Our Bodies, Ourselves Anniversary




V

anessa
Weeks counts herself among the lucky ones. The


Roe
v. Wade

decision had been handed down six months earlier, in
January 1973, allowing her to have a legal first-trimester abortion
shortly after discovering that she was pregnant. At the time, Weeks
was a teenager living with her devout Christian Scientist parents
in Long Beach, California. 


Although
Weeks knew nothing about reproduction or pregnancy prevention then—her
family did not believe in discussing things anatomical or sexual—a
friend had let her peek at

Our Bodies, Ourselves

several
months earlier. “It was the only place I’d ever seen the
word ‘period’ or heard that it could be late,” she
recalls. “My mother had dismissed my first menstruation, never
using any term except ‘time of the month.’ She showed
me how to use a Kotex and mark the day on the calendar; there was
not one word more.”  


After
having her abortion, Weeks remembers spending hours alone in her
bedroom. “I read

Our Bodies,


Ourselves

from cover
the cover. It was literally a life-changing experience,” she
says. “

Our Bodies, Ourselves

propelled me into the women’s
movement and more significantly, propelled me into reality. I have
no idea where I’d be without it.” 


For
35 years, since the first 193- page newsprint edition of

Our
Bodies, Ourselves

was published by the New England Free Press
in 1970,

Our Bodies, Ourselves

has helped millions of women
around the world understand their bodies and become assertive and
informed. The just-released 8th edition, published by Simon and
Schuster, is an impressive 850 pages. Although much of the content
has changed since its first incarnation,

Our Bodies, Ourselves

continues to remind women that they, themselves, are health experts,
knowledgeable about issues like childbearing, pregnancy, and sexuality.
What’s more,

Our Bodies, Ourselves

continues to contest
the medical profession’s efforts to treat and medicate such
normal life events as meno- pause and aging.



Small
wonder that 4 million copies of

Our Bodies, Ourselves

have
been sold worldwide, reaching an estimated readership of 20 million
in its 3-plus decades. Over the years, 300,000 copies of the English-language
edition have also been distributed, without cost, to groups in Africa,
Asia, and Europe. This has prompted translations and adaptations
of the book into 18 languages including Braille. 


“We’re
part of the international women’s health movement,” says
Sally Whelan, manager of

Our Bodies, Ourselves

’ Global
Translation/Adaptation Program. “In the early 1990s our publisher
reverted most foreign rights to us. This has enabled us to transfer
rights to women’s groups for $1.00, rather than to a publisher
or translator, and gives these groups editorial control over language
and content.” 


Since
2001 adaptations of

Our Bodies, Ourselves

have been produced
in Bulgaria, Moldova, Poland, and Serbia. A French edition, produced
in Senegal and released in 2004, has been distributed in 21 French-speaking
African nations. A South Korean book is due out later this year
and a Spanish language edition was released throughout Latin America
in 2000. 


Each
country decides its content. “In Serbia,” Whelan explains,
“female bodies were recently used as war spoils, so the authors
focused a lot of the book on violence against women. They also removed
the chapters on exercise and nutrition. Since people were starving
it was inappropriate to talk about fitness and eating well.”
Similarly, in Armenia, the government’s pronatalist posture
made discussion of birth control controversial. While the authors
included contraceptive information, they did so fully aware of possible
repercussions. 


The

Our Bodies, Ourselves

website offers other examples of cultural
divergence. Take Senegal. “Aside from getting funds, the main
problem encountered was the heterogeneity of the team involved in
editing the book. It included men and women from very different
backgrounds, visions, and countries. Some came from West Africa
and some from Central Africa. Despite this variety of backgrounds
that is enriching, the differences in perspectives [some members
of the team being radical feminists, others very conservative] was
a big problem.” 


In
addition, high illiteracy rates forced the authors to question the
wisdom of creating a written text. The website offers an explanation
for the project’s ultimate resolution: “Because of the
large number of African languages in the region, and the fact that
these languages are not written and still oral, and because French
is the working language in West and Central Africa, the book is
in French.” Still, the authors state that they are soliciting
funds to translate the information into local languages so that
it can reach the widest possible audience. 


