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Women's Health: Then and Now

The book Our Bodies, Ourselves first made its mark during the women's movement in the 1970s, but how far has women's health come since then?

2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back

When it comes to accepting our own bodies, we seem to have regressed in some ways. Norsigian says the college women she speaks to feel enormous pressure to have cosmetic procedures or undergo extreme dieting -- the result, she says, of mass media with its barrage of makeover reality TV shows and ads for anticellulite creams. Church points out that "there are plastic surgeons out there basing entire practices on labia-reduction surgery. People wouldn't even have thought of worrying about such a thing until recently."

Church adds that women today want to hold on to youth in a way that their grandmothers' generation didn't. "In those days, women tended to wear their oldness with pride. Today there is a very different attitude toward aging. The dieting, the health clubs, the plastic surgery -- it's all because we're trying to prove that we're still young."

And while women of all ages are probably more sexually self-assured than ever, that confidence hasn't been accompanied by an appropriate amount of caution -- despite the persistence of AIDS and very real findings linking human papillomavirus (HPV) with cervical cancer.

Weber, herself a fan of the TV show Sex and the City, isn't a fan of the way the characters sleep around without, it seems, a worry about the potential threats to their health.

"I would like to think that this sort of behavior is limited to television, but unfortunately that is not the case," she says. "Like with so many diseases, most women probably feel that STDs will happen to someone else."

The facts show otherwise. According to the CDC, the U.S. has the highest rate of sexually transmitted diseases in the industrialized world. There are 15.3 million new cases per year of STDs, including chlamydia, herpes, and HPV, with two-thirds of these cases among women under the age of 25. And HIV cases are still increasing in women, too.

Less dire, but still significant to Norsigian, is the way that female "sexual dysfunction" has become "diseased," with the female equivalent of drugs like Viagra in the works.

"Although there is a tiny percent of women who might need a drug or device, the vast majority just need to learn about their bodies and communicate with their partners. That's all been out there in the literature for 30 years."

So, yes, there is a whole new crop of concerns facing American women today. But overall, despite some stops and starts, it's pretty clear that in the past 30-odd years, American women have, indeed, come a long way, baby.

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