Feature review: Our Bodies, Ourselves

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A New Edition for a New Era
The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective
(Simon & Schuster, 2005)

by KATHLEEN O’GRADY

It has been 35 years since the publication of the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves (OBOS)—a comprehensive women’s health book that sparked a movement, and changed the way health educators would teach the facts of life, and more, to new generations of girls and women.

OBOS has since been through numerous revisions and editions, been translated into 18 languages, including Braille, and sold well over 4 million copies worldwide; it has never gone out of print. Adaptations of OBOS have been launched in such diverse places as Bulgaria, Poland, Serbia, Senegal, South Korea, Moldova and Latin America (there are no plans for a Canadian edition).

OBOS could safely, and without exaggeration, be called the Bible of the women’s health movement in North America for many in the 1970s, ’80s and into the ’90s—when it finally encountered some competition from other comprehensive women’s health resources that adopted the OBOS model.

I remember well, in my early 20s, borrowing a well-thumbed copy of OBOS from a friend, who had, in turn, borrowed hers from a friend; I finally broke down and bought my own copy a few years later, lent it out regularly for a decade—and when I was no longer University-poor, bought copies for each of my sisters, my mother, and my closest friends and colleagues for their birthdays. I wasn’t just a fan, I was a convert.

But this is how OBOS got around back then: there were no ads, the mainstream press largely ignored it, and yet it became a slow steady phenomena and staple for every woman who wanted to know, with unapologetic pride and confidence, all there is to know about the workings of her body.

OBOS began in the 1970s as a collective project by a dozen American feminist educators who felt that women’s health literature needed to be accessible, balanced and independent, to include the voices and experiences of women, and to challenge the health disciplines to better serve the needs and concerns of women. They called themselves the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.

OBOS was revolutionary then—and changed the tenor and tone of many health books to come—because it dispensed with the weighty technical jargon and cold diagrams popular with health textbooks and puberty primers of the time. The “need to know” facts were there, but the voices and experiences of women were validated in, what was at the time, a new pedagogical model of teaching health through personal narratives.

OBOS also highlighted that women’s health was more than just boobs and babies. The collective made sure to include a wide range of women’s health experiences understood in cultural and emotional terms. They also drew on social determinants of health, such as the ways in which violence, poverty, gender, ethnicity and other social, occupational and environmental factors combine to influence health status.

Now, at long last, there is a completely reworked edition for the 21st Century. And just in time, since as important as OBOS was in its formative decades, it had started to become more than a little out of fashion for our sex savvy and cynical post-modern, post-feminist, post-pierced era. The ‘new age’ feminist sentiments and the dusty looking hippy photos that permeated the previous editions stale-dated the content for many young readers—and yet the women’s health information it contained was as pertinent as ever.

With this latest edition the text has been completely overhauled and updated, many new chapters have been added, and the photos, layout and design have been redone with a contemporary aesthetic. There is also a (free) companion website (www.ourbodiesourselves.org) to supplement the more than 800 pages of women’s health information in the book.

Health topics include the essentials on body image, violence and abuse, safe sex, birth control, abortion, childbearing and parenting, among many other topics, but there is also an added emphasis on new reproductive technologies, healthy aging, HIV/AIDS, environmental health, and sexual orientation, which mark this edition as timely and current.

The Boston Women’s Health Collective, with some original members, continues to oversee the content of OBOS, book and website, with an editorial team. For this edition they also involved more than 500 advisors, writers, editors, reviewers and post reviewers from across North America.

You don’t often see the ‘f’ word (feminism) in this new volume, though it still clearly informs the content. Implicit throughout the health information is a critical assessment of the increasing medicalization of women’s bodies: health trends to make menopause a sickness instead of a natural stage of life; troubling rises in unnecessary hysterectomy; and concerns about elective C-sections, for only a few examples. The editors are careful to present the debate around these issues with nuance, balance and lots of evidence.

Gender analyses also help to highlight the inequities in health research (what and who receives the coveted research dollars; lack of women in clinical trials), health care (the bulk of paid and unpaid homecare workers are women) and health policy (few women in the policy and political arena).

Different from previous editions, this new version is much more diverse with the kinds of women it represents in voice and picture—different ages and ethnicities are there, but equally important, different ‘social types’ are present: punks, dykes, soccer moms, fashionistas, power suits and jocks. The effect is not one of tokenism, but a representative swath of women from any city in North America. This, along with its new slimmer size and design make it look younger, hipper and more worldly than its previous incarnations.

Just as it did in 1970 when it first appeared, OBOS has set the gold standard for women’s health information. There is still no other book that has as much depth, span and insight, in as clear and uninhibited fashion, and with an independent voice, on women’s health issues.

The new OBOS, 35 years on, has aged beautifully.