We knew “the talk” was coming when our mothers determinedly entered our rooms, clutching a copy of a certain book. As we leafed recently through the updated version of Our Bodies, Ourselves (Touchstone, 2011), first published in 1971, we no longer saw it as a bellwether of impending adolescent embarrassment but now as a rich, reliable, multi-layered resource, helpful to women no matter where they are on the reproductive spectrum.
At three inches thick, and 800-plus pages, the tome from the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective focuses primarily on reproductive and sexual health, with the intention of helping women understand their bodies and make informed decisions. But encompassing the “ourselves” category, information on mental health, relationships, emotional challenges, safety and legal rights are included too.
When first published 40 years ago, the book was revolutionary because the writers believed that women could and should be in control of their own bodies, rather than doctors, who at that time were mostly men. As part of the rising feminist movement, the book became an underground bestseller — but not without condemnation, since it covered sensitive topics such as vaginal self-examination, birth control, sexuality, lesbianism, rape and abortion.
Becoming less controversial as time has gone on, Our Bodies, Ourselves has been updated and expanded, and translated into many languages. More than 180 contributors, primarily doctors, provide the medical and practical information in Our Bodies, Ourselves, but first-person narratives from women throughout the book describe personal experiences with herpes, HIV, bladder problems, aging, fertility, miscarriage and other topics and provide a realistic picture of women’s health.
The latest version calls attention to the power of pharmaceutical companies in medical research, the gender disparities in health care, as well as environmental factors and even politics that can affect women’s health. For example, the section on menopause includes a sidebar that details how drug companies have promoted the concept of osteopenia as a disease, and helped to create fear of bone fractures to generate drug sales. This edition concludes with a section on activism that provides sources for joining or starting a grassroots movement for better health, including the use of social networks and other technology.
We hope Our Bodies, Ourselves and its message of taking control of our health will endure for generations to come. How much progress in this area do you think women have made in the past 40 years?