Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Body Drama: A Brave Book For Young Women

Shortly before I got my copy of Nancy Amanda Redd's Body Drama, I happened to read the obituary of Reverend Edward Chad Varah, founder of The Samaritans, and one of my heroes. After helping officiate at the funeral of a young teenage suicide victim who had mistaken her first period for the onset of venereal disease, Reverend Varah decided to devote his life to battling the ignorance and isolation that had led to the girl's death. He established a hotline that offered unbiased non-religious emotional support and, when necessary, sex education. Because of his insistence on providing the latter, Dr Varah earned himself the title of dirty old man at the ripe old age of twenty-five.

I mention this because it has come to my attention that some reviewers have found Body Drama too graphic. Just as Reverend Varah's critics felt that sex education would give young people 'ideas' (like they don't already have them!) they feel that in the wrong hands this book, with its photographs of vulvas and breasts and other body parts, may not have a wholesome influence on their daughters. These scruples seem more than a little outdated in the age of the internet, when far racier images may be readily obtained by anyone who knows how to google, and they also seem inappropriate given the sensible and positive messages that accompany the photographs: Here's what's going on with your body -- Don't worry, you're not alone! and Here are some things you should know that will help you stay healthy! There are a lot of girls for whom this book will be a real godsend: we have two women doctors in our town who are both fairly young and liberal, but I know girls who are often too embarrassed to consult them.

Let me cut to the chase and tell you about the bravest photograph in the book: a whole spread (sorry about the pun) of vulvas. Although I have heard it said that one can see this sort of thing in locker rooms, I beg to differ. Men can see what other men look like in public toilets and locker rooms; women, unless they happen to work as midwives, nurses or obstetricians -- or perhaps in the pornography industry -- cannot. A girl who is curious or nervous that her body is abnormal will have no choice but to google vagina to satisfy her curiosity or allay her fears. I know of perhaps half a dozen girls who have done this. Personally, I'm glad that my daughters have Body Drama to save them the trouble. There are mothers who voice their worries that their sons will get hold of this book and peruse these photographs. Well, duh -- everyone knows about boys and National Geographics, but does that mean that we need to keep all the National Geographics under lock and key? So go ahead and show this book to your boys. Make sure they don't skip the part about genital herpes.

This book reads a lot more like a conversation with a fun, cool big sister than it does one of those dreary volumes we were referred to by the school nurse back when I was young and desperately interested in what was happening to my body. Ms Redd manages to impart her information in a friendly, conspiritorial manner. She covers a number of controversial girl-relevant issues like smoking, tattooing, tanning and piercing, generally coming out against them in an unobnoxious but unequivocal way. Her section on tanning impressed me no end: my daughters, who tend to turn a deaf ear to my lectures on the stupidity of tanning salons, were stunned by the photograph taken under ultraviolet light on page 44. Nothing I have told them about the evils of tanning has been as effective as this one picture. And she wisely provides information about how to get pierced or tattooed safely. This is smart: if her message was Don't do it, she would lose all credibility -- and be ignored.

When this book arrived, I left it on the kitchen table quite by accident and went out for the evening. Three hours later, my sixteen-year-old was more than three quarters through it and asked me if she could take it upstairs to finish. She is not always forthcoming with me lately, but when I asked her how she liked the book, she responded with uncharacteristic warmth and enthusiasm. She had skipped ahead to the end of the book and found her favorite section: THE TRUTH ABOUT PHOTOS. Although I am sure that she studied the vulvas and breasts like everyone else, it was seeing how photographs can be touched up, creating picture-perfect bodies without moles, blotches, bulges, or cellulite, that won her over. "I had no idea!" she kept repeating. "All this time I just thought that some women were perfect, but lots of other people look like me!" Bless her: I cannot help but think that this is exactly the reaction the author was hoping for.

Sponsored by the good people at MotherTalk, but frankly I would have written this anyway.



TadMack said...

Well, I've heard good reviews from other non-mothers, so ...

Sounds very cool.

Gorilla Bananas said...

There was an American woman who became a well-known writer about sex. Nancy was her first name, I think. She said on TV that as a young woman she was ashamed of her vulva, and thought it must be deformed. Then she had a relationship with a promiscuous man she described as "a connoisseur of cunts". He told her that her vulva was of a very common type and one of his favourites. The woman went on to amass a collection of vulva art which she showed on the programme. I wish I knew her full name. She must be pretty old now, if she's alive.

Kim Ayres said...

With my son now 12, if you come across a similar book for boys, do let me know

Carolie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carolie said...

