‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ turns 40, but its audience has some growing up to do

October 6, 2011

I learned a delightful new word last Saturday. Mittelschmerz. It sounds like a Yiddish insult or a flaky pastry with cream inside. What it actually describes is the sensation some women feel in their abdomen while ovulating. Yes, this is a thing — an awesome thing.

Who knew? I certainly didn’t. I owe this discovery to the 40th-anniversary edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” which hit stores last week. First released in 1971 (it was published commercially in 1973), the book has long been considered a bible of sorts for American women, an authoritative, if not definitive, source of information and advice on everything from puberty and pregnancy prevention to childbirth, parenting and menopause . . . complete with detailed illustrations. And until last weekend, I’d never read a word of it.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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.

So is “Our Bodies, Ourselves” still relevant? Well, yes and no. To a generation of women now in their 30s and beyond, it was a powerful, transformative, (genital) warts and all introduction to what it really means to be a woman. As others have pointed out, the first few editions of the book were so radical because, in part, they provided exposure to comprehensive health information for a generation of girls and young women who had extremely limited options in terms of learning about their bodies. But when specialized, plainspoken health information is so readily available elsewhere, both on bookstore shelves and the Internet, who needs to shell out $26 on a 3-pound, 6-ounce book?

* * *

Turns out that plenty of people do.

A few weeks ago, on Sept. 14, novelist and journalist Ayelet Waldman was drawn into a minor online kerfuffle after she posted a series of tweets about having once contracted the human papilloma virus from her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Chabon. Waldman, who has been married to Chabon for almost two decades and is mother to four children, was responding to the news that Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann had railed against Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s mandate that HPV vaccines be given to young girls.

“To the conservative nutjobs,” Waldman wrote, “I got HPV from my husband. . . . I ended up w/cancerous cervical lesions.” Some of her followers deemed the disclosures inappropriate and chimed in with judgmental, sarcastic responses such as “TMI” and “YIKES.”

“I was surprised at how many of my followers had the reaction of, ‘Ew, that’s too much information,’ ” Waldman says. “It boggles the mind. Is it genital warts that freaks them out? That I talked about transmission, which implies sex? Was it, ‘Ew, gross, cervical cancer?’ What was gross? All of it?”

Waldman, who first read “Our Bodies, Ourselves” when she was a teen (her mother owned a copy), says she plans on purchasing the new edition and leaving it around her home for her children to check out.

“There continues to be a discomfort about sexuality, specifically women’s sexuality,” she says. “All that stuff women said in the 1970s about wanting to control their own bodies? That’s what this is still about: denying women and girls access to any knowledge and control over their health.”

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