“You did what?” she asked.
“I went into a classroom at Hampshire College with six or seven other women in the fall of 1980,” Julie explained from the examining table.
“We were each handed a little plastic speculum, a hand-held mirror and a flashlight. Then we dropped our pants, sat on the floor and . . . looked at our own cervixes in the mirror.”
“Why would you do that?” the doctor asked. “And what kind of class would you do it in?”
“It wasn’t a class,” Julie replied. “It was more of a political action, like going to a rally or holding a vigil.”
For those who don’t know, at the time and in some parts of the country, events like this were a common introduction to the women’s movement. The idea was to demystify our anatomy “down there,” get to know and enjoy our bodies and, as a result, refuse to be objectified or mistreated.
Instructions and encouragement came from “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” a slim, stapled paperback that sold for 30 cents in 1971: “. . . take a mirror and examine yourself. . . . After all, you are your body and you are not obscene.”
Let me confess right now: I’ve never looked at my own cervix. I got several invitations to see it in the ’70s and ’80s, to be sure, but I took the coward’s way out. I looked at the pictures in “Our Bodies, Ourselves” instead.
The book evolved from a pamphlet, “Women and Their Bodies,” written by 12 Boston-area women in 1970. The following year, it was renamed “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” and copies began selling like hot cakes. In 1972, the women officially became the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, and the next year got a big-time publisher, Simon & Schuster.
By the time I headed off to college in 1976, it was an established bestseller. I remember consulting a friend’s copy late at night, then buying one of my own, repeatedly scanning its pages for frank explanations and pictorial reassurance. Sure, I’d had basic sex ed (the theory) in high school, but I needed a user’s manual. What is that bakery smell, and why does it itch so much? My left breast is way bigger than my right one — is it cancer? “Our Bodies, Ourselves” never beat around the . . . I mean, it never disappointed.
This fall, the feminist classic celebrates its 40th anniversary — and 4 million copies sold — by publishing another in a line of updated editions. Written once again by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective with help from hundreds of laypeople and experts, the book continues the traditions that made it a groundbreaking success; earlier this year, Time magazine listed it as one of the “best and most influential” 100 nonfiction books of our times.