“Women
around the world have come to know

Our Bodies, Ourselves

as a trusted resource that combines women’s testimonials with
accurate health and medical information,” Whelan boasts. “They
also recognize it as a powerful tool for organizing around issues
they care about—sexuality, reproductive rights, childbearing,
violence against women and access to healthcare. It positions women
to influence policymakers and media so that what is at first just
a book becomes a living tool for reproductive health literacy and
empower- ment, a tool for advocacy and change.”





Judy
Norsigian, executive director and one of the founding members of
the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, the group res- ponsible
for creating early editions of the book, has seen

Our Bodies,
Ourselves

move from a consensus-driven entity to a traditional
not-for-profit organization. She has also seen the group weather
internal and external strife, from funding crises to near-paralyzing
con- flicts between staff members. Yet she remains upbeat. “First
of all,” she says, “when you are working in a community
of like- minded people, you don’t need huge successes. You
take comfort in knowing that without your efforts, things would
be much worse. I also know that

Our Bodies, Ourselves

has
been lifesaving for many women. ” 


Newer
issues, from AIDS to the direct marketing of drugs to consumers,
from rampant eating disorders to the medicalization of childbirth,
prod Norsigian. “The challenge is getting good information
that is not tainted by corporate interests,” she says. “There
is a lot of misleading stuff out there and the need for quality
information is greater than ever. Ironically, despite greater access
to technology, access to tried-and-true medical care is still hard
to get. Access is a huge problem for most people, especially women.” 


This
makes

Our Bodies, Ourselves

an essential resource. The 2005
edition is supplemented by a companion website (www.ourbodiesourselves.org)
that provides links to government, community, and feminist programs.
It also provides information that could not be crammed into the
850-page volume. More than 500 U.S.-based, Canadian, and African
writers, editors, reviewers, medical authorities, researchers, and
activists worked on the book; the result is a new

Our Bodies,
Ourselves

, not a revision of the 1998 edition. 


“Not
much [from the older editions] could be eliminated,” admits
managing editor Heather Stephen- son. “But everything is updated
and new issues are covered. That’s the reason the book has
grown so much. There are always new topics to include,” among
them: breast implants, the debate over female sexual dysfunction,
direct-to-consumer marketing, the use of microbicides, and menstrual
suppression.





Sarai
Walker was the photo editor for the 2005 book. “The photos
are of women you’d never see in a fashion magazine,” she
says. “We had to rethink the whole book to find ways to illustrate
ideas. We want it to be appealing so people pick it up and get hooked
in.” 


Walker
also wrote the section on body image. “I wanted to develop
a hard-hitting chapter dealing with the media, weightism, and the
objectification of women. One of the things I wrote about is plastic
surgery. Gay or straight, it doesn’t matter. Women are caught
up in changing who they are. I also wanted to explore the camera
lens as a male eye. Why is it that the covers of both women’s
magazines and men’s magazines depict women? The chapter also
deals with aging, racism, and reality TV shows.” 


Despite
the fact that

Our Bodies, Ourselves

2005 treads new ground,
Walker says that the book retains “the

Our Bodies, Ourselves

voice. We don’t talk about women in the third person; everything
is ‘we.’” 


It
was that inclusive tone that first brought Vanessa Weeks to feminism.
“I was raised immersed in the utter denial of the human body
and its functions,” she says. “

Our Bodies, Ourselves

opened my mind, like millions of women’s minds, to feminism
‘ourselves’ and to our bodies. Without it I would not
be the proud mother of three terrific, enlightened sons, 19, 14,
and 9. I could well have a 32-year-old child, raised in poverty
by a young, uneducated mother with a dubious, if not destructive,
sense of reality.” 


As
for

Our Bodies, Ourselves

, new books on menopause and childbearing
are in the planning stages, and will expand on information provided
in the latest edition of

Our Bodies, Ourselves.








 





Eleanor Bader
is a freelance writer and co-author of  



Targets of
Hatred.