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A body of work after 4 decades

Judy Norsigian


Judy Norsigian


Norsigian, a women's health advocate, is the cofounder and executive director of the organization that is just releasing the 40th anniversary edition of the book "Our Bodies, Ourselves."

Q. How do you think women’s health has changed over the last 40 years, since you and some friends first began publishing the book?

A. There’s certainly greater awareness about basic body functions. Women are not as ignorant about anatomy and physiology. On the other hand, one of the things that was a major challenge back in the late ’60s and early ’70s was the sexual objectification of women. That’s a problem that has only magnified over time.


Q. In what way?

A. We’re turning into a society that is beginning to look at women more like sex objects than full persons. [Women] are, yes, sexual human beings entitled to sexual pleasure, but that is not the only thing that women want. We also want to be recognized as full participants in society with a lot of other things to offer, not just our bodies. That’s becoming once again a struggle for many.

Q. Messages we see in the media play a role in that?

A. Beauty contests for 4- and 5-year-olds, and the very hypersexual costuming that they use. The ads that are coming out - they give you a clear picture of why these images are coming into the minds of very young girls and creating their ideals of how they want to look and be. The cause and effect is largely with the massive numbers of messages and visual images that bombard young people, from the Internet, advertising, TV. You can hardly escape it now. It wasn’t as much years ago, and that’s part of why I think we’ve got a new challenge: reaching young people with the idea that there is an alternative.


Q. And that’s where the book comes in?

A. This book is needed more than ever because there’s so much out there that it’s hard to find trustworthy information. You’re bombarded with a sea of misinformation and distorted images, so getting good information is harder than ever.

Q. What do you see as the book’s most important legacy?

A. In many respects, it was the way in which women [all over the world] picked up the book and transformed it to meet the cultural and linguistic needs of the women in their own country.

Q. This is the ninth edition of the book, the first in six years. How is it different from the earlier ones?

A. We’ve returned to a focus on sexual and reproductive health across the lifespan. We don’t have a lot on heart disease. We only cover gestational diabetes. Even with that narrower focus, because there’s so much more material - so much more activism on the question of violence against women and sexual violence - the book grew to be more than 900 pages. We are getting teased about that.

Q. Though your group’s mission is about health, your role often spills over into politics. What in the current political climate concerns you?

A. I think we are closer to losing many of the gains of the past few decades than we have been in a long time. We have about 600 bills in state legislatures across the country that represent one or another attack on women’s reproductive health - things like ‘‘no funding for any Planned Parenthood, period.’’ You can imagine how that’s going to hurt low-income women, because [Planned Parenthood is] the primary provider of women’s reproductive health services for low-income women. This is a very sobering climate.


This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karenweintraub.com.