• 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' revised for a new generation of women

  • In 1971, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” broke ground because it approached women’s sexual and reproductive health with frankness, detail, open-mindedness and a personal voice. The 40th anniversary edition, released last month at 928 pages, remains a relevant, valuable resource.

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  • Forty years ago, the cover for “Our Bodies, Ourselves” made clear that the book was something different: two women held up the sign, “Women Unite,” next to the words, “A book by and for women.”
    Evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell called the book “obscene trash,” libraries banned it and young women hid it under their beds, when they weren’t sharing it with each other.
    In 1971, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” broke ground because it approached women’s sexual and reproductive health with frankness, detail, open-mindedness and a personal voice. Seemingly for the first time, women had easy-to-understand factual information and graphic illustrations about their sexual anatomy, birth control, childbirth, heterosexual and lesbian relationships and other topics.
    Today, once-taboo topics are everywhere in print and on the Internet. Yet, the 40th anniversary edition, released last month at 928 pages, remains a relevant, valuable resource.
    “In the old days, there was silence and so little information, but now there’s a cacophony, and we’re inundated,” said Judy Norsigian, who was a member of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective that published the book and is now its executive director. “Young women think they know everything because they are looking at a lot of information, but a lot of it is simply wrong. The level of misinformation is astounding.”
    In August, Time magazine called “Our Bodies, Ourselves” one of the most influential non-fiction books in English. The new ninth edition recently was featured on NBC Nightly News and Fox Morning News. Four million copies have been sold in the United States, and a half million have been sold around the world, where it has been translated into 25 languages and adapted for different cultures.
    “I do think it’s changed the conversations that women have,” Norsigian said. “I think it’s a book that women have trusted and that has changed their lives.”
    Since it’s beginning, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has reflected the desire of women to educate themselves and shape their lives. Inspired by a 1969 health seminar led by Nancy Miriam Hawley at Emmanuel College, a group of 12 women researched and published a 35-cent booklet called “Women and Their Bodies,” the precursor to the landmark book.
    Psychologist Deborah Issokson, who runs Counseling for Reproductive Health and Healing in Pembroke and Wellesley, Mass., owned the book in college and recommends it to young women today. Issokson contributed to the sections on parenting infants and abortion, one of scores of professional women who volunteered as editors. Holly Ramsey-Clark, a marriage and family therapist with Kawsnik & Klawsnik Associates in Canton, Mass., worked on the chapter about violence against women.
    “It’s an important book for young adults who are trying to figure things out,” said Issokson. “It gives permission to be whoever you are, but it always reminds you to be safe and consensual. It’s filled with information, but it’s written in a way that is like having a conversation with someone. I don’t know a whole lot of other books that do it in quite the same way.”
    Page 2 of 2 - In its latest version, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” addresses disturbing issues that have become more prominent since the most recent revision in 2005: the sexualizing of elementary school-age girls, female genital cosmetic plastic surgery, sexual abuse among teens and sex trafficking. In addition to highlighting the dangers, the book encourages activism by describing the people and organizations working to stop them.
    “There are cultural pressures for sexual attractiveness that are pushing young women to do things that aren’t good for their health and well being,” Norsigian said. “Many of these personal issues are political.”
    The ninth edition also includes more information on gender identity and sexual orientation, sexually transmitted diseases, as well as issues facing older women, such as menopause and complexities of the health care system.
    It also brought together several dozen women across the country who conversed online about sex, love, relationships and culture. Their condensed discussions are in the book.
    “It’s like a kitchen-table conversation on the major issues that concern women,” Norsigian said.
    Despite the removal of taboos and the Internet, Issokson said many of her clients are not knowledgeable about their bodies or about their health care options. So she keeps a copy of the book in her office.
    “There’s so much between the covers that it’s like having eight books,” Issokson said. “I love having a book where I can say, ‘Look, here is this great resource.”
    For more information, go to www.ourbodiesourselves.org.
    Jody Feinberg may be reached at jfeinberg@ledger.com.
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