Women’s Health and the Body: A Cross-Cultural Perspective Linking Personal and Social Change

Spring: Thursdays, 5:30–8:30 p.m., February 2– May 4, 2006

This course employs a gendered lens to discuss social meanings and personal experiences of health, illness, and the body, with an emphasis on linkages between personal embodiment and methods of activism facilitating personal and social change. We apply theoretical understandings from the psychological and social sciences to situate discussions in the context of health, activism, and human rights. Through diverse comparisons across cultures, the course explores the relationship between individual agency, social change, institutional power, medical technology, and social constructions of gender related to health. We discuss how social constructions of femininity (and masculinity) are relevant to experiences of health, illness, and the body, to health behaviors and to access to healthcare in diverse socio-cultural settings. We focus on women's health, illness, and the body in diverse social and cultural contexts and the meanings of major life transitions and disruptions. We aim to understand meanings in a variety of “local worlds” and reflect on the importance of these to practice. Particularly, we ask if constructions can be detrimental to health and can be implicated in gender differences in health outcomes. We draw on illustrative examples from the following topics: the international women's health movement, social change in Eastern Europe and implications for women's health; reproductive health, including birth and infertility in contrasting global contexts, including Eastern Europe and Asia. Students will select an area of their interest in women's health and social change to explore and present to the class.


Catherine Kohler Riessman is research professor in the department of sociology at Boston College, where she teaches post-graduate courses on "Health, Gender, and the Body" and "Narrative Methods in the Social Sciences." She is professor emerita at Boston University School of Social Work and taught for many years at Smith College. She has authored three books, including Narrative Analysis (Sage 1993) and Divorce Talk (Rutgers Univ. Press 1990), and numerous book chapters and articles on narrative research. She completed fieldwork in South India supported by a Fulbright in 1993–1994 on the meaning and management of infertility by women and families. Her current research examines the performance of identity in narrative accounts of disruptive life events, such as infertility, divorce, and chronic illness. Professor Riessman received her PhD in 1977 from Columbia University and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She was chair of the Medical Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association in 1998.

Ester R. Shapiro, PhD (a.k.a. Ester Rebeca Shapiro Rok) is associate professor of clinical psychology and Latino studies at University of Massachusetts at Boston and research associate at the Mauricio Gaston Institute, where she has initiated a project in gender, culture and health promoting transnational collaborations supporting health promotion for social change. Her teaching, clinical practice, and work in culturally informed health promotion in the US and internationally applies a strengths-based family development model to support innovation, resilience and gender-equitable growth for children, parents, families, and social systems. She wrote Grief as a Family Process: A Cultural and Developmental Approach to Integrative Practice (Guilford, 1994; 2nd edition forthcoming 2006); and was co-author and coordinating editor of Nuestros Cuerpos Nuestras Vidas (2000), the Spanish language cultural adaptation of Our Bodies, Ourselves for use in Latin America and by US Latinas. She has also published personal narratives about the impact of multiple immigrations on her own Cuban Jewish family, co-produced an award-winning domestic violence documentary with Cuban film maker Lizette Vila, and collaborated on community arts projects linking personal narrative/testimonial and community development.

Irina L.G. Todorova works on issues related to psychosocial aspects of health and well-being, social change and health, and health disparities. She has received her degrees from Sofia University and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and has been a post-doctoral scholar at the department of human development and psychology, Harvard University. She is the director of the Health Psychology Research Center in Sofia, Bulgaria, and she is collaborating with immigration studies at NYU and the department of psychology at Clark University—working on cultural conceptualizations of health, illness, and self; gender and health; migration and health. Her research interests also cover the topics of social change in Eastern Europe and implications for health. Todorova is board member and newsletter editor of the European Health Psychology Society (EHPS). She has taught courses at Sofia University, Harvard University, and the University of New Hampshire. Several grants for research in psychology and cultural aspects of health and well-being have been awarded to her, including the “Studying Diverse Lives Award” from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and grants from the Global Fund for Women, EngenderHealth, the Soros Foundation, and others. Her current and upcoming research projects include: women's experiences of living with infertility; cultural meanings in women's reproductive health decisions in Bulgaria, Estonia, and Romania; and psychosocial and health systems determinants of cervical cancer screening in Bulgaria and Romania.

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Consortium for Graduate Studies in Gender, Culture, Women, and Sexuality
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 14N-211
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
Phone: 617-324-2085