The women’s body bible: ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ marks 40 years

Body of knowledge: Our Bodies, Ourselves co-founder Judy Norsigian.
Lynn Comella

In 1969, a group of women started meeting in Boston to talk about their sexuality and reproductive health. Almost everyone had a story to tell about a negative experience with a doctor or medical system that failed to meet their needs. At a time when very little information was available about women’s bodies, the group, which became known as the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, began compiling information about a variety of issues important to women’s lives, from effective birth control to child birth to masturbation. The result was Our Bodies, Ourselves, first published in 1971 and widely regarded today as the bible of women’s health.

2011 was a banner year for Our Bodies, Ourselves. It celebrated its 40th anniversary with a revised and updated ninth edition, and was named to Time magazine’s list of the 100 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century. Coming in at a whopping 928 pages, the new edition is a must-have compendium of information about female bodies, sexuality and health. And to say the book has legs doesn’t quite capture its international success: 31 different editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves have been published in 25 languages around the world, including Arabic, Tibetan and Serbian, making it one of the most frequently translated feminist books of all time.

(And if you’re a man reading this and thinking, What does any of this have to do with me? Well, if you know what the clitoris is and, importantly, how to find it, you have books like Our Bodies, Ourselves to thank for helping put women’s sexual anatomy on the map.)

“The very early editions focused on demystifying and explaining things that were opaque,” says Judy Norsigian, executive director and one of the founders of Our Bodies, Ourselves. “There was literally nothing out there. The challenge was to get something into your hands that could explain these things.”

In the early ’70s, sexuality was still a “huge, blank slate,” according to Norsigian. Distorted ideas about male and female sexuality were par for the course, and many people were hungry for accurate information about sexual anatomy, physiology and response. The fact that Our Bodies, Ourselves contained this information (and more), all while keeping women’s experiences front and center, made it an instant classic with tremendous reach, from home libraries to doctor’s offices.

Forty years ago, the book’s founders sat around each other’s kitchen tables and living rooms talking about their respective experiences with pregnancy or miscarriage. For the 2011 edition, they turned to the Internet as a way to bring new voices and a wider range of experiences into the conversation. Thirty-six women of various ages, backgrounds and sexual orientations participated in online discussions about sexuality, intimacy, dating and relationships, with many of these personal stories appearing throughout the new edition. There are also new and updated chapters on environmental health risks, sex and intimacy throughout life and how social media can be used to improve women’s lives.

Our Bodies, Ourselves now appears on bookshelves across the world. Thirty-one different editions in 25 languages have published.

It’s not hard to find people for whom the book has had a significant personal impact. As an adolescent growing up in the 1970s, UNLV women’s studies professor Danielle Roth-Johnson stumbled onto a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves in the women’s interest section of a bookstore. Her mother—who had gone to Catholic schools and, up until the age of 16, believed you could get pregnant from French kissing—bought Roth-Johnson a copy of the book because she knew how important it was for her daughter to be well-informed.

“What made it significant to me was the down-to-earth and matter-of-fact tone and the revelation that sex was a wonderful and natural aspect of human existence—a very different message [than what] I was receiving from the general culture in which I was growing up,” Roth-Johnson says.

She has used the book as a text in her Introduction to Women’s Studies courses at UNLV, and makes frequent references to it in other courses. She says the response she has received from both male and female students has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Despite the fact that many [students] have been exposed to sex education presentations in schools, they have not been exposed to the majority of the information in the book. And the vast majority of them are quite hungry for the knowledge they encounter in Our Bodies, Ourselves, a phenomenon which is all the more striking in such a hypersexualized place as Las Vegas.”

She continues: “Through the information that I got from Our Bodies, Ourselves, I learned the importance of becoming knowledgeable about how my body functions and the need to be an assertive and well-informed patient with basic literacy in science and medicine—knowledge that I try to convey to my students when I talk to them about health and medical sociology.”

Our Bodies, Ourselves continues to be relevant to new generations of readers, including young men. “Many of the male students who have been exposed to the book have expressed their gratitude at my having assigned this book, because they say that it finally answered so many questions that have been shrouded in mystery about women and their bodies,” Roth-Johnson says. One man expressed relief to find out that women actually lost very little blood during their periods, because he had always wondered how menstruating women could be healthy, let alone alive. Another story involves a man who, as a 12-year-old, snuck the book out of his mother’s bedroom and read it cover-to-cover because he wanted to be a good boyfriend.

Forty years on, stories such as these remind Norsigian just how important Our Bodies, Ourselves is, not just to women, but to men, too. “Our Bodies, Ourselves has been so appreciated and needed,” she says. “And when you see what you do is worthwhile, you stick with it.”

Lynn Comella is a Women’s Studies professor at UNLV.

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