Manual TypewriterEssays, Reviews, and Commentaries

By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Our Bodies Our Selves

Posted By on June 30, 2009

Our Bodies Our Selves
By Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

My original copy of OBOS is tattered and torn, and yellow with age. I read the original in my late teens or early 20’s and the chapter called "In America They Call us Dykes" astonished and titillated me. I stared at the picture of the strong, brazen dyke at the opening of the chapter. She represented everything that liberation held possible — in retrospect I’m not sure if I want to be her or bed her. Perhaps ultimately I did both.

The other part of OBOS that I vividly remember is a story of a mother in the bathtub with her young daughter. The daughter asks why Mommy doesn’t have a penis like daddy does. Mommy says, "Because I have a clitoris." The girl asks can you show me, and her mom does just that. I have often contemplated how different my life would’ve been, how different the lives of so many women would’ve been, with this simple event happening early in our lives. I have used this story a thousand times in my career as an educator and therapist to illustrate healthy ways to help young girls develop a healthy relationship to their bodies.

I am sure that I joined the Berkeley Women’s Health Collective in the late 1970s because I saw myself as part of this great women’s health movement that was exemplified in OBOS.

Fast forward, the late 1990s. I am therapist specializing in working with LGBT people and their families. Some of my clients are middle-aged transsexual women (MTFs) who are seeking sexual reassignment surgery after spending much of their lives fantasizing and imagining living as women. I realize as I’m listening to them that they know very little about women’s bodies, particularly about women’s genitalia. I am more than a bit shocked since they are willing to spend a small fortune on life-threatening surgeries to have women’s genitalia, but yet they are not exactly sure what they look like or how they work. (I am doubly amazed since most of them have lived as heterosexual men in long-term sexual marriages, and it saddens me deeply how little they’ve known their wives.)

I pull my worn copy of OBOS off the shelf (I confess I’ve never updated) and I show them pictures of women’s bodies. I show them pictures of vulvas and clitoris’, and sitting there with the book between us, I realize that OBOS has been a text that wears incredibly well with time. I confess I never thought in the 1970s that I would –or could–use the book as a resource for transsexual women. In some ways transsexual women’s ignorance about their own bodies and desires, was not different from my own once upon a time, no different from the experience of most women. I find that my early 1970s feminism has laid the foundation for the queer health activism I practice over 30 years later.