Thank you for a brilliant review, Mary, and for I started to write a far too long comment, but instead moved it to my "other blog" at http://joynotmisery.blogspot.com rather than hijack your comment section (as I am wont to do...sorry!)

Now, to figure out if my sister-in-law will freak out if I give this book to my nieces now, or if I should quietly give it to my mother, so they can read it on visits to Grammy's house. Either way, this is a book they need to have.

Mary Witzl said...

Tadmack -- It really IS cool! But don't take my word for it, take my eldest's! The youngest one and her friend picked it up, leafed through it and started giggling so hard they had to put it down -- they're not quite ready. But for my eldest, Nancy Redd's book is the big sister she never had. She's got it up in her room right now, and all her friends have read it too.

GB -- 'Common type,' eh? I hope she wasn't daft enough to take that as a compliment. One may want one's vulva to be within normal limits, but at the same time dazzlingly unusual and special. Can't say I remember this woman, though I myself am pretty old. I'm betting she had a fair number of Georgia O'Keefe's paintings.

Kim -- I'd let him borrow ours, but when I suggested letting another friend borrow it for her daughter, my two both kicked up a fuss: they're not done with it yet, apparently. I'll keep my out for something similar for boys. Hmmm!

Carolie -- I wish you'd left that first comment -- I read it and liked it very much! Why do you assume that your long comments are bad when mine are often so much longer and never as clever or as much fun to read as yours?

Maybe you could send your sister a couple of reviews of this? There are some really good ones out there -- Irreverent Mama wrote one of them, and I can send you others.

Carolie said...

Oh, I love Irreverent Mama! But her blog's gone private. :( Please do send me her review.

Thank you for your kindness, Mary! I just figured I should actually post on my own "other blog" for a change...anyone who wants to read my ramblings can check it out, as I did leave the address in my post.

I've been reading at Amazon, and on Nancy Redd's website, and I do think I will send my sister-in-law some reviews.

My apologies for the silence recently...fighting a nasty cold, chaos at work, a husband whose own chaos at work means I have to chauffeur him at odd hours, and a friend's imminent departure have all been happening at once. But I've been reading, even if I haven't been commenting! LOVED your post on scents!!

Cynthia Closkey said...

Over the weekend I saw "The Vagina Monologues," which talks about how women think and feel about their private parts and their sexuality, and how society views them too. I think the show must have been written in much the same spirit as this book was -- for an older audience though, of grown-ups who never learned about such things as kids. So much heartbreak and confusion could be avoided if this book receive wide distribution!

That said, "The Vagina Monologues" is a terrific piece, and I recommend it highly. :)

Merry Monteleone said...

Oh, I missed doing this blog book tour! It sounds like a great book and one I'll be getting for my daughter in the next few years.

I've seen shows and video of retouched photos - I think it was dove soap that put together tv ads that showed exactly how the photos are retouched, so that women would know that even supermodels look like real women without all the digital enhancements... it's really interesting, and most young girls just get a complex about their own appearance from a standard that can't be met in reality.

Kara said...

Something like this would've saved me a lot of misery back in 1990. But you know...part of me is glad there wasn't a reference with all the answers. Half the fun was discovery, comparisons and experimentation. I think I'm happy as I am because I had to go through the misery, you know?

People who go tanning are off their nut.

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- Thank you for your kind words, too! Sorry to hear about your cold. Get yourself a package of those surgical masks you sometimes see people using there. I thought they looked ridiculous at first, but after my third cold one winter, I started using masks when I went outside. Talk about body drama: I hardly caught any colds after I started doing that.

Cynthia -- Redd mentions the Vagina Dialogues in her book, and I know she was involved in this too, when she was at Harvard. Not everybody has heard of this, though: apparently, one of the women who was proofreading her first manuscript told her blushingly that she'd found a significant typo: 'Virginia' had been misspelled... 'Vagina' and 'vulva' are words we don't expect to see or hear used very often. They make us all cringe -- and so do their alternatives.

Merry -- You'd have done a good review of this, I know. I think they let me have it because I have teenage girls, though perhaps my begging e-mail may have had something to do with it too. Once I'd read about this, I practically started jumping up and down. We went to a book shop for women called 'Reading Lasses' about three years ago just to see if they had a book like this -- especially something that showed girls how many beauty myths were out there, exerting subtle influence over them. The women there were sympathetic, but they didn't know of any books even remotely like this. As for Dove soap, I've seen some of their ads about our distorted perception of female beauty and I think they're great. I hope they never go into make-up, though: they'll have to eat their words.

