‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ taught women about sexuality and reproductive health

October 3, 2011

When it comes to women’s sexuality and reproductive health, I’ve come to believe that the world divides into two camps: those who know something about hand mirrors and those who don’t.

My sister Julie, solidly in the first camp, recently went to a 30-something female gynecologist, who’s in the second. At Julie’s first mention of hand mirrors, she told me, her doctor was more than a little taken aback.

“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.

People and politics

The book mixes unabashed anatomical information with stories from real people (“I was born and raised as a straight male but started questioning both my gender and sexuality around the age of 16”) and in-your-face politics (“Unless women can freely decide whether to continue a pregnancy, it is impossible for us to control our lives, to enjoy our sexuality, and to participate fully in society.”).

Like many of us hitting middle age, the new edition has put on a little weight. Well, actually more than a little. Its 928 pages include comprehensive information on topics we didn’t know or talk much about 40 years ago: HIV and AIDS, environmental health risks, sexual orientation and gender identity, menopause and the risks of hormone treatment.

There’s an entire chapter on society’s obsession with body image, critiquing the power of the cosmetics, fashion, diet, advertising and plastic-surgery industries. “While there are many things that divide us as women,” the authors write, “the perception that our bodies are never good enough is something almost all of us share.”

Sentences like that one — clear, true and too close to home — are part of what has given “Our Bodies, Ourselves” staying power. I think the rest can be explained by its comprehensiveness, its simple language and its oral tradition. Today, when you say “our bodies, ourselves,” some women nod, some shrug, but others gush.

In dozens of interviews and e-mail exchanges with friends and friends-of-friends, women in their 20s, 70s and the decades in between told me the book made a big difference in their lives.

“It encouraged me to feel good in my body.” “It had a tremendous impact on my choice of a career.” “It’s one more example of how knowledge is power.” “It was literally our bible.” “I became someone who wasn’t afraid of knowing things, and then later, of sharing things.” “It was a thunderbolt — part of what made the movement for women’s liberation so liberating.”

“I’m not familiar with it,” a female physician assistant told me, “but I’m from Texas.” Okay, so it wasn’t a universal experience, but for some women, it was unforgettable.

Take LindaRose Payne. A woman in my Silver Spring yoga class, Payne, 49, got a copy of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” from a friend when she was in high school.

“The book changed my life,” she told me. “It made things that seemed mysterious and weird and embarrassing not feel mysterious or weird or embarrassing — to the point where I was able to get naked in front of people I didn’t know.”

Excuse me?

For eight years, Payne told me, she worked as a live model for the Genitourinary Teaching Associate Program at Johns Hopkins Medical School. She undressed to teach doctors- and nurses-in-training how to give breast and vaginal exams. For $55 an hour, Payne taught her students how to avoid hurting patients, how to ask the right questions and how to explain things clearly.

“They were always so grateful afterwards,” she said. “And I felt really good, too, that I had done something really good for society and for myself.”

Payne, who now works for a kitchen and bath contractor in Bethesda, gives “Our Bodies, Ourselves” all the credit. “I don’t think I could have taught what I did without having that book in my life.”

My own internist, who was on her way to medical school when she first read the book — written entirely by women without medical degrees — changed her views about how to be a doctor.

“I went to med school with the idea that women should be at least equal partners in their own medical care, if not the drivers of their own care,” said my doctor, Gail Povar. “That doctors were not all-powerful or the only people with knowledge.” A revolutionary thought, then and now.

Today Povar works in an all-women’s practice in Silver Spring, with two other doctors, two physician assistants and a nurse practitioner.

Laura Stachel, a friend of a friend of mine, was studying music in college in the late ’70s, but “the women’s movement had really started to take hold, and I felt something stirring inside of me to get very involved in women’s health care.”

A fan of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” since high school, Stachel counseled other students about sexual health, organized a conference involving hand mirrors and led a student-run class called “The History and Politics of Women’s Health.” She made the book required reading.

In her junior year, Stachel left music for medicine, becoming an obstetrician-gynecologist. And the rest is, well, unexpected. After a neck injury in 2002 put an end to her days as a surgeon and delivery doctor, Stachel traveled to Nigeria to do research for a master’s in public health. “I saw women bleeding to death, who were turned away when hospitals didn’t have electricity,” she said. “There just wasn’t any reliable lighting to do procedures.”

At the time, Stachel’s husband was working in the solar power industry. “He designed four solar electric systems for one hospital in Nigeria, powering lights, walkie-talkies and medical equipment,” she said. “The next year, the maternal mortality rate dropped by 70 percent.”

Today the organization she founded — Women’s Emergency Communication and Reliable Electricity, or WE CARE Solar — works to improve maternal health care in developing countries through solar-powered mobile communications, lighting and blood bank refrigeration.

“My life would have been very different” if “Our Bodies, Ourselves” had never been published, she said. “Thank goodness it was there at the right time for me.”

Getting grounded

But enough kumbaya. It’s 2011 in America. Will a two-inch-thick reference-book-with-attitude be useful for women who can type “yeast infection” into a search box and come up with 13,400,000 results in 0.13 seconds? Or for women who can get the most up-to-date information on www.ourbodiesourselves.org?

I asked Judy Norsigian, a co-founder of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and a co-author of the first edition and every edition since. (That’s 40 years of writing by committee.)

It’s “not the book you’re going to carry in your pocketbook,” she acknowledged. But it is “an excellent place to get a grounding on a subject or potential problem. It’s a good guide for decision-making.”

That it is. But what it’s not anymore is the only book on women’s sexual health out there.

“The legacy of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ is that it spawned a whole new kind of book,” said Courtney E. Martin, an editor at Feministing.com, “a frank, girlfriend guide,” the kind that’s “like your best friend sitting down in a room with you and telling you about your body and how it works without any embarrassment.”

“Our Bodies, Ourselves” “will always be the first and best of this genre because they created it,” said Martin, 31 and the author of “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,” a book about girls and body image. It’s a “mark of success,” she said, that so many other publishers have followed suit.

Yes, but here’s what I want to know: How many of those other books will tell you where to buy a speculum?

Weiss is a Washington-area writer focusing on midlife issues.

OUR BODIES, OURSELVES

Boston Women’s Health Book Collective

Touchstone

928 pages, $26

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