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Women's Health

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?
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Hysterectomies, for example, used to be done as a cure-all for all kinds of ailments, from bleeding to cancer, or even as a form of birth control. "All a surgeon needed to say in the old days was 'you need one' and that was it," Church tells WebMD. "Today, a woman is likely to challenge that recommendation and ask what the alternatives are."

The same is true of childbirth to some extent, though Norsigian says this natural process has become overmedicalized and that the midwifery model needs to be an option for more women, especially those outside of urban areas.

Unfortunately, not all women have reaped the benefits of the women's movement, like the undereducated and uninsured. "We have all this information to offer, but we're not getting it to everybody," says Valerie Weber, MD, director of internal medicine at Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa. Lower-income women are not getting the care and screening that they need, she says. "I've had women come in who have never had a Pap smear."

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.

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