Kara -- I know what you mean, and in many ways, I agree with you. But there is misery and there is misery: I knew a girl who managed never to be told about periods: she started hers when she was eleven and went through about a month of being convinced she had cancer. I knew another girl who happened to have two sets of nipples (which Redd addresses in her book): this girl went through agonies in the locker room. And there are girls who are scorned by their peers and have no one to compare notes with: they must have the worst time, and my heart goes out to them. Plus, Redd talks about things like farting, B.O. and bad breath, and includes photographs of herself when she is overweight. If I were a pudgy teen, she would be my idol.

Lisa Milton said...

Thanks for stopping by my review: You did Body Drama the justice it deserves.

Sam, Problemchildbride said...

Once again, Mary, you've provided me with the wisdom and guidance I'm going to need in a few years with my own girls. I hope they're still publishing that book in ten years time. Then again, maybe I should pick up a copy now.

Thanks for this review. This is a valuable tool for any mother of girls to help arm their children against all the powerful body myths out there.

Kappa no He said...

I remember buying an old beat up copy of "Our Body, Ourselves" at a used bookstore. A lot of stuff my Southern born mother didn't know. She was shocked. I was enlightened. I am so glad there is a something for today's girls...tattoos, piercings. It's a different world than when I was growing up.

Kanani said...

Over here, we had a book called "Our Bodies Ourselves." I think the more open you are about sexuality the better.

Gads! We were told nothing! NOTHING! It's unimagineable to me to bring someone up this way today!

Mary Witzl said...

Lisa -- Although I wrote my review shortly after I got the book (once I'd gotten it away from my kids and managed to read it!) I was curious to read what other reviewers thought of it. I was glad to see that almost everyone felt the same way I did; it is always gratifying to know that others share our opinions.

Sam -- Thank you. I hope it is a little easier for you when your girls are teenage, but this time can be very hard. What I find the most difficult isn't arming my kids with the requisite knowledge to go into the world -- it's backing off and letting them do it. No matter how well you know your kids and no matter how tough they are, the world has some pretty hard things to throw at them. Beauty myths can be terribly damaging to girls.

Kappa -- My mother was Southern born too, or perhaps Southern bred is more accurate. She learned that babies came from under cabbage leaves and other such nonsense. At least she taught me the truth, but she was a little hazy on the details. You are so right, though: it IS a different world out there. Girls are coping with far more than we had to.

Kanani -- My housemates had that book, and in fact, you couldn't really live through the 70s and 80s without finding it in someone's living room, proudly displayed.

All the girls in my mother's family found out The Truth shortly after they got married. I consider myself fortunate that however naive I was, at least I knew where babies came from when I got hitched.

The Quoibler said...


I hate to admit it, but I'm 36 and had no idea there might be "other" kinds of vulvas. I figured they were all just... well... vulvular (I'm making up words here...) and that was the end of it!

I don't talk about it on my writing blog (my mother reads it... that's why!), but I have another blog that addresses eating disorders: www.breakingthemirror.com. Does this book talk at all about anorexia or bulimia? If so, I'd love to have you write a "guest post" for me on that specific issue. Just let me know.



Mary Witzl said...

Angelique -- I was amazed at how many variations on a theme there are when it comes to vulvae -- you would be too! And my mother would have blushed herself scarlet just thinking about addressing this issue.

Yes, there is a section on eating disorders -- Redd herself used to be overweight, and body weight is one of the issues she deals with in some depth. And I'd be happy to write a guest post for you!

The Quoibler said...


Cool beans! You can actually email me at lemonpepr(at)aol(dot)com. :)

We'll set something up if you'd like to address the audience at www.breakingthemirror.com about this book. I'm happy to plug it, plug you, plug whatever!

(But I'm not happy to plug vulvae... ha ha ha ha ha... that was a sick joke, wasn't it?)


Eryl Shields said...

This sounds like a fantastic book, I must get a copy for my fourteen year old niece who is very hung up on her appearance.

I could really have done with something like it in my teens. My mother was a strict catholic who never talked about the body. When my period came, aged ten, I screamed and it was my father who had to deal with it.

Does it deal only with young women, I'd really like to know what a forty-six year old butt is supposed to look like?

irreverentmama said...

Gorilla Bananas - the Nancy I know who writes about sex is Nancy Friday, though I hadn't heard about the vulva art, so it mighn't be the same one.

I loved this book. My 14-year-old has claimed it as her own, which is fine by me. The other day, she and two friends were peering into its pages. Even better!

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Mary,

Just wanted to drop back over and let you know I tagged you in a meme.

Mary Witzl said...

