting: can you really cover sexual abuse in two pages? No, you can't--and Redd knows it. The reference-book format gives brief suggestions, tips, and (always) suggestions for further information, phone numbers and websites for relevant experts, and (again, always) plenty of reassurance that, whatever the issue, there is help and you aren't the first to deal with it. I like that tone: so often a teenager will feel as if she's the only person ever to have felt the way she feels, ever to have faced the problem she faces, and if Redd's book convinces even one girl that she can be helped, that she's not alone, it's done its job.
Still, I think my favorite part of the book is right at the end. A spread from page 240 to 243 demonstrates how air-brushing makes everyone "perfect" in a way that no one can be, and another one from 246 to 247 shows a variety of "imperfect" women, all nude, all perfect in their own way. Those pictures reinforce what feminist mothers have been telling their daughters for years: no one looks like those magazine pictures, and you're beautiful the way you are. Brava to Nancy Redd and Body Drama for putting it so compellingly.