womanForty years ago – in 1971, not the Stone Age – a book sparked controversy and scandal in part because it included unadorned, non-sexualized pictures of women’s body parts.

The medical establishment at the time was a parade of men, hardly ever interrupted by even a lone female, marching to the beat of her own drummer. The book encouraged women to look at themselves (literally), learn about themselves, and stand up to questionable views from the health care professionals who so rarely looked like them.

The book, of course, was Our Bodies, Ourselves. It has been updated again and again, and just this month, the 40th anniversary edition was published. Jerry Falwell called an earlier edition “obscene trash,” but this version will shock hardly anyone. As Anna Holmes speculated in her review in the Washington Post:

 “…the book’s inability to cause controversy is evidence of its success: The information within has trickled down into the collective consciousness so fully that it has become mainstream.”

Most heartening to me in this new edition is its attention to single women. We learn, for example, that single women do not all have marriage on their agendas, and those who do often want relationships that will allow for time to attend to their friendships (p. 105). Our Bodies, Ourselves corrects the presumption in so many other writings that caregiving is about caring for a spouse and reminds us that many single people give and receive care (p. 574). It notes that single women, who do not have the option of accessing a spouse’s health care plan, are more likely to be uninsured than married women are (p. 768) and that similar issues put single women at risk for having too little money during retirement (p. 582).

There is also a box, covering the top half of a page (p. 123), devoted to the concept of singlism. In this featured discussion, readers learn that singlism includes stereotyping of singles, discrimination against them, and interpersonal exclusion (as when people socialize as couples and singles aren’t invited).

The biases and discrimination of singlism do not reach the same levels of intensity and viciousness that are associated with some other isms, such as racism and heterosexism. Yet, singlism is hardly insignificant. If you are familiar with the arguments for same-sex marriage, you may already know that more than 1,100 federal laws protect and benefit only those citizens who are legally married. Legalizing same-sex marriage would protect more people, but still leave out the 45% of American adults of all sexual orientations who are single.

For single men, salary discrepancies are huge. Married men get paid an average of about 26% more than single men, even when they are similar in their accomplishments and seniority, and even when the married man and the single man are identical twins.

To people who are single and live with prejudices day in and day out, even the small stuff may not seem so inconsequential. To have other people presume to know all about you, just because they know that you are single, can be exasperating – especially when the “insights” other people think they have are all damning ones. It is painful to be excluded by friends who become coupled, simply because you are single. It is unfair to be expected to cover for couples in the workplace, to show up on holidays, and have last choice of vacation times because you are single.

If you are not persuaded, try inverting the rules. Now married workers have to cover for single people; now if you are married, you are excluded from many social events; now if you are a married man, you are paid 26% less than a single man, even though your work is just as good. Sound OK?

Photo by Ribena Wrath, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.