Quoibler -- Ha! I've just gotten back from work and at first I actually didn't get the joke -- one nanosecond of 'Duh?' But it passed!

I'll get in touch soon.

Eryl - Ten years old? You poor baby! My mother took me out and bought me Kotex and a hot fudge sundae; just remembering that makes me want to cry. A friend of mine told me that her mother's experience, upon announcing that she was menstruating, was a slap across the face. Apparently that was a custom in certain countries. Can you imagine?

It didn't give any ages, and the beauty of it is, a lot of them look like they could be 24 or 64. Benjamin Franklin is said to have stated that under the waist, most women weren't all that different. I don't believe that for a minute, but bless him.

IM -- Nancy Friday sounds vaguely familiar. I really need to get caught up on my American culture!

My two kids now have the book. They waited until I had written my review, then snatched it up. I haven't seen it since.

Merry -- Oh boy! I love memes. Having written that, I STILL haven't sent Ello or Kara their origami cranes -- someone has 'put them away.' I'll have to think of something...

Merry Monteleone said...

Don't feel bad, Mary, I still owe out two odes...

this meme's pretty quick work, it's just a post about what you expect from your blog.

Church Lady said...

Amazing post! Truly.
Do they have a similar book for boys? Even though things are already 'out there,' I think a book for boys that has a similar attitude as this one would be really great.
(I wish this book were around when I was younger. Kudos to you for being so open and honest with your children. It's dangerous not to be.)

A Paperback Writer said...

Hmmm... I could probably learn something from this book.
Utah Mormons still don't talk about anything more than the biological basics.
I wouldn't dare put it in my classroom. Oh my. The trouble that would cause.
But I seriously doubt that however many pictures of chubby girls and women are out there for us to see will make a difference about girls accepting being plump. 99% of girls want to be seen as attractive. And I've never personally met a man who preferred a fat woman over a skinny one. Perhaps the lesbian women are kinder than men about such things (it wouldn't suprise me), but the straight girls are always going to have weight issues. And maybe it's not such a bad thing to be concerned about one's weight, since obseity is such a huge problem. (yeah, I know about eating disorders, so don't go on about that.)
But I am rambling. Sorry.
I found this book review very good and will be checking out this book soon.

Mary Witzl said...

Merry -- I've been extremely busy for the past three days (temporary job), but this will be one of my next job posts. It is an interesting idea and one that I have been pondering.

Church Lady -- I think that boys would definitely profit from a book like this. I don't think there is so much pressure on them to look perfect, but boys too are expected to conform to a certain norm and behave in a certain way. Boys who don't easily fit into this mold are scorned and bullied, and they too go through their own body dramas. I wonder who will write it?

APW -- The main message of this book isn't so much that it's okay to eat yourself into whatever weight you like, but that obsessing over our weight or shape because of the impossible ideals advertising has set is self-defeating. This is a commonly expressed sentiment, of course, but because someone cool is saying it -- and saying it well -- this book is important. I was a naturally skinny teenager, but I feel that this book would have encouraged and heartened me. I know it sounds crazy, but I felt as awful about my skinniness as chubby girls feel about being overweight. Redd's message about cutting yourself some slack and trying not to aim for an impossible beauty standard would have been a very welcome one for me. I wasn't prepared to believe my mother, who thought I was beautiful no matter what I looked like.

Carole said...

Great post and sounds like a book I could recommend to many of the women who come and ask for my advice about their daughters. In fact I will probably suggest our youth leader read it so she can reccomend it to the moms she comes in contact with. The church in general--although not all--seems very fearful of the truth of the human body.

Christy said...

Oh, I have something for you! I'll have to talk to my friend and get the address for you, but there is a picture of an unretouched cover photo of some country-western singer around somewhere. She is lovely and the picture is lovely, and still, some photo editor thought it necessary to make her even more perfect than God did. It's a crying shame.

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- Looking back on the church I went to as a child, I am trying to imagine how our Sunday school teachers would have reacted to this book. Shocked horror would just about sum it up. Bodies -- and women's bodies in particular -- scared the living daylights out of people in our church. But girls still need this book!

Christy -- I would love to see that picture if you happen to find it. I am wondering which singer it could have been...?

Merry mentioned this earlier, but the Dove Soap people have a very good commercial about how our sense of beauty has been distorted because of the vastly made-over images we are shown. I've found the URL for it, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Sit and watch this with your daughter some time:


(Sorry I lack the technical ability to make that a live link, but it's kind of cool that I got it to go off the page!)

Mary Witzl said...

Sorry, Christy -- here's the whole thing, and I hope you can read this better:


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