How women learn about themselves

In my experience, women rarely tell stories about learning the practical biology of womanhood. This lack of communication, caused by embarrassment, modesty, social taboos, and notions of privacy, can range from uncomfortable to excruciating to frightening and hilarious.

I remember when my mom and my teenage cousin Lilyann cornered me when I was about 10 years old. Lilyann stayed with us for a few days and was on her period so my mum and older sister thought it would be a good time to talk to me about the birds/bees.

So they sort of explained to me that menstruation (they didn’t use that word; it was referred to as “your period”) was likely to happen in the near future. They briefly outlined the cycle, emphasizing a monthly event that requires all manner of protective gear and can include cramps, headaches, bloating, and acne breakouts.

I still remember my incredulous response: “You’re joking.”

Information on how women’s bodies work outside of this chat was not provided during this brief discussion. Nothing was said about puberty, a word I only understood later. Or pregnancy. Or birth control. Or aspects of sexuality.

I finally learned what I needed to know by reading Our Bodies, Ourselves, a no-nonsense, deeply feminist guide to reproductive health and sexuality.

Since releasing its first commercial edition in 1973, OBOS has impacted the lives, health and human rights of women around the world. According to its website, it has sold millions of copies and won tons of awards. In 2012, the Library of Congress included the original Our Bodies, Ourselves in its Books That Shaped America exhibit, a collection of 88 non-fiction and fiction titles “designed to stimulate a national conversation about books written by Americans and have affected our lives.”

OBOS began in May 1969 when a group of women met in Boston during a women’s liberation conference at Emmanuel College (such conferences were hot topics at the time). This group became the forerunner of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which collated its accumulated knowledge in a published format intended to serve as a model for women to learn about themselves, share their insights with physicians, and engage the medical establishment in contributing to change and Improvements challenge the care that women receive.

For almost 50 years, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has been updated and revised approximately every four to seven years. It grew angrier and more controversial with age, delving into birth control, sex education, and what the 2005 edition dubbed “beauty culture,” the system of assumptions about female bodies, beauty, desire, and sexuality used in advertising and Clothing circulates, beauty and entertainment industries.

“Today we think of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’ primarily as a book in which women can find open discussions about masturbation or birth control, and indeed always have been,” writes Elizabeth Gumport in the New York Times. “But in these early editions politics was given pride of place; the sections on anatomy and physiology appeared later. In the second edition, the first chapter was titled ‘Our Changing Sense of Self’. Subsections included Changing Our Internalized Sexist Values, Rediscovering Activity, and Rediscovering Anger. . ‘”

This was heady stuff for those of us in the Me Generation who feigned interest in the political protests, anti-war demonstrations, feminism and women’s rights, the civil rights movement, the spiritual and intellectual enlightenment of the era, but balanced such issues with our hippie – chick yen for Self-realization through hip-length hair, hoop earrings and embroidered bell-bottoms. We didn’t pay much attention to the social and political changes that were going on around us. This book changed that.

The latest edition of OBOS was published in 2011. During the spring and summer of 2018, OBOS decided to stop updating its published content and transition to a volunteer-led 501(c)3 dedicated to women’s health and social justice. It also began a partnership with Suffolk University’s Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights to develop Our Bodies Ourselves Today, a platform that shares stories about the health and sexuality of trans, intersex and cis women, trans men and non-binary people used.

Before the internet, says NPR’s Neda Ulaby, “Our Bodies, Ourselves was a rare source of honest, clear information that was hard to find and difficult to ask for. But today there are numerous trustworthy websites out there about women’s health, reproductive opportunities and sexual identity, and some of the stigma around wanting that information has faded.”

That, she writes, “is the true legacy of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’.”

Karen Martin is the editor-in-chief of Perspective.

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