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This was a source of some shame. For a self-professed feminist who grew up in an open-minded, politically progressive household, ownership of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was a no-brainer, a reference book that should have sat on my shelf beside my much-beloved dictionary and thesaurus. It was part of what it meant to be both culturally and politically literate: Friends and colleagues would drop it into conversation with the assumption that, like them, I knew it intimately; after a while, I figured it was too late to make its acquaintance.
It wasn’t. And what I realized last weekend is that even though I’d never read it, I, like so many other American women, had been plenty influenced by it. Other sex and health books — such as “Growing Up, Feeling Good,” which was gifted to me at the tender age of 11 — are obviously inspired by it. Popular women’s magazines have been mimicking the straightforward, sometimes confessional tone of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” on matters personal and political for decades. And the frank, sometimes foul, talk of the new generation of female gross-out writers was no doubt anticipated and influenced by the book.
All this mimicry makes it easy to forget — if one remembers at all — that when “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was first released, it caused quite the stir. Some libraries banned it or sequestered it behind checkout counters. A conservative organization called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute deemed it one of the 50 worst books of the 20th century. And in 1981, nine years after its release by a major publisher, the Rev. Jerry Falwell sent a fundraising newsletter to members of his evangelical lobbying group, the Moral Majority, calling the book “immoral trash.”
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Nowadays, it all seems ordinary. In fact, I suspect that 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.
Sure, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” still has the ability to shock and awe, albeit not for the reasons that you’d think. It is a tangible reminder of the beauty and complexity of the female body and the amazing things it can do. It also stands in stark contrast to the larger culture, which has nipped, tucked, Photoshopped and hypersexualized women’s bodies to the point where the female form has become virtually unrecognizable. The set of drawings titled “The Vulva” on Page 5 made my eyes widen, not because I was shocked to see illustrations of external female reproductive organs, but because they were the first portrayals I’d seen in years that weren’t sexual